InterviewThe battle for Israel on campus is an evolving frontline

Lipstadt: Jews need factual ‘ammunition’ to combat anti-Semitism

On the heels of her book, ‘Antisemitism: Here and Now,’ Deborah Lipstadt urges Jews not to panic about the resurgence of Jew-hatred in the US, but to arm themselves with knowledge

American historian and author Deborah Lipstadt poses for photographer at the Rome Film festival in Rome, on October 17, 2016. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)
American historian and author Deborah Lipstadt poses for photographer at the Rome Film festival in Rome, on October 17, 2016. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

Historian Deborah Lipstadt’s “Antisemitism: Here and Now” is an accessible take on what’s been called the world’s oldest hatred. Pointing fingers of blame equally at the political Left and Right, Lipstadt concisely frames anti-Semitism’s resurgence on both sides of the Atlantic.

The book is written as an exchange of letters between Lipstadt, one of her students, and a concerned professor-colleague. A section called “Taxonomy of the Antisemite” portrays all sorts of modern-day Judeophobes, including the “dinner party” anti-Semite and the “clueless” Jew-haters.

According to Lipstadt, comparable to elastic, the intensity of anti-Semitism operates at different frequencies depending on the time and place of its outbreak.

“Like a fire set by an arsonist, passionate hatred and conspiratorial worldviews reach well beyond their intended target. They are not rationally contained,” wrote Lipstadt in an opening note to readers.

Throughout history, anti-Jewish vitriol is likely to spread in atmospheres where other minorities are targeted, according to Lipstadt.

The author of several Holocaust-related books refutes notions of “simple solutions” to eradicating “a long hatred [that] has consumed millions of lives,” Lipstadt told The Times of Israel. The scholar is best known for successfully defending herself against Holocaust denier David Irving in Britain’s High Court, as portrayed in the 2016 film “Denial.”

Rachel Weisz as Deborah Lipstadt in court. (YouTube screenshot)

“The idea that a bunch of Jews sitting around a conference table in New York City or Jerusalem or a professor working on a book can come up with a ‘solution’ belies the nature of the problem,” said Lipstadt.

One aspect of anti-Semitism’s complexity, wrote Lipstadt, is the notion that Jews cannot be victims because most of them are white. Calling this belief “The  Corbyn Syndrome,” after Britain’s controversial Labour leader, Lipstadt noted that Jews are often viewed as “privileged members of the elite [who] cannot possibly be considered victims… If anything, they are victimizers.”

Antisemitism: Here and Now, by Deborah Lipstadt

Increasingly, anti-Semites are channeling their Jew-hatred onto the world’s only Jewish state, according to Lipstadt. For example, they will demonize Israel behind a mask of concern for the human rights of Palestinians, holding the Jewish state to double-standards not applied to any other country.

This cloaking of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism, along with other developments, spurred Lipstadt to pen her book as a form of intellectual “ammunition” against the evolving face of Judeophobia.

“This book is an attempt to give people the ammunition to realize how pernicious this threat is and how absurd [anti-Semitism] is,” Lipstadt told The Times of Israel.

“Anyone bothered by this hatred — and for that matter any hatred — must become the ‘unwelcome guests’ at the dinner party. Speaking up, challenging, pointing out the irrationality of what we are hearing. We must be persistent. My hope is that the book gives people the ammunition to do that,” said Lipstadt.

‘The vise with no escape’

Among the “tools” used by anti-Semites to demonize Jews and Israel, the  Holocaust figures prominently, according to Lipstadt. Whether by denying the scope of the genocide or accusing Israel of perpetrating another Holocaust against the Palestinians, the murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany has become a rhetorical weapon against the Jewish state.

The most extreme example of “weaponizing” the Holocaust is the allegation it did not take place. Here, Lipstadt beseeches readers to differentiate between “hard-core” Holocaust deniers — such as David Irving — and the more subtle, “soft-core” types.

Deborah Lipstadt, author of ‘Antisemitism: Here and Now’ (courtesy)

A “soft-core” denier might downplay the extent of the genocide by claiming that far fewer than 6 million Jews were murdered. Likewise, he may distort other aspects of Hitler’s “war of annihilation” against the Jews during World War II.

