'Antisemitism: Here And Now' Author Discusses Resurgence Of Public Anti-Semitism

Feb 17, 2019
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

When torch-bearing demonstrators marched in Charlottesville, Va., chanting Jews will not replace us, was it anti-Semitism? Of course. And when a gunman killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue, how could it have been anything else? But what about when President Trump hesitated to condemn those same Charlottesville protesters? Or when a newly elected congresswoman suggests that money from a pro-Israel lobby controls politicians? And what about supporting boycotts to influence Israeli government policy? Those are the kinds of issues and questions Deborah Lipstadt takes on in her latest book "Antisemitism: Here And Now."

Now, Lipstadt might be best known outside of history circles for her successful fight against a Holocaust denier, who sued her for libel, a story that was captured in the motion picture "Denial." Now, after spending her professional life studying the Holocaust, she is asking whether anti-Semitism presents a threat to Jews in the U.S. and Europe now. I spoke with Deborah Lipstadt last week. She joined us from Emory University in Atlanta, where she teaches modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies.

DEBORAH LIPSTADT: I started writing the book at the end of 2015, and I finished the book in - beginning of September 2018. And the last thing I did before I hit Send to my editor was add a paragraph right there in the introduction that, though I don't usually engage in predictions, I'm willing to predict that, by the time this book appears, something will have happened that should've been included. And then came Pittsburgh.

MARTIN: That's very sobering.

LIPSTADT: It is. The whole thing is sobering.

MARTIN: It is. You construct it as a series of letters to and from a fictional student and a fictional professor at Emory University, where you teach. But one of the recurring questions about - is about criticism of Israel on campuses and whether that is necessarily anti-Semitic. So I'll ask you about a story that's in the headlines now. It's about a - Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Did she cross the line by tweeting that American politicians support Israel because they're paid by the pro-Israel lobby?

LIPSTADT: Well, it was not - I think she did cross the line. Whether she knew she was crossing the line or not is a question that's open to a lot of debate, and people are discussing it. But it was not just that she said it, but the way she said it was very jarring. And I think there was a crossing of the line. She apologized. She apologized very profusely, but it left a lot of people rattled.

MARTIN: One of the other things that you consider in the book is something that's also very much, well, it's in and out of the news, which is this whole question about how one can appropriately question Israeli government policies and whether those objections or criticisms cross the line. I'm thinking here about the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. You're arguing that BDS's real objective isn't boycotts or divestiture but the toxification of Israel. Obviously, it's a complex topic. What I wanted to ask you is that - what then can people do if they have objections to policy, you know? What should they do?

LIPSTADT: They should speak them out (laughter), you know? Objections to policies is not anti-Semitism. But what happens is when you have a myopic view, that the only problem you see in the whole world is Israel's questionable-at-times treatment of the Palestinians, that's the only country you're calling to boycott. What about China? What about Myanmar? What about Saudi Arabia? Or when you talk about wrongs that were committed in the establishment of the state of Israel - and there were definitely wrongs. We know that.

But when someone says to me, and therefore, you know, there shouldn't be in Israel because look how it was born and what happened, I say, you know, let's talk about other countries that did wrongs in their creation. And we can start right with the United States and Native Americans or slavery. My point is that it becomes this myopic view of only looking at Israel and holding Israel up to a different standard. And then, you have to wonder why.

MARTIN: You write, extensively - of course, we've mentioned the massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue last fall. You also write, extensively, about the attacks against French Jews and authoritarian leaders in Poland and Hungary are striking chords that are resonating with anti-Semitism. The question I have is - why this and why now? What's your take on that?

LIPSTADT: I think there are a number of things going on. Right after the Pittsburgh massacre, I was interviewed - I believe was by The New York Times. And I described anti-Semitism. And it's an ugly description, but anti-Semitism is ugly as a herpes virus because it comes out when there's moments of tension. Anti-Semitism has been rightfully called the longest or the oldest hatred, and it often comes out in moments of tension, economic dislocation, political dislocation.

I think another factor is you have leaders who play to a certain populism, nationalism - I'm not decrying patriotism, I consider myself a very patriotic American - but who play to a base - I think, to a certain extent, we see it in this country, and we see it in other countries as well - and whip it up with rhetoric that divides, with rhetoric that inculcates hatred. The murderer in Pittsburgh - yes, people on the right often tell me he was mad at President Trump. Well, he was mad at President Trump because President Trump hadn't gone far enough to protect the white nation from this horde of refugees streaming towards this country, infiltrating this country.

And, finally, and last and far from least, you have social media. Social media is great. I don't think you could do your job, I couldn't have written this book without relying on social media and search engines and the Internet. But I often think of social media as a knife. A knife in the hands of a killer is a weapon. A knife in the hands of a surgeon can save your life. So we have this now that where racists and anti-Semites, they wanted to find each other across national lines. They don't have to exchange letters in brown paper envelopes to PO boxes. Now they just flip on the Internet and they find it right away.

MARTIN: Before I let you go, can I ask, how do you avoid taking this in to yourself? You are a scholar of the Holocaust. I mean, you've been dwelling in the worst of human behavior for so long and yet you retain this sense of kind of joy and optimism, which I think anybody can hear who listens to you. How do you do that?

LIPSTADT: How do I do that? Well, first of all, I know that if I descend into the morass and emotionally descend, my work is no good. Then I become a polemicist, and I become someone, you know, who is engaging in emotional harangues. And that doesn't help matters. Taking off my academic hat and putting on, I guess, my yarmulke, you know, figuratively. As a Jew, I don't want my Jewish identity to ever be based on this sense of victimhood. To think that we were put on this world only to fight anti-Semitism is to, first of all, cede to the oppressor control over our identity and also to cheat ourselves out of so much that is positive.

MARTIN: That was historian Deborah Lipstadt talking about her latest book, "Antisemitism: Here And Now." She's professor of modern Jewish history and holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta. Professor Lipstadt, thank you so much for talking to us once again.

LIPSTADT: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.