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‘If you care about democratic society, fight anti-Semitism’

“Antisemitism: Here and Now” and author Deborah E. Lipstadt. Book jacket courtesy of Schocken. Photo by Osnat Perelshtein

(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?

“Antisemitism: Here and Now” by Deborah E. Lipstadt. Image courtesy of Schocken

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?

Deborah E. Lipstadt. Photo by Osnat Perelshtein

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.

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.

65 Comments

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  • Yes, we may want to discuss this sensitive subject matter with the congressional delegation from MN.

  • True (whatabout) but nearly all of the violence and harassment of Jews here in the US came from those on the Far Right, White Nationalists and neo-Nazis. Sadly some identify as Christians. They also targeted Muslims and Sikhs.

    Yes, some from the Left supporting BDS would like to see Israel disappear.

  • I just started reading the book today and it is thought provoking. I encourage others to read it

    So far I have one disagreement with her. She talks about “yes-but” responses to moral issues as being attempts to rationalize someone’s behavior. I agree, BUT! She used one example of the issue with Salmon Rushdie and his book “The Satanic Verses” and another example about the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Read the book to see what she is talking about.

    I think these yes-but responses also come from people who honestly aren’t sure what the moral position should be in a given situation.

    Sometimes these are folks who can see both sides of an issue, and there are usually many sides to an issue. I am reminded of an old radio program by Paul Harvey “The rest of the story”. In his programs he sometimes presented the other side of a situation. People rarely want to hear about how the other side views an issue.

    Sometimes these are folks who have never learned how to think about, analyze or question issues. By dismissing their remarks as rationalizations one fails to address honest points that they may be concerned about. We need to distinguish between those I call ‘fence sitters’ and those that are rationalizers and help the ‘fence sitters’ come to an understanding of the complexity of the moral issues involved.

    Then there are the child’s “yes,but” responses, what we also call tit for tat. Yes I hit my sister but she hit me first. We saw this kind of a response in regards to the students from the Catholic High School in their confrontation on the mall at the recent “March for Life” rally. “Yes their behavior was wrong, but they were provoked.” This type of yes-but response can lead to an endless cycle of violence as we see between Israelis and Palestinians. Who did what to whom first should be irrelevant. Responding to a violent act with more violence leaves both sides with no way out.

    Don’t get me wrong here, we need to make sure that people understand that threats of violence or actual acts of violence are WRONG no matter what the provocation, excuse, rationalization or whether the violence came from one on your side of the fence. BUT we also need to recognize that there are two or more sides to all stories and in SOME situations what the other person did was also wrong and deserves to be censured.

    She may address this concern of mine later in the book. As I said I have just started reading the book and I am not quite half way through it!

  • Where would the six million Jews of Israel go? We should have welcomed them into the USA in 1948 instead of supporting the idea of a nation founded on a religion. We already have about six million Jewish people in the USA. Coulda/shoulda been twelve million by now—-solving the worldwide question of “Where is a safe place for Jews?” If America wanted to be Godly (as most Evangelical supporters of Israel claim they want us to be), we should have—–after the Holocaust (or better yet, before)—-invited the Jews here with open arms, not suggest they all go to a desert patch where they will be in a state of war for the rest of their lives.

    Remember, 71% of American Jewish voters did not vote for Trump or Trumpism——probably knowing in advance from the Jewish experience all over the world that pugnaciousness is a bad thing to elect into power.

  • I also agree, we should have brought/welcomed them here from the beginning. BUT that is now water under the bridge. We can’t go back and change the course of history.

    I have sometimes wondered if one solution would be to make Jerusalem an International City–governed maybe by the UN.

  • Maybe we can’t change the past, but by talking about what we should have done, we might be able to ask whether a nation founded on a religion is a good idea. As for Jerusalem under UN governance, that will sound good to everyone except the religions which now want to control Jerusalem in their own religious visions. I know that the UN is not a popular entity with conservative Christians. It’s hard for me to imagine either Judaism or Islam ceding any authority to the UN either—-if they can avoid it.

  • I fear the interviewer didn’t go deep enough.
    Based on the interview above, if I understand correctly, Deborah E. Lipstadt seems to equate antisemitism with the desire to destroy the State of Israel. So antisemitic acts in the US, from synagogue shootings to spray painted swastikas, are somehow about hatred for the State of Israel. Surely there is more to it than that.
    The two US movements cited in the interview, BDS and the Womens’ March, are condemned because some people associated with them call for “the destruction of Israel”, I guess thus making the movements themselves antisemitic.
    If I am biased against Jews in my everyday interactions with them, but agree that the State of Israel has a right to exist, am I antisemitic?
    Suppose I bare no ill will against my Jewish neighbors and think the State of Israel has a right to exist, but am critical of some of that state’s actions, does that make me antisemitic?
    This word is so loaded with confusing and conflicting definitions as to be useless.

