Interview'Bystanding is complicity'

Top Holocaust scholar Lipstadt: CPAC Nazi-symbol stage was ‘a very big oops’

Historian also discusses latest outbreak of anti-Semitism in Congress and how she is helping bring white supremacists to justice in Charlottesville, Virginia

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Atlanta-based historian Deborah Lipstadt in Jerusalem, July 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)
Atlanta-based historian Deborah Lipstadt in Jerusalem, July 2019. (Raphael Ahren/Times of Israel)

Best known for successfully defending herself against Holocaust denier David Irving, so far this year Prof. Deborah Lipstadt has taken to mainstream media and responded to anti-Semitism emanating chiefly from cyberspace, including QAnon and theories disseminated by congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was sanctioned in early February by Congress.

This week, the acclaimed Emory University professor is keeping an eye on the CPAC gathering in Orlando, where the shape of the stage has been compared to a symbol worn by leading SS officers.

“I am sure the shape is inadvertent,” Lipstadt told The Times of Israel this week. “But the fact that nobody noticed is a very big oops.”

“About the Republicans being silent — if not embracing Greene — I have written in The Guardian. It’s only gotten more extreme, it seems, since my article,” Lipstadt said. “Bystanding is complicity. At the least or very best, these are not friends you can count on.”

Left: A partial view of the stage as Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Friday, February 26, 2021, in Orlando, Florida (AP Photo/John Raoux); Right: The Nordic rune known as Odal or Othala. (Public domain)

Lipstadt is also an expert witness in the federal lawsuit filed against organizers of the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was retained by the plaintiffs in Sines v. Kessler, a lawsuit backed by Integrity First for America against neo-Nazis and white supremacists. During the two-day gathering in August 2017, Heather Heyer was killed and several people were injured.

Although the rally in Charlottesville took place more than three years ago, Lipstadt sees links between the rhetoric and conspiracy theories on display in Virginia and more recent outbreaks of anti-Semitism.

“Anti-Semitism is ubiquitous. That’s what makes it different from other prejudices — it can come from all directions. It comes in different degrees, different expressions, different dangers depending on the time and the era,” said Lipstadt.

Even if steps were taken to expand Holocaust education, said Lipstadt, there would probably still be anti-Semitism.

In this August 12, 2017 file photo, white nationalist demonstrators clash with counter-demonstrators at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

“[Holocaust education] is not a magic bullet,” said Lipstadt. “The Holocaust should be part of a larger module on anti-Semitism. But do people — especially people in leadership — need education to know that Jews using space lasers to start fires is not just absurd but dangerous?”

‘Efforts to pit communities against one another’

The group of plaintiffs bringing the “Unite the Right” organizers to trial are charging the defendants engaged in “civil conspiracy,” as defined in the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The trial is set to open in October, although there have been several delays.

For weeks leading up to the 2017 rally, organizers encouraged violence through “The Daily Stormer” and other platforms. Much of the rhetoric targeted Jews, which was often expressed by admiration for Hitler and the Holocaust.

“The ideology, symbols, and rhetoric that were on display at the Unite the Right rally fit comfortably within a long tradition of anti-Semitism and share in the tradition that led to the violent murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust,” wrote Lipstadt in her 48-page expert report.

Neo-Nazis and white supremacists encircle counter protesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson after marching through the University of Virginia campus with torches in Charlottesville, Va., August 11, 2017. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Also demonstrated by Lipstadt, the anti-Black and anti-Semitic motifs broadcast by organizers were heavily intertwined. Although the defendants are often referred to as “white supremacists,” their hatred of Jews and Blacks is indistinguishable, said Amy Spitalnick, the head of the nonpartisan, nonprofit group Integrity First for America.

“It’s important to understand that anti-Semitism is at the core of the white supremacy that’s fueled so much violence in recent years,” executive director Spitalnick told The Times of Israel. “That’s why efforts to pit communities against one another are so dangerous — our fates are so deeply interconnected. You can’t take on one form of hate without taking on all of them.”

Funded by private donors and crowd-funded online, Integrity First for America’s leadership includes several Jewish activists. Their strategy of outreach to synagogues and other faith-based communities has encouraged people to fight extremism with their voices and — by backing the high-profile lawsuit — their bank accounts.

‘Great Replacement Theory’

Since Charlottesville, said Spitalnick, one conspiracy involving Blacks and Jews has been particularly potent.

“White supremacist attacks from Charlottesville, to Pittsburgh, to Christchurch, to Poway, to El Paso have been motivated by the vile ‘great replacement’ theory: The idea that Jews are puppet-masters orchestrating the ‘replacement’ of the white race through our support for immigrants, refugees, communities of color, and so on,” said Spitalnick.

Among the age-old conspiracy theories peddled by the defendants, Jews are communists bent on world domination. One defendant studied in Lipstadt’s report, Jeff Schoep, said he wanted to tell Hitler, “Thank you for your sacrifice, and I hope we have honored you in some small way by carrying on the fight.”

A white nationalist demonstrator with a helmet and shield walks into Lee Park in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of people chanted, threw punches, hurled water bottles and unleashed chemical sprays on each other, after violence erupted at a white nationalist rally in Virginia, on August 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

According to Spitalnick, “the greatest threat to our country and communities” is posed by right-wing extremists — including those set to go on trial in Virginia this October.

“The ADL reported that nearly all extremist murders in the US were committed by right-wing extremists,” said Spitalnick. “The Department of Homeland Security called white supremacy the ‘most persistent and lethal threat’ to our country, and the FBI confirmed that hate crimes hit their deadliest levels ever. Report after report affirms that we’re facing a crisis of far-right extremism,” Spitalnick said.

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