Here and Now
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
As recently as the turn of this century, it was just about plausible to hope that anti-Semitism might soon go the way of fear of witches — not extinct, but too manifestly absurd for all but the dumbest of bigots to avow. In the United States, there was hardly an institution where Jews weren’t welcomed and fully (if not over-) represented. In Europe, taboos against anti-Semitism continued to hold firm two generations after the end of World War II. In the Middle East, it seemed possible that the peace process would lead at least to a softening of hatred toward the Jewish state.
And in London, Deborah E. Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory, was fighting a defamation suit brought against her by the Holocaust denier David Irving. When the 349-page verdict against Irving was handed down in April 2000, it felt as if a concluding chapter in the history of an infamous lie had been written.
Lipstadt’s new book, “Antisemitism: Here and Now” — completed long before the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, but made all the more timely in its wake — underscores how vain that millennial hope was. Written as a series of letters to two composite characters, a “whip smart” Jewish college student and a well-meaning gentile law professor, Lipstadt’s book aims not to break new scholarly ground but to awaken her audience to the nature, persistence and scale of the threat, along with the insidious ways in which it seeks to disguise itself.
She succeeds. Even readers who try to keep current with the subject may have missed the story of Ken Loach, the acclaimed British filmmaker and Labour Party activist, slyly refusing in 2016 to condemn Holocaust denial because “history is for us all to discuss.” Or a 2013 survey by German researchers of thousands of anti-Semitic messages received by the Israeli Embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, 60 percent of which “came from educated, middle-class Germans, including lawyers, scholars, doctors, priests, professors and university and secondary school students.” Or a 2015 protest by Students for Justice in Palestine at the City University of New York, in which activists blamed planned tuition hikes on the “Zionist administration [that] invests in Israeli companies.”
And these are the tamer incidents. They are almost trivial next to the murderous attack on the Jewish museum in Brussels, the pogrom-like siege of a synagogue in Paris or the pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Germany chanting “Hamas, Hamas, Juden ins gas!”
But Lipstadt isn’t just interested in compiling a list of insults, outrages and assaults. Anti-Semitism, to adapt a phrase, is the hate that dare not speak its name, and Lipstadt is at her best when she removes the guises under which it travels.
One such guise is the campaign against “globalists,” the leading exemplars of which just happen to have names like Soros, Yellen and Blankfein. Donald Trump may boast of his Jewish grandchildren and his cozy relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu. But he has become the hero of the “Daily Stormer” crowd with demagogic attacks on immigrants and by taking direct aim, as he put it in 2016, at “international banks” that “plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.” It’s a theme, Lipstadt notes, that plays “on traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes of the ‘international Jew.’”
Another guise is anti-Zionism, which pretends that one can malign Israel as a uniquely diabolical and illegitimate state, guilty of Nazi-like atrocities, and still be acquitted of anti-Semitism. The leading Western voice for this view is the British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has repeatedly joined hands with virulent anti-Semites who share his pro-Palestinian, anticapitalist views — all the while insisting that he opposes racism. Lipstadt makes short work of that defense.
“Is Jeremy Corbyn an anti-Semite?” she asks.
“My response would be that that’s the wrong question. The right questions to ask are: Has he facilitated and amplified expressions of anti-Semitism? Has he been consistently reluctant to acknowledge expressions of anti-Semitism unless they come from white supremacists and neo-Nazis? Will his actions facilitate the institutionalization of anti-Semitism among other progressives? Sadly, my answer to all of this is an unequivocal yes. Like Trump, Corbyn has emboldened and enabled anti-Semites, but from the other end of the political spectrum.”
This analysis — that the resurgence of anti-Semitism owes as much to its political enablers who aren’t openly bigoted as it does to its ideological practitioners who are — is the most valuable contribution the book makes to our discussion of modern-day Jew hatred. Still, Lipstadt misses something important by insisting that anti-Semitism “has never made sense and never will.”
Not quite. However irrational, cynical or stupid anti-Semites may be, most Jews nonetheless can be said to stand for certain ideas and attitudes. A particular concept of morality. A reverence for law founded on the idea of truth. A penchant for asking nettlesome questions. Skepticism toward would-be saviors. A liberal passion for freedom.
Anti-Semites tend to have the opposite set of views, for reasons that may be repugnant but are perfectly rational. The fundamental truth about anti-Semitism isn’t that it’s necessarily crazy. It’s that it’s inevitably brutish.
The conclusion to be drawn is that the enemies of the Jews, whether in Tehran or Virginia, will always be the enemies of liberalism — which is why the fight against anti-Semitism must also be a fight for liberalism. Lipstadt gets this, of course, even if she arrives at the point by a different set of stairs. Fair enough. She has written a book that combines erudition, clarity, accessibility and passion at a moment when they could not be needed more.