  • Suppose I bare no ill will against my Jewish neighbors and think the State of Israel has a right to exist, but am critical of some of that state’s actions, does that make me antisemitic?

    If it does then I am too.

  • Antisemitism as per Wikipedia is hostility to, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antisemitism

    JESUS CHRIST is a Jew.

    Still I do not see why Antisemitism should be prioritized over any other unreasoning prejudice.

    >>There was a base of people who supported Trump who harbored these sentiments. <<

    Another book explaining about how bad President Trump / and or supporters are?

    TRUMP recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, his daughter converted to Judaism and is America's most powerful Jewish woman.

  • This article is about anti-Semitism. Changing the conversation to other discrimination is what-aboutism and not productive.

    I agree with the author that we need to fight anti-Semitism in the US, because it’s wrong and harmful, and because, if it is not opposed, anti-Semitism will, indeed, cause irreparable damage to our democracy.

  • Probably start with our president first. Especially given the things many of his supporters say. After all since 2016 we have seen a surge in anti-semitic violence and public rhetoric. Even holocaust deniers have awoken from more than a decade of dormancy because they feel emboldened by a national leader who seems to share their views.

    When Neo-Nazis and the Klan are finding legitimacy in our political system with a mainstream political party, its reason to give pause
    https://www.houstonchronicle.com/opinion/outlook/article/Outright-Nazis-are-running-as-Republicans-so-13099210.php

  • Nope- MN congresswoman – the same one you defended just weeks ago to have special privileges for her only (to wear a headscarf); is an anti-Semite.
    It’s good to see you defending her but not those she hates.

  • I’ve seen you make excuses for a man who shot up a synagogue based on panic appeals Trump made. (And seen you make the same appeals).

    Deflection seems important to your position.

    All I gave to say here is the neo Nazis use as their slogan “Unite the RIGHT”

  • “What-aboutism” is a classic liberal/progressive deflection for providing perspective while a liberal/progressive is going on and on about some nit, and for pointing out the log in a liberal/progressive’s eye while she/he is ranting about some speck in his/her opponent’s eye.

  • Let’s be clear, to oppose the actions of the right-wing Likud government of Israel under Netayahu is not antisemitism, it is anti-fascism. In the same sense to oppose the actions of the nativist Trump regime in the U.S. is not anti-Americanism.
    The issue of “settlements” is galling. There is no reason they cannot live like we do here, where you may be a Methodist and your neighbor is a Muslim next door, your across the street neighbor is a Baptist, and your neighbor two doors down is an atheist. That’s freedom. Moreover, Israel’s exemption of Ultra-Orthodox from military service is extremely problematic. We should not be subsidizing their military if they do not put an equal obligation on all their citizens to serve.
    Israel has changed from the Utopia proposed by Golda Meir and the like to become an apartheid state under Likud. Let ’em if that’s what they want. I just don’t think we should pay for it.

  • The UN. Otherwise known as Anti-Semite Central.

    Governing Jerusalem. Governing ANY part of Israel.

    NO way!!

  • First step to fighting anti-Semitism in the USA, is to arrest Rep. Ilhan Omar, Rep Rashida Tlaib, and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (on multiple assorted charges, pick any one you want). Federal Supermax time will help them come back to reality.

    (By the way, Rep. Omar is the top of the hoosegow list this week, with her openly Anti-Semitic attack on AIPAC.)

  • For the most part the Muslim next door in the US doesn’t feel like its their crusade to kill you because you are an infidel.

  • Yea, the 10 Nazi’s are what is worrisome. Not the thousands of Nation of Islam followers. Get your TDS checked

  • Nation of Islam? The 80’s called they want their panicky indignation back.

    Unlike the Nation of Islam, neo Nazis can’t even have a gathering in any numbers without trying to murder people. I also never saw a president call Nation if Islam “very fine people”, publicity endorse their positions or put them in the White House staff. Same isn’t true with neo Nazis.

    TDS. Trump’s Deranged, Sir!
    MAGA = Making Attorneys Get Attorneys.

  • The average Muslim in Israel is a citizen who is probably a bit annoyed that their civil liberties are being eroded away.

    “The Armed Struggle” is pretty much played out. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia appear interested in funding and arming Palestinians anymore. Seeking new proxies and new battles with each other.

    Israel no longer has major nation states which can threaten its existence.

  • So you are against democracy and free speech? Arrest anyone holding views that are repugnant? Say it ain’t so.

  • Lipstadt conflates anti-semitism with anti-zionsim in an effort to support the 150 year old creeping invasion of Palestine by Zionists. She seems unaware that Palestinians are semitic people.

    If she were truly against anti-semitism she would be arguing against the continued Zionist invasion of Palestine. Instead, she thinks, “Oh, those poor invading Zionists where would they go if the Palestinians got justice.” She forgets that in the 19th century 500,000 Palestinians lived peacefully with 50,000 Jews, then Zionsists decided that they wanted all of the Palestinian lands, and assets.

