Leading Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt is best known for her role in the fight against Holocaust denial, famously winning a libel suit against David Irving, who had taken her to court for calling him a Holocaust denier.
But during an interview in Jerusalem, the Atlanta-based scholar focused on a very different target: the Israeli government.
Lipstadt, generally a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, denounced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of rapprochement with some Central European states that, as she put it, are “whitewashing” their role in the systematic destruction of the Jewish people during World War II.
For Israel to claim to fight anti-Semitism and then warmly embrace the nationalist governments in Budapest, Warsaw and Vilnius is “hypocritical,” she charged.
“I want to know how you have a whole ministry devoted to fighting anti-Semitism and BDS [the anti-Israel Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement], and you have a government whose policy is to make nice with the Polish government, which is trying to rewrite Holocaust history, and with a Hungarian government that’s engaging in anti-Semitism,” Lipstadt told The Times of Israel at her Jerusalem hotel last week.
“I said to that, feh! I say to that: Yes, I am not prime minister, and I do not have to engage in realpolitik. On my statements not one person’s life will be threatened or enhanced. So I understand you have different calculations. But don’t go play with the Poles and the Hungarians and the Lithuanians, and then claim for yourself the mantle of being the main address for fighting anti-Semitism in this world. It doesn’t work.”
Don’t have the audacity, the absolute chutzpah, to claim for yourself to fight anti-Semitism
In an apparent bid to shore up diplomatic support for Israel in the United Nations, the European Union and other international bodies, Netanyahu has for some time been seeking to strengthen ties with Central European nations, ignoring those countries’ leaders’ controversial policies vis-a-vis Holocaust remembrance.
“You’re sleeping with people who have used anti-Semitism, who have rewritten the history of their countries’ role in the Holocaust, who are whitewashing the history of their countries,” Lipstadt, the Dorot professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, said.
“You’re raising them up, you’re giving them a kosher stamp. And the Jews in that country are in complete shock.”
For instance, Netanyahu has visited Budapest and heaped praise on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been criticized for playing with anti-Semitic stereotypes and for glorifying his country’s wartime leader and Nazi ally Miklos Horthy.
Last year, Israel and Poland issued a joint statement that critics argue marginalized the Poles’ role in atrocities against Jews.
“Of course, the Israeli prime minister’s first responsibility is to keep Israeli citizens safe. But tell me, is embracing Orban really critical [for Israel’s security]?” Lipstadt asked rhetorically.
It is possible that Israel is turning a blind eye to certain countries’ efforts to downplay their role in the Nazi extermination of Jews for realpolitik gains, she allowed. But then, she added, “Don’t have the chutzpah to say Israel is the leader in the fight against anti-Semitism.”
Instead, the New York-born scholar, who peppers her conversation with Hebrew phrases, urged the Israeli government “to take a stronger stance” against Central European countries’ efforts to whitewash their record.
Warsaw admits that individual Poles were involved in crimes against Jews but resolutely rejects any accusation of “complicity” in Nazi massacres, a position Lipstadt described as “softcore denial.”
The 72-year-old historian took particular issue with the June 27, 2018, joint statement that Netanyahu and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, signed to end a bilateral spat between the two countries over a controversial Polish law that criminalized any accusation of the Polish nation of being “responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich.”
It declared that the term “Polish death camps” is “blatantly erroneous” and that the wartime Polish government-in-exile “attempted to stop this Nazi activity by trying to raise awareness among the Western allies to the systematic murder of the Polish Jews.”
Most controversially, it condemned “every single case of cruelty against Jews perpetrated by Poles during…World War II” but noted “heroic acts of numerous Poles, especially the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jewish people.”
That statement was a “major fadiha,” she said, using a Hebrew slang term for screw-up. “It was bullshit. It was absolute bullshit. Read the Yad Vashem statement on it. It’s the first time that I know of that Yad Vashem entered into the political arena. Yad Vashem usually says they’re not a political arena.”
