Deborah E. Lipstadt, 68, is an esteemed author and scholar and the Dorot professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, with a Ph.D from Brandeis who seems to invest all of her considerable knowledge into the polished art of rational thinking. What could possibly be wrong with that?
It’s not that I expected Lipstadt to be anyone other than who she is. I didn’t suppose she would possess the biting wit of Larry David, which he wields ingeniously to mock those who refuse to accept Jews despite their protestations to the contrary. Nor did I anticipate that Lipstadt would have the ferocious moxie of Sarah Silverman, whose eerie dry quips about the Holocaust resonate seismically. Nor did I imagine Lipstadt would discuss Jewish affairs with the artificial lightheartedness Jon Stewart used to, that quickly cut to the bone.
Lipstadt is a historian; moderate by nature. She seems to resist extreme thinking. The question really has already become something else entirely. Is a straight-laced historian intent on lecturing about antisemitism - as she does her latest book Antisemitism: Here and Now - to two imaginary friends, a colleague and a student of hers, which she insists are composite characters derived from people she has known, really the best way to get our attention? In our new world of Twitter and Facebook and other social media platforms that allow arguments to ping-pong across continents with the speed of light, this might not have been the best way to get her arguments across.
Lipstadt’s goal in this new work is to look at the “new” antisemitism that is spreading around the globe and offer us her interpretations.
“It is what many people are doing, saying, and facing now,” she writes. “That gave this subject an immediacy that no historical act possesses. But it is not just about the present. It is also about the future.”
She continues by explaining that she wants to examine whether today’s antisemitism is the same or different from what we have seen before; to figure out where it is coming from; and is all or just part of it about Israel. She wants to understand its durability and what is behind it. She writes that although she hopes her assertions will provoke action, this is not a call to arms.
Well, why the heck not? If not now, then when? And if not by researchers as learned as Lipstadt, then who?
Still, one finishes this short work slightly let down by Lipstadt’s presentation of antisemitism, which she has determined is nothing more than a “conspiracy theory,” and therefore, difficult to contend with since the people perpetuating these disgusting theories don’t deal in facts and are therefore undebatable. These haters, she claims, deal with distortions and cannot be reached. End of story.
Perhaps. But there seems to be a lot more there that might be worthy of serious contemplation that she seems reticent to examine, and this hurts her analysis.
She is certain there have been new and dangerous signals during the last decade on both the Left and the Right; particularly in America. This new antisemitism disturbs her because it uses new modes of trickery and deception to hide its heinous agenda.
“What should alarm us is that human beings continue to believe in a conspiracy that demonizes Jews and sees them as responsible for evil,” she writes. “Antisemites continue to give life to this particular brand of age-old hatred. They justify it and the acts committed to its name. The historical consequences of this nefarious passion have been so disastrous that to ignore its contemporary manifestations would be irresponsible.”
Lipstadt answers a letter written by her imaginary student Abigail. Abigail complains to her to her about feeling confused while hanging out with her non-Jewish friends who criticize Jews freely in her presence. Lipstadt advises her to tell her friends about how Jews in Brussels and Paris and other European capitals must now take precautions while walking the streets; like wearing a baseball cap to cover their yarmulke in order not to get harassed. She tells her to try to influence her friends to recognize the problems they can’t seem to see. I would tell Abigail to pick other friends.
Lipstadt’s colleague Joe writes that he is confused by antisemitism. She tells him that “It is hard, if not impossible, to explain something that is essentially irrational, delusional and absurd. That is the nature of conspiracy theories, of which antisemitism is just one…” Due to the complexity of the subject this deserved more.
She discusses the Charlottesville rally where neo-Nazis chanted, “The Jews will not replace us,” and Trump’s refusal to condemn them. She concedes how this type of rhetoric confirms antisemitic tropes. But then claims that she believes Trump has no contempt for Jews; he is merely tone-deaf. Just like Jeremy Corbyn. She adds that although these men are powerful figures who enable antisemitic discourse, they probably do not hate Jews. What meaning can that possibly have?
German antisemitism disturbs Lipstadt. In a recent examination of more than 150,000 texts sent that were related to media coverage of the Middle East and included the names and addresses of the senders, 60% of middle-class Germans believed in all of the “classic antisemitic stereotypes, including Jews as murderers of little children, shylocks, traitors, liars.” The terms “Jews” and “Israelis” were used interchangeably so that “Jews are the evil in the world” morphed quickly into “Israel is the evil in the world.”
Lipstadt has spent decades immersed in this realm. Some readers might recall that in 1995 she withstood the rigors of a vicious battle with Holocaust denier David Irving, which she wrote about in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Her father was a salesman who came to New York from Germany during the Depression. She was raised in a Modern Orthodox home, and has written beautifully about her reverence for her childhood rabbi. She admits she still loves Yom Kippur because it provides her with a yearly catharsis that leaves her feeling transformed. Today, she says she feels more comfortable attending more egalitarian services.
In this latest work, her prose often feels as if she has left herself out of it. We don’t sense her presence in the book and her imaginary characters remain just that; imaginary. We are left feeling like there would have been other, more effective ways, to approach us. Her refusal to show us how personally hurt she is by the resurgence and endurability of Jewish hatred doesn’t strengthen her text. Had she done so, it would have given her book more force.
I prefer fury. Or at least writing that engages Jews to fight back. To really fight back. The Holocaust Museum in Washington claims that nothing influences someone as much as hearing the direct personal testimony of a Holocaust survivor on videotape. It is impossible to negate. Etgar Keret has written about his shock and horror while on a book tour in Budapest when a man in a bar bragged to him about how his grandfather had killed 300 Jews during the Holocaust and how he hoped to be able one day to do the same by killing more Jews. David Grossman knew he could not understand himself as a man or a father or even an Israeli until he tackled the Holocaust in writing. Harold Bloom has claimed that the Jew is perpetually on trial in the world in the world’s perception of the Israeli. Elie Wiesel struggled with how to possibly teach his students about the Jewish past, which he claimed was a past that not only defies knowledge but was filled with experiences that go beyond imagination.
All of these thinkers understood that confusion and bewilderment and rage were as essential to tackling the Jewish problem as any sort of academic definitions about cause and effect. Sadly, a 2018 study showed that 31% of Americans believed that two million Jews were killed in the Holocaust instead of the six million that were killed, while 41% can’t say what Auschwitz was.
Lipstadt’s intentions are to shed light. She wants to do the right thing and has devoted a lifetime of study to doing so, but the world doesn’t stop and reflect in the same manner it used to. Serious thinkers, like Lipstadt, have to reinvent the way they deliver their messages; they have to be willing to put more of themselves in the story. It isn’t that I want Lipstadt to fall prey to false messaging. But I would like her to consider the reality that her audience has changed and she must reach them in new and invigorating ways that might push her beyond her own comfort zone.