She is best known for her epic court victory against a prominent Holocaust denier two decades ago, but these days Jewish history professor Deborah Lipstadt is focusing her attention on a different but no less epic battle: the spike in global anti-Semitism.
“My job as a historian is to help people understand what is going on, what it is, how to recognize it,” she said. “Inside the [Jewish] community, outside the community, I want people to take this seriously and to understand.”
She addresses the issue in her new book “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” an academically rich yet eminently readable work that neatly summarizes the continuing worldwide rise in anti-Semitism.
The Emory University professor will speak on Monday, March 11 at the JCC of San Francisco.
The idea for the book germinated from an opinion piece she wrote after noticing an upsurge of anti-Semitic chatter on social media during the 2014 Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas. Her op-ed appeared in the New York Times with the title “Why Jews Are Worried.”
The piece drew so much attention that her editor urged her to write a book on the subject. She resisted, saying she was working on other projects and predicting that the tide of hate would ebb.
“But then it just got worse and worse and worse,” she told J.
Lipstadt made history herself when she defeated Holocaust denier David Irving in a London courtroom in the 1990s after he accused her of libel. The legal case became the basis for the 2016 movie “Denial,” and much of Lipstadt’s career has been devoted to study of the Holocaust and those who deny it.
But now she says the fight against anti-Semitism is more important.
“This is a much bigger, broader, wider, deep-seated battle, one that is coming from left and from right, from portions of the Muslim world, from heads of state and from heads of political parties — if they’re not anti-Semitic themselves, they’re facilitating it,” she said.
Breaking down the different sources of this troubling trend, Lipstadt noted that on the left, some progressive groups in the U.S. argue that supporting Israel is a form of racism because it gives moral weight to the mistreatment of Palestinians. While Lipstadt was careful in her book not to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, she said that certain anti-Israel arguments can bleed into anti-Semitism — arguably most evident among Muslim- and Palestinian-led groups on college campuses.
She said a similar strain of anti-Semitism is present in the extreme leftist elements of Britain’s Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn, who has a long history of making anti-Semitic statements and associating with extremist individuals and groups, such as in 2013 when he defended a London mural showing Jewish bankers playing Monopoly on the backs of people of color. Since mid-February, nine members of Parliament have quit the party to protest its tolerance of anti-Semitism under Corbyn, among other issues.
On the right, President Donald Trump has been accused of coddling white supremacists and sending signals that foster anti-Semitism — from refusing to condemn the far-right marchers in Charlottesville outright, to excluding mention of Jews or anti-Semitism in his first Holocaust Remembrance Day statement in 2017. Lipstadt also writes about the time during his campaign when Trump retweeted a clearly anti-Semitic trope, depicting opponent Hillary Clinton with piles of money alongside a six-pointed star.
It’s a perfect storm, it’s coming from all sides.
On the other side of the political aisle, Rep. Ilhan Omar, the new Democratic member of Congress from Minnesota, won public praise from former Ku Klux Klan leader and Holocaust denier David Duke after she accused the American Israel Public Affairs Committee of paying U.S. politicians to support Israel. And of course there has been anti-Semitism coming from conspiracy groups, which always have found Jews an easy target.
The most recent and perhaps most threatening strain to emerge, according to reports, has been the overt anti-Semitism of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) roiling the political landscape in France, where anti-Semitic incidents rose 74 percent last year. Media accounts describe a mixture of aggrieved leftists and rightists, all claiming the system is rigged against them economically and blaming the nation’s problems in large part on Jewish bankers.
Lipstadt pointed to another factor complicating efforts to confront anti-Semitism — Israel’s elections in April and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to partner with the Otzma Yehudit party, composed of followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane’s ideological right-wing, anti-Arab Kach party was banned from the Knesset in 1994 under anti-terrorism laws, and now his disciples could hold seats in a new government. This development could provide cover to anti-Semites, she warned, saying such a coalition “is going to make it harder for those of us who fight anti-Semitism.”
In late February, Lipstadt announced she was resigning her membership in Atlanta’s Orthodox synagogue Young Israel of Toco Hills because it belongs to a movement that defended Netanyahu’s deal with Otzma Yehudit.
While she was working on her book, Lipstadt said, it was hard to keep up with the dizzying array of anti-Semitic attacks. And in the span of six months after she finished writing it, 11 Jewish congregants were shot to death at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Corbyn’s followers hardened their positions, and the yellow vests emerged on the scene.
“It’s a perfect storm, it’s coming from all sides,” she said. “It’s an ever-evolving situation. The book is done, but the topic is not done and I’ll have to keep coming back.”
“Antisemitism: Then and Now” includes extensive background on the history of anti-Semitism around the world and focuses on its current incarnations, from U.S. college campuses to the streets of Central Europe. The book is written in an unusual though highly effective style — as a series of letters from a fictitious student and a fictitious professor who pose questions about anti-Semitism to Lipstadt. That allowed her to avoid the academic formality such a book could have generated.
“I sat down to write a straight, scholarly book that would be accessible. I wanted it to be read outside the academy,” she said. “But I couldn’t put it together. It was so boring I was falling asleep writing it, and I worried what’s going to happen to my readers when they’re reading it. Then a friend said, ‘Do it as a series of letters.’
“Usually you have a historical figure speaking fiction. Here you have two fictional characters speaking truth.”
Lipstadt stressed in the book and in her interview with J. that the current state of affairs is not similar to 1930s Germany, and that there is no reason for panic. But there is plenty of reason for vigilance.
“People should be alert, people should be watching, people should be discerning. They shouldn’t panic, they shouldn’t let it be the only thing they see in the world,” she said.
“But the situation today is different than it’s been in the recent past. When I first wrote the book, I didn’t think things were going to get as bad as they got. Will they get worse? I don’t know. I hope not. I don’t know.”