Indeed, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust museum and research center at the time issued a rare statement saying the Polish-Israeli joint declaration contained “grave errors and deceptions” as well as “highly problematic wording that contradicts existing and accepted historical knowledge in this field.”
For Netanyahu to endorse that statement “was an embarrassment,” Lipstadt charged. “It was more than an embarrassment — to the people who were being attacked, the scholars, Jews and non-Jews — it was like a stab in the back.”
She stressed that she is not urging Israel to cut relations with Poland, Hungary or Lithuania, or take other dramatic steps. But, “You don’t have to give them cover on this issue,” she said, referring to those countries’ approach to the Holocaust.
Still, Lipstadt did praise Israel for refusing to establish ties with the far-right parties of Austria and Germany — Austria’s Freedom Party and the Alternative for Germany, respectively.
“I think that’s a very positive thing,” she said.
Both parties are accused of not doing enough to get rid of anti-Semites within their ranks.
Incidentally, Lipstadt’s cousin Yehudah Glick — a former Likud MK — pushed during his time as a lawmaker for Israel to establish relations with the Freedom Party, arguing that its leadership had disavowed anti-Semitism and that the embattled Jewish state needs every ally it can get.
Lipstadt, who earlier this year published her latest book, “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” was also critical of the Israeli government’s response to a deadly attack on Jews in the United States last year.
After the October 2018 Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, which was carried out by an anti-Semitic white supremacist, Netanyahu praised US President Donald Trump for “unequivocally condemning this heinous crime and for pledging to fight those who seek to destroy the Jewish people.”
Israel was the only foreign country that sent its ambassador, Ron Dermer, to the scene of the attack at the same time as Trump, a move Lipstadt said contradicted the sentiments of many American Jews, who are critical of the president.
Lipstadt, a Democrat, accuses Trump of not being forceful enough in condemning white supremacists and neo-Nazis, especially in the wake of the 2017 “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville. She does not expect Israel to openly criticize the US president, “but to show up and to lavish praise and to fawn all over him — I think that was out of line,” she said.
“It was entirely political. What were you doing there, when at the same time you’re giving cover to the Poles? What were you doing there at the same time as you’re giving cover to Orban and declaring him a leader in the fight against anti-Semitism? What were you doing there when you were giving cover to the Lithuanians?” she said. “I am sorry, but it’s hypocritical.”
Lipstadt came to Israel last week to deliver a speech at the B’nai B’rith World Center’s annual award ceremony for Diaspora journalism. Her address was entitled “Old Wine in New Bottles: Anti-Semitism in the Contemporary World.”
Speaking to The Times of Israel before the event, Lipstadt said the “organizing principles” of the BDS movement and its attempted “toxification of Israel” are anti-Semitic, but stressed that not everyone who supports boycotts of Israel for political reasons is a Jew-hater.
“There are many people who become part of BDS who are not necessarily anti-Semitic, but who think of it as a very fruitful way of getting Israel to change an inhumane policy which is antithetical to human rights,” she postulated. “I don’t think it is; it don’t think it works. I don’t think that boycotts ever should be the answer.”
And yet, branding every BDS supporter an anti-Semite is “not only incorrect but also strategically stupid,” she said. “Maybe they’re just idiots, or naive.”
The German parliament’s May 17 anti-BDS resolution, which denounced the boycott movement’s methods as anti-Semitic, was counterproductive in that it “upped the ante of BDS and gave it standing,” according to Lipstadt.
While mere criticism of Israeli policies is not necessarily anti-Semitic, a person with a single-focus view that blames only Israel for all the region’s problems probably is, she reasoned.
Lipstadt was also mildly critical of the fact that Israel has an entire ministry — Gilad Erdan’s Strategic Affairs Ministry — dedicated to fighting BDS, as this could lend the otherwise marginal movement more importance than it actually deserves.
The same could be said of her and her book about Holocaust deniers, she acknowledged, noting that she only researched the topic after senior historians in Israel urged her to do so, and that it became a public issue only after she was sued by Irving, the British Holocaust denier.
“On some level, there is a time to talk, and there is a time to be silent,” she said. “And there’s a time to speak quietly.”