Randy Rosenthal teaches writing at Harvard.
Completed in May 2018, Deborah E. Lipstadt’s book “Antisemitism: Here and Now” was prescient. “By the time this book appears,” Lipstadt wrote in its opening, “there will have been new examples of anti-Semitism.” Five months later, a white supremacist shot and killed 11 people at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States. The incident makes Lipstadt’s book all the more crucial for understanding the dismaying resurgence of anti-Semitism — on both the right and the left.
Written as a series of letters to two fictional people — Abigail and Joe, composites of students and colleagues Lipstadt has worked with as a professor at Emory University — “Antisemitism: Here and Now” addresses questions many people began asking after the white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. Is today’s anti-Semitism different from what we’ve seen before? Where is it coming from? What exactly is anti-Semitism, anyway?
Anti-Semitism is difficult to define, Lipstadt writes: “It is hard, if not impossible, to explain something that is essentially irrational, delusional, and absurd.” At its heart, she explains, anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory, and in its most extreme case, it manifests in the belief that Jews are responsible for the evil in the world. Persisting through millennia, in different cultures and regions, the belief that “Jews are not an enemy but the ultimate enemy” is what makes anti-Semitism different from other prejudices.
More commonly, anti-Semitism persists in the notion that Jews control the banks and the media, or that Jews are pushy, cheap, rich or simply good with money. It also reveals itself in more subtle ways — as in the “dinner party anti-Semite” (a polite person who casually makes anti-Semitic statements but claims not to be anti-Semitic because of Jewish friends or business associates) and the “clueless anti-Semite” (“an otherwise nice and well-meaning person who is completely unaware that she has internalized anti-Semitic stereotypes and is perpetuating them” by making statements such as “Jews are bargain shoppers”).
These ideas aren’t new, especially to Lipstadt, author of numerous books on the subject — “Denying the Holocaust,” “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier” and “The Eichmann Trial” — and herself the subject of anti-Semitic attacks, especially for her confrontation of Holocaust deniers.
What is new is the unabashed public anti-Semitism that’s been unleashed since 2016. During that year’s election, for example, anti-Semites on social media began placing triple parentheses around the surnames of Jewish journalists. Jewish journalists critical of Trump began receiving messages that they “should be gassed” and images of their faces superimposed on those of Auschwitz prisoners. Trump, Lipstadt argues, is an enabler, not an extremist; he didn’t create white-supremacist groups, but he “let these reprehensible genies out of the bottle.”
Anti-Semitism is not just a product of right-wing extremism. And it’s here that the conversation gets more complicated. In the interest of social justice, Lipstadt writes, some progressives reveal subconscious anti-Semitism by making “blanket statements about Jews in their excoriation of wealthy capitalists who oppress and exploit the poor, who imply that Jews exert undue influence on the media, who deny that Jews can be the victims of race-based hatred in the same way that people of color are, and who include offensive, hate-filled Jewish stereotyping in their criticism of Israel government policies regarding Palestinians.”
While Lipstadt emphasizes that criticizing the polices of the Israeli government is not necessarily an act of anti-Semitism, several sections of her book look at how the anti-Zionist discourse often “relies on anti-Semitic motifs or is simply a cover for anti-Semitism.” After elucidating such anti-Semitic rhetoric in Britain’s Labour Party, the book turns to the attacks on Jewish students and speakers by the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, and meanders into the muddy debate of free speech now raging on college campuses. Lipstadt’s “Abigail” is a progressive student who says she has been silenced at social justice meetings because she is a Jew. People assume she is pro-Israel and therefore condemn her for supporting white supremacy — a notion oblivious to the existence of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews, not to mention how actual white supremacists believe, as the Pittsburgh shooter did, that “Jews are the enemy of white people.”
One of the book’s most disheartening bits details how three leaders of the 2017 Women’s March — Linda Sarsour, Tamika D. Mallory and Carmen Perez — publicly supported anti-Semitic statements made by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and even made anti-Semitic statements themselves. Similarly, two freshman Democrats in Congress — Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib — have recently criticized Israel and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) by expressing anti-Semitic rhetoric, making offensive comments that reinforce stereotypical tropes about Jews and money. Omar has since apologized and acknowledged her “unknowing” use of anti-Semitic tropes. Even so, it is deeply discouraging that many on the left exhibit prejudice similar to what they condemn on the right; as the progressive Rabbi Sharon Brouse says, “You can’t fight racism but excuse anti-Semitism, just as you cannot fight anti-Semitism while excusing and justifying racism and Islamophobia.”
Lipstadt lays out a convincing case for being concerned about the recent explosion of anti-Semitism, but she also wants readers to appreciate how much America has changed. No longer do elite universities have quotas on Jewish students, for example. And anti-Semitic violence is still much more prevalent in Europe, where Jews are encouraged to cover their kippah and most synagogues are protected by police officers. We’re not there yet, at least.
The way to avoid getting there is for people on all sides of the political spectrum to examine their potential blind spots regarding anti-Semitism, Lispstadt argues, and “call out both friends and foes.” As Lipstadt writes, “The existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic, and multicultural society.” And so if we think ourselves to be liberal, or progressive, or simply decent, “we must insist that anti-Semitism be treated with the same seriousness as racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia.” How we do that is up to each of us, but this book is a good place to start.
By Deborah E. Lipstadt
288 pp. $25.95