Reviewed by JOSEPH LEVEN Deborah Lipstadt is Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She has written five previous books, all on Holocaust themes.
She gained widespread public recognition for the David Irving Holocaust libel trial of 1996. Irving, a notorious Holocaust denier, sued Lipstadt and her publisher Penguin in an English court for libel for characterizing his writing as Holocaust denial. The case obtained widespread publicity and the outcome was that the suit was thrown out as the judge ruled that Irving was indeed a denier of the Holocaust.
In Antisemitism Here and Now Lipstadt sets out to paint a picture of antisemitism (this is the spelling she uses throughout) in our times. She looks at the situation in Europe and the United States, left wing and right wing antisemitism, the situation on university campuses, Holocaust denial and more. Throughout the book she does not just describe and analyze – she prescribes the best way for both Jews and non-Jews to counter what they meet.
Lipstadt has structured her book as a dialogue among three people. One is a non-Jewish university colleague of hers who teaches at the law school and whom she call Joe. The other is a Jewish student who has taken many of Lipstadt’s courses and whom she calls Abigail. She describes these two as composites of many figures she has met over the years of college life.
The book consists of a series of situations that Abigail and Joe have run into and which they describe to Lipstadt, followed by her responses. It starts out with an attempt to define antisemitism and to understand why it exists. She calls antisemitism delusional and irrational and states that to attempt to rationally argue away an irrational belief is simply a waste of breath. As to the definition, she goes with, ‘You’ll know it when you see it’. Historically it goes back to early Christianity where it took deep root by calling the Jews Christ-killers, and it has persisted ever since then, rising and falling, but never going away.
Lipstadt divides today’s antisemites into four groups. She calls the groups the Extremists, the Enablers, Dinner Party antisemites and the Clueless.
The Extremists are motivated by white power and white supremacy and believe in the evil nature of Jews, Muslims and all non-whites. These are exemplified by the groups that participated at the Charlottesville rally in 2017. The Enablers facilitate the spread of antisemitism. They may not personally hate the Jews, but their actions embolden the Extremists. They are personified by Donald Trump, whose actions are motivated by political motives, and Jeremy Corbyn, who holds deeply ideological beliefs that commit him to identifying with any group that appears to him to be oppressed or the underdog. This includes the Palestinians vs the Israelis, and the lower classes vs the well-off (which usually includes Britain’s Jews).
Lipstadt’s third category is the Dinner Party or polite anti-Semites. These are the folks whose line is, ‘Some of my best friends are Jews’. She states that they are the ones who ‘sow the seeds of contempt among those who can do real harm’. Finally the Clueless. These are people who are unaware that they have internalized antisemitic stereotypes and who perpetuate those stereotypes. Lipstadt gives as an example a student who was the only Jew among a group of students. In chatting about a big sale coming up at some store a fellow student just assumed that the Jewish woman would be going to the sale because she had a good nose for a bargain.
The rest of Antisemitism Here and Now surveys the landscape of antisemitism today. Particularly strong are the chapters talking about the situation for Jewish students and staff on American college campuses. Campuses are hotbeds of criticism of Israel and its policies, which quickly overflows into antisemitism. On many campuses Jewish students and staff feel uncomfortable if not downright threatened.
This nastiness proceeds from two main sources: the left wing ‘progressive’ politics of many professors and student activists; and the Palestinian student body and their supporters, whether fellow Moslems or the above-mentioned left wing students and staff. It plays out in a boycott of academic contacts with Israeli universities, refusal to invite pro-Israeli speakers while inviting virulently anti-Israel and antisemitic speakers, dissemination of anti-Israel material in student publications, pleas for a boycott of companies doing business with Israel and on and on.
What ends up happening is that faculty become intimidated about voicing anything in their lectures that could be construed as pro-Israel, and that Jewish students are afraid to join Jewish campus organizations or to speak out against the lies and distortions that they hear.
In Antisemitism Here and Now Deborah Lipstadt has written a very legible and important book that is well worth reading. She wrote this book for the general reader. There is nothing academic about it. Even those of us who consider ourselves well-informed on Jewish subjects will learn a lot.
Antisemitism Here and Now
By Deborah Lipstadt
Schoken Books, New York, 2019, 288 pages
(Antisemitism Here and Now is available at the Winnipeg Public Library in hardcopy and as an eBook.)