When asked by The Times of Israel if she thought Holocaust education in the US was equipped to deal with denial and distortion, Lipstadt responded in the negative.

“My sense is that much of [Holocaust] education is simplistic,” said Lipstadt. “I think there are a lot of references to ‘the Shoah.’ Leaders mention it or use code words, e.g., ‘the 6 million,’ but there is too little real learning about how it evolved, the pressures faced by Jews, the true nature of the horror, the vise with no escape, etc.”

At Emory University, Lipstadt has long taught a course on Holocaust history. According to the professor, even those of her students with “intensive Jewish educational backgrounds” are “flabbergasted by that they learn,” she said.

“They have heard a lot but learned little,” said Lipstadt. “Remember, the person teaching about it in day school or Hebrew School is probably not a historian and not really equipped to take them past [a certain] point,” she told The Times of Israel.

According to Lipstadt, “facile” understandings of the Holocaust can be detected — for example — among people who believe that German Jews “sat idly by while the slaughter unfolded. They did not. They desperately tried to find ways to get out,” said Lipstadt.

‘The whole nation turned itself inside out’

An eye-opening section of Lipstadt’s book deals with the battle for Israel on campus, an evolving frontline where the Jewish state is under assault from professors and students alike.

In her assessment of efforts made to combat BDS measures on campus, Lipstadt disagrees with some of the tactics deployed by pro-Israel activists. Specifically, she is against the strategy of “boycotting the boycotters,” wherein pro-Israel advocates attempt to outlaw or ban groups that call for boycotting the Jewish state.

Deborah Lipstadt at Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem, June 11, 2017. (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)

“By urging boycotts of anti-Israel groups, the anti-BDS advocates surrender the academic moral high ground — support of academic freedom and freedom of inquiry — to their opponents,” wrote Lipstadt.

From Lipstadt’s perspective, anti-BDS laws passed in state legislatures across the US have no place in academics settings, where such measures “may well fail, if not backfire.” She is also against efforts to prevent Jewish students from enrolling in courses taught by pro-BDS professors.

“Some Jewish organizations have compiled lists of professors who have signed BDS resolutions and have urged Jewish students to boycott the classes of those teachers,” wrote Lipstadt. “This non-nuanced approach… assumes that professors are unable to separate what they teach from their personal politics.”

In “contextualizing” the state of anti-Semitism for her readers, Lipstadt urges Jews to “reject victimhood” and focus on the positive.

Rabbi Jeffrey Myers leads a gathering in Hanukkah songs after lighting a menorah outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on the first night of Hanukkah, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018 in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. A gunman shot and killed 11 people while they worshipped Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 at the temple. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

“Despite the fact that only seven decades ago one out of every three Jews on the face of the earth was murdered, the Jewish people thrive today as a culture, a community, and a nation,” wrote Lipstadt.

Having completed her book before the attack on Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue in October, Lipstadt still believes in the relative safety of Jews living in the US — especially compared to some countries in Europe.

“I don’t think America will become like [those countries],” Lipstadt told The Times of Israel. “Look at the reaction to Pittsburgh. This whole nation turned itself inside out in the aftermath. Non-Jews showed up in shuls in droves.”

Lipstadt said she is “not so naïve to believe” that anti-Semitism does not exist in the US, but that it takes on different forms. Whereas most Americans were “appalled” by the Pittsburgh attack, said Lipstadt, other forms of anti-Semitism — including the “toxification of Israel” and “thinking Jews are not loyal to the US” — have deepened their roots in recent years.

“Sometimes [anti-Semitism] may present itself as a passion,” wrote Lipstadt. “In other instances, it may present itself as normative. But whatever form it takes, we must always insist that antisemitism has never made sense and never will. Fight it. But don’t elevate it or its purveyors in importance.”

In terms of being level-headed in the face of threats that seem to be growing daily, Lipstadt urges Jews and their allies to keep a steady hand.

“It’s easy to be shrill, it’s easy to panic,” said Lipstadt. “It’s natural to yell and scream. But that’s not what I aimed to do. I aimed to educate, to make people aware, to get them to think… and speaking softly is a better way of doing that, I believe.”

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