Deborah Lipstadt: Antisemitism is like herpes, it never goes away

Colette Avital explained that while “Holocaust denial was a blunt attempt to say, for example, that there have been no gas chambers, the distortion of history is more subtle and perhaps less noted.”

Holocaust expert and historian Deborah Lipstadt speaks at the New Antisemitism, Holocaust denial and rewriting history conference earlier this week (photo credit: ISRAEL MALOVANI)
Holocaust expert and historian Deborah Lipstadt speaks at the New Antisemitism, Holocaust denial and rewriting history conference earlier this week
(photo credit: ISRAEL MALOVANI)
Deborah Lipstadt sat in a chair next to the window on the 16th floor, a book in her hand, her glasses resting on her nose as she turned the page.
“I’m reading about the Nazis,” she said, as I walked into the Renaissance Hotel in Tel Aviv.
The world-renowned historian, Holocaust expert and author was in Israel for a conference entitled “New Antisemitism, Holocaust denial and rewriting history,” organized by the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel and Yad Vashem, with the support of the Ministry for Social Equality.
Famous for winning a legal battle against Holocaust denier David Irving, Lipstadt told The Jerusalem Post that as a young woman she initially “had no interest in studying Holocaust denial.”
She explained that she grew up in New York on the Upper West Side and Queens, “in a Modern Orthodox family, with the stress on modern.”
“We were Shomrei Shabbat and kashrut and all that, but we were very much in this world with culture and all sorts of things – not an isolated existence at all.”
Spending her junior year abroad in Israel in 1966-1967, she was here during the Six Day War.
“I came and I was here in the summer of  ’67, June ’67,” she recalled. “It was life changing in many respects. It connected me to Israel in a way. I was certainly connected to Israel after my year here, but I felt really strongly connected as a result of that.
“I always thought I’d come to Israel on aliyah. But then I went to graduate school and one thing leads to another, and I wasn’t sure what I’d do here if I came, so I went into the field of teaching Jewish history.”
Lipstadt added that there was a second turning point in her life that strengthened her interest in the Holocaust and her connection to Israel.
“When I was in graduate school in 1972, I made a trip to the Soviet Union,” she said, explaining that she was sent by an Israeli-run operation to visit refuseniks – Jews that were forbidden to immigrate to Israel from the Soviet Union.
“I was there at the very beginning of the refusenik movement, and it was really an amazing experience. So that also connected me in a way to the Shoah and Israel as well.”
After moving from one field to another, she was approached by Holocaust scholars and historians Yehuda Bauer and Yisrael Gutman, who suggested that she research Holocaust denial.
“I thought it was a ridiculous,” she recalled. “I laughed… I said ‘Who’s interested in Holocaust denial?’ But they thought it was important, and when two prominent historians of that regard think something’s important, you do it.”
Little did Lipstadt know that studying this subject would shape the rest of her life.
In the late 1980s, Bauer and Gutman asked her to do a project on Holocaust denial, which they highlighted was a form of antisemitism.
“I was given a fellowship… and I spent two years doing it. It changed my life.”
Lipstadt said that antisemitism has never gone away.
“After the Holocaust, it was so politically incorrect to have antisemitic views, so it went underground a bit, but it never went away,” she said. “But there is no difference between antisemitism then and now. It’s been around for thousands of years.
“I compare antisemitism to the herpes virus. It never goes away. Herpes thrives, and comes out under several conditions: stress and hospitable conditions, like when you have an infection, which gives the virus space to breed, and then it will spread – from one person to another.”
Lipstadt said that these conditions today allow for antisemitism to breed.
“Stress, economic stress, social stress and cultural stress. It’s not just a matter that antisemitism is coming from the poor. That’s too simplistic and it’s wrong... in that you have leaders of countries... who are willing to stir it up, who are willing to stir up divisions... When you have division, it results in a fracturing of society and that’s when people look for groups to blame for their problems, and that often leads to antisemitism.”
She also made it clear that “people are not born antisemites,” adding that today “we are in the perfect storm” with antisemitism coming from the political Left, political Right, Islamist extremists and segments of the Islamic community who may not be antisemitic, but they have been brought up to believe that “Jews are evil.”
Lipstadt also emphasized the role of social media in the rise of antisemitism.
“Social media makes it possible to spread ideas,” she continued. “In the past, if I had an idea, I would tell five people, and they would then tell five other people, and over time it would maybe reach 300 people, but with social media, I can reach 10,000 people in a few minutes.”
Asked about recent comments by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez comparing migrant internment camps on the southern border of the US to Nazi concentration camps, Lipstadt said that this was “historically inaccurate.”
“Debating if the separation of children is akin to the Holocaust allows those who are forcibly separating parents and children off the hook. It is horrible. It’s despicable. It's unforgivable but it's not a Holocaust," she said, "I find American policy on refugees to be degrading, to be mean, to be separate children from their parents is horrifying...but I think the use of the terms 'concentration camps' to describe this is misplaced and inaccurate."
Lipstadt also emphasized that we shouldn’t be giving antisemites a platform.
“Let’s not make them into too big a thing. We fall right into the pach [garbage]” she said, referring to antisemitic comments made by Women’s March leader Linda Sarsour and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
“Not to put down that they’re not dangerous. If they’re not antisemites, they give common cause to antisemitism,” she stressed.
Asked if there is any threat of deniers influencing the next generation, she explained that “for Holocaust deniers, all the survivors, bystanders and perpetrators have to be wrong. They have no evidence that the Holocaust didn’t happen, and they have no narrative. It’s complete idiocy and it’s ridiculous.”
As this generation continues to lose Holocaust survivors to old age, Lipstadt said that the next generation can be educated through the thousands of historians who have dedicated their lives to studying this subject, and video testimonies from survivors.
“Show them my Ted Talk,” she added with a smile.
Following the interview, the Post spoke with Colette Avital, chairwoman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors, who shared that "we are deeply concerned” about the rise of antisemitism worldwide.
Avital said that this week, the Holocaust survivors umbrella organization hosted a the “New Antisemitism, Holocaust denial and rewriting history,” to bring this issue and that of Holocaust denial to the forefront.
“Antisemitism is no longer inspired by governments as in the past,” she explained. “Quite to the contrary, we must take note of the efforts and the resources that governments and international bodies invest in the struggle against antisemitism.”
However, she said, “We are witnessing the growth of an equally pernicious phenomenon – the consistent attempts, mainly in Eastern European countries, to rewrite and embellish their history. Basically the leaders of these countries do not want to acknowledge the part that their populations played in the murder of the European Jews. [They] claim that they have actually been the victims.”
Avital explained that while “Holocaust denial was a blunt attempt to say, for example, that there have been no gas chambers, the distortion of history is more subtle and perhaps less noted.”
This trend is not only harmful because these countries avoid taking responsibility, but because this is what the next generations will be told.
She stressed that Holocaust education is critical for the next generation.
“It is precisely because antisemitism is so deeply rooted, and has not disappeared, that education on diversity, pluralism and tolerance is so important,” she continued. “Equally important is the responsible and correct teaching of history, including the Holocaust, if we want the next generation of citizens to be less violent and more humane.”