(RNS) — Deborah E. Lipstadt's new book, “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” was already at the publishers last October when Robert Bowers walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue and opened fire, killing 11 worshippers. But the 71-year-old Emory University historian hopes her analysis of a recent surge in anti-Semitism can motivate people to fight it.
“My attempt to explore a perplexing and disturbing set of circumstances," she writes, "is written with the hope that it will provoke action.”
The Anti-Defamation League found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents committed in the United States rose nearly 60 percent in 2017 over 2016, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking incident data in the 1970s.
Those startling figures drove home the need for a book about the current wave of anti-Semitism for Lipstadt, who had mostly studied the phenomenon through the lens of the Holocaust and its deniers. In 1996, Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, were sued for libel in England by the British Holocaust denier David Irving. The story of the case became a 2016 movie “Denial,” in which Lipstadt was portrayed by Rachel Weisz.
The new book is structured as an exchange of letters between two composite characters — a Jewish college student and a non-Jewish law professor — and Lipstadt, who answers their questions about the recent scourge and how to think of it.
RNS caught up with Lipstadt during her book tour in England, where her book was just published. The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: What led you to write a book on anti-Semitism?
The truth of the matter is that I hadn’t wanted to write this book. I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times after the Gaza War in which I wrote about how we had seen outbursts of anti-Semitism during the war. It turned out to be very popular. My agent said, ‘So where’s the book proposal?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to spend time doing that.' He said, ‘Deborah, you must.’ So, I thought I’d give it a try.
It was a hard book to write. I was writing about contemporary stuff and there seemed to be something happening every single day. No matter when I thought I was finished there would be some new event. Finally, I finished the book at the end of August, beginning of September, and then came Pittsburgh at the end of October.
Q: Why did you choose to write it as a series of letters?
I originally was going to write an academic book, but it was really boring. It had no oomph, no juice. A friend said to me, ‘Why don’t you try to do it as letters?’ The minute she said that it all fell into place. The format allowed it to be accessible.
Q: Anti-Semitism doesn’t ever completely go away. Still, when did it begin to resurface in the most recent wave?
I think there was a certain extremism that began to be expressed even in the Obama administration, coming from the right. There was also an anti-Israel extremism that began to express itself as anti-Semitism. While ostensibly it was a criticism of Israel, if you dug a millisecond deeper, you saw that it was anti-Semitism.
It grew in intensity during the latest presidential campaign. There was a base of people who supported Trump who harbored these sentiments. There was a whipping up of nationalism – not patriotism, I’m all for patriotism. All those things helped the emergence of anti-Semitism.
Q: Help me to understand your approach to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, which has become a thorn in the side of a lot of Jews.
I know kids who joined the BDS movement and think of it simply as a way to get Israel to change its political views and stop the oppression of other people. I don’t immediately assume that everyone who supports BDS or is affiliated with BDS is ipso-facto an anti-Semite.
However, if you look at the founding documents of BDS, you’ll see it’s a movement that calls for the destruction of Israel. That, to me, is anti-Semitism. We have to be careful about how we condemn it, but certainly people at the heart of the movement want to see the destruction of Israel.
Q: What do you say to those who are anti-Zionist?
Before the creation of Israel, you could be an anti-Zionist. You could believe a Jewish State wasn’t right or Judaism was really a religion or other things. But today you have a Jewish State with 6 million Jews in it. Where should those Jews go?
I remember (White House reporter) Helen Thomas once said, ‘Oh, they should go back to Poland.’ Well it just so happens that half the Jews in Israel are not white or European. They’re Yemenite, Iraqi, Iranian, Algerian, Moroccan, Ethiopian. So, this notion that ‘I don’t care what happens to them’ belies a certain anti-Semitism, even if the person advocating that may not think they’re anti-Semitic. But when you look at it clearly, I think it’s there.
Plus, people will say Israel does things wrong. It does thing immoral. Well, of course, Israel does things wrong. Every state does things wrong. That doesn’t mean the state shouldn’t exist. There were certainly Zionists who did things wrong in the founding of the state of Israel. There were some Arabs who were forced out of their homes by Jewish fighters. But I don’t know any major democratic country in its founding that didn’t have a degree of things that went wrong. I’ll name three: The United States in its treatment of Native Americans, plus slavery; Canada in its treatment of the original settlers; Australia in its treatment of Aborigines.
Then people will say they’re opposed to the way Israel treats the Palestinians. Well, they don’t (call on Myanmar to be dissolved ) because of its treatment of the Rohingya or about China in its treatment of the Uighurs. They don’t feel that way about Saudi Arabia and the way women are treated. When there is a singular disproportionate focus on Israel, you’ve got to ask why.
Q: You were quite vocal that you would not have participated in the Women’s March. Explain why.
The issues for which the women are marching are incredibly important and need to be supported and fought for. There’s no question about that. Having said that, I think the leadership of the Women’s March, because of its sympathy for Reverend Farrakhan and its failure to condemn anti-Semitism and the way some of the leaders of the Women’s March have engaged in anti-Semitism, they lost their ability, their right to lead a march that’s supposed to fight prejudice. It’s not the issue I opposed but the particular leadership.
Q: You’ve said that you wanted to make this book accessible and not just scholarly. Why?
I am so anxious for this book to reach a broad audience, for people to try to understand what this oldest hatred is about and what it represents. And most of all to recognize that when you fight anti-Semitism, you’re not doing it because you’ve got Jewish neighbors or Jewish friends. Yes, that’s important, but it’s not the full reason. Or you might fight anti-Semitism because you abhor all forms of prejudice. That’s excellent, but that’s not a sufficient reason.
The reason people should oppose anti-Semitism is because it poses a danger to the democratic society in which we live. No democratic society can be a healthy society if it’s harboring people so filled with hate that’s been repeatedly shown to be a conspiracy theory. It makes no sense. It’s irrational. For it to exist, it says something’s wrong in the society. If you care about the democratic society in which you live, fight anti-Semitism.