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A modern heroine fights antisemitism

If I had posters of heroes and heroines on my wall, Deborah Lipstadt would be there.

Deborah E. Lipstadt. Photo by Osnat Perelshtein

(RNS) — If you are like me, you like to see good people getting their just rewards.

That was how I felt the other day upon hearing President Biden had nominated Deborah Lipstadt, Emory University Holocaust historian, to be the State Department’s special envoy to combat antisemitism.

A special shout out as well to my colleague, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who has been chosen to serve as commissioner on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body that evaluates the state of religious freedom around the world. I have known and respected Rabbi Kleinbaum for decades; she will do a great job.

Deborah Lipstadt is an American Jewish heroine. Fate catapulted her to international fame when Holocaust denier David Irving sued her in a British court for libel. Watch the movie based on the case — Denial.

Deborah won. So did the survivors. So did truth.

Professor Lipstadt is a traditional Jew. She is affiliated with the Orthodox community in Atlanta. Over the years, I have personally experienced her warmth and graciousness to all Jews and to all Jewish movements.

Her way of doing Judaism demonstrates two things.

First, you can be a proud, affirming, observant Jew and maintain, affirm and sanctify a klal Yisrael approach. We are all Jews here; we are all responsible for each other.

Second, you can be a proud, affirming, observant Jew and live in the fullness of American culture and its politics.

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

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

So, yes — I am a total fan boy.

Read or re-read her book, “Antisemitism Here and Now.” Read the messages she brings to the world.

First, antisemitism is different from other hatreds.

All hatred is, in some sense, irrational. What makes antisemitism particularly irrational is that it bases itself on imagining that the Jews conspire to influence and run the world. It is “punching up,” singling out the Jews for special opprobrium because of their perceived strength.

Consider the anti-Jewish paranoia of Louis Farrakhan: “It is now becoming apparent that there were many Israeli and Zionist Jews in key roles in the 9/11 attack.”

Or, for that matter, these words from the Hamas charter:

The enemies have been scheming for a long time … and have accumulated huge and influential material wealth. With their money, they took control of the world media … With their money they stirred revolutions in various parts of the globe … They stood behind the French Revolution, the Communist Revolution and most of the revolutions we hear about … With their money they formed secret organizations — such as the Freemasons, Rotary Clubs and the Lions — which are spreading around the world, in order to destroy societies and carry out Zionist interests … They stood behind World War I … and formed the League of Nations through which they could rule the world. They were behind World War II, through which they made huge financial gains … There is no war going on anywhere without them having their finger in it. (Article 22)

Or, for that matter, the incoherent blather of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, with her fantasies about Jewish lasers from space.

When it comes to antisemitism, we are living in the midst of one of those medieval theme parks. History has not moved forward one inch.

Second, antisemitism occurs across the political spectrum.

Professor Lipstadt names the twin ideologies: Trumpism and Corbynism. Neither of their namesakes are in political power at the moment, but both ideologies are alive and well.

Trumpism is the antisemitism of the right. It is the antisemitism of the marchers in Charlottesville, who chanted “The Jews will not replace us!”

Corbynism, named for British Labor Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, is the antisemitism of the radical left.

As Prof. Lipstadt writes:

Fundamental to Corbyn’s political weltanschaung (world view) is an automatic — critics might call it knee-jerk — sympathy for anyone who is or appears to be oppressed or an underdog. Those who fight with rocks are always preferred to those who use tanks … anyone white, wealthy, or associated with a group that seems to be privileged cannot be a victim. Anyone who is or claims to be victimized by those who are white, wealthy, and/or privileged deserves unequivocal support. It is doubtful that Corbyn deliberately seeks out antisemites to associate with and to support. But it seems that when he encounters them, their Jew-hatred is irrelevant as long as their other positions — on class, race, capitalism, the role of the state, and Israel/Palestine — are to his liking.

Corbynism is now the dominant ideology of the British Labor Party.

It is also becoming the dominant ideology of the radical left in the United States.

Third, if you only see the antisemitism on the other side of the political divide, you are deliberately choosing to be blind in one political eye.

Consider the anti-Jewish violence that has emanated from the right: Pittsburgh and Poway, for example.

Those acts of violence shocked, but did not surprise, American Jews. That is our default narrative: Such violence will come from the right.

In the wake of Israel’s response to the Hamas rockets this spring, American Jews have been living through a pandemic of anti-Israelism and antisemitism — most of it coming from the radical left or from those groups with whom the radical left has sympathy, i.e., Palestinian activists.

(I stammer here. It is not entirely accurate to say Palestinian activists represent the left. Certainly not the way the left has imagined itself. Suffice it to say the neat left/right liberal/conservative models do not accurately fit here. I need to think much more about this.)

Leftist violence and rhetoric shocks American Jews. The people on the left, especially intellectuals and academics, are supposed to be our friends and our allies.

Our disappointment crushes us. It causes many American Jews to deny and/or rationalize and/or excuse that Jew hatred. It is criticism of Israel, we will say, often not fully aware when legitimate critiques of Israeli policies morph into calls for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state.

But, here is the larger issue. Conservatives are quick to point out the anti-Israelism on the left. They scream almost gleefully about Rep. Ilhan Omar.

They are less quick to scream about the wackiness of Rep. Greene.

And, vice versa.

We would have a far healthier political culture if we started critiquing those people who are our political allies and calling them to account.

Finally: yes, worry about antisemitism. But, it is not the reason why you are Jewish.

Deborah Lipstadt has always reminded her students and audiences not to make antisemitism the cornerstone of their Jewish identity.

Or, to put it another way: Judaism is not about how “they” hate us.

It is about how God loves us.

We could not ask for a better ambassador for Jewish and human interests — a woman who has already proven herself to be one of the great moral leaders of our time.

Mazel tov, Deborah Lipstadt!