  • All very interesting but the Zionist invasion of Palestine started 75 years before WWII. Zionists use the holocaust as a justification for their predations in Palestine. They forget that beside the 6,000,00 Jews killed in WWII there were another 9,000,000 LGBT people, Roma, Poles, and mentally and physically disabled that were also killed in that holocaust.

  • ALL intelligent, caring, and responsible citizens of planet earth are anti-Semitic, anti-terror, and stand with Israel. Peace on earth, good will to all men is the goal. Armageddon will SOON resolve so much suffering everywhere. SHALOM!

  • Ha! I knew that word would get somebody’s attention!!

    Even though all three of those Alt-Miscreants really need that ADX Supermax vacation, there’s simply no constitutional way to bust ’em & book ’em. So they are free to continue making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

    But it’s not illegal to at least **suggest** a little hoosegow time. (They can even be bunkies if they want to!! )

  • I agree that secular nations are a better alternative, where all are welcomed. I also agree that neither side would be willing to step aside to allow a neutral 3rd part to rule Jerusalem.

  • If the article’s about antisemitism, then comments on the article should prioritize antisemitism.

  • Exactly my point. Thank you. they generally are not spied upon by a repressive deep state apparatus either, unlike in Likud Israel.

  • And yet from yesterday’s news:
    DEATH TO ISRAEL!’ Tensions SPIRAL as Iran vows to ‘raze Tel Aviv to GROUND’ if US attacks

    You are willfully ignorant.

  • Iran has been all bluster for the last 40 years. They have their own more pressing concerns with their cold war/proxy war with Saudi Arabia.

    The US is not going to into a shooting war Iran. That would only bolster the Islamic Republic’s regime.

    Iran is not an existential threat to Israel. Israel and the US already neutered their nuclear aspirations years ago. Israel has “the bomb” and the means to deliver it. The entire Middle East knows that. Iran would be wiped off the map.

    Trump and his staff are singularly useless at international negotiation. We have more to worry about the US doing something stupid than Iran or Israel.

  • Oh, so this is just neighborly banter?!
    Well, in that case let’s share a kabab among friends….
    Maybe lob a rocket or two into Haifa just to say hello…
    You are so lost its sad.

  • Pretty much what has been going on for the last 40 years.

    At this point Iranian proxies like Hezbollah are tied down trying to support Assad’s regime. Israel has been actively bombing them in Syria.

    Hamas lost its funding from Iran and became a Saudi/Gulf states proxy instead.

    Iran has its hands full with conventional wars all over the Middle East. Israel is not the main enemy to them. Saudi Arabia is.

  • So you support a regime that threatens its neighbors, persecutes its own people and is not LGBTQ friendly? Over the only democracy in the middle-east?
    Gotcha.

  • I don’t advocate overthrowing a regime willy nilly. That hasn’t worked out well for us since the 1950’s. We pretty much lost our chance to do that with Iran decades ago.

    To claim Iran is an existential threat is to believe propaganda whole hog or be completely ignorant of the situation. You are left sputtering silly attack slogans here because it is obvious you don’t know a damn thing about what goes on there.

    “Over the only democracy in the middle-east?”

    How long will it stay a democracy? You support its most autocratic and anti-democratic elements. You certainly have little regard for people who criticize such developments.

  • Never said overthrow. Obama squashed the uprising because he likes Iran like you do.
    I’ll take Israel any day.
    Better than anything else in the ME.

  • Obama didn’t do anything, nor had the power to do much. The last thing the Pro-democracy protesters needed was to be associated with foreign intervention.

    Your remark is ignorant drivel. You really have no clue what you are talking about.

    I do not support Iran, I am simply intelligent and well read enough about them to know they are not a real threat. You don’t actually support Israel, only its current government. You oppose democratic criticism of it from within and abroad.

  • Yes. I said that already. For good reason. It would have completely trashed the protesters as alleged foreign agents.

    You are really don’t read comments well. This is way out of your knowledge base here.

  • Newsflash:
    Senate reports no collusion between trump and Russia.
    Please apologize on every board that you posted.

  • Totally off subject. You missed the point wildly and are deflecting to a new topic. You owe me an apology for such trollery.

    “Senate reports no collusion between trump and Russia. ”
    Citation please. The Muller probe is still ongoing. 42 indictments say otherwise.

    “Please apologize on every board that you posted.”

    You demand an apology because I make you look bad by exposing your ignorance on the subject. How funny. 🙂

  • I’m surprised boingboing.com doesn’t have any links yet. Plus, the MSM’s heads are exploding with the news that there is NO collusion.
    You’ve already seen it I’m sure.

  • I have great respect for those Jewish people and leaders who condemn Israel’s policy towards Palestinian in particular and her neighbours in general. I am not anti-semite. A Malaysian minister who spoke many years ago that Malaysia will have diplomatic relation with Israel once the Palestinians are treated like human-beings cannot put it any better.

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