Over the last decade there has been a noticeable uptick in antisemitic rhetoric and incidents by left-wing groups targeting Jewish students and Jewish organizations on American college campuses. And the reemergence of the white nationalist movement in America, complete with Nazi slogans and imagery, has been reminiscent of the horrific fascist displays of the 1930s. Throughout Europe, Jews have been attacked by terrorists, and some have been murdered.
Where is all this hatred coming from? Is there any significant difference between left-wing and right-wing antisemitism? What role has the anti-Zionist movement played? And what can be done to combat the latest manifestations of an ancient hatred? In a series of letters to an imagined college student and imagined colleague, both of whom are perplexed by this resurgence, acclaimed historian Deborah Lipstadt gives us her own superbly reasoned, brilliantly argued, and certain to be controversial responses to these troubling questions.
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A NOTE TO THE READER
This has been a challenging project. I was surprised by the difficulties I encountered in writing this book, for it was hardly my first foray into addressing painful topics. I have been writing, teaching, and speaking about the Shoah, one of the most all-encompassing examples of state-sponsored genocide, for decades. Given that I have already spent so much of my scholarly and personal time skulking in the sewers of antisemitism and genocide, why should this project have been any different from the many others that preceded it? The answer became clear as I wrote. As horrific as the Holocaust was, it is firmly in the past. When I write about it, I am writing about what was. Though I remain horrified by what happened, it is history. Contemporary antisemitism is not. It is about the present. It is what many people are doing, saying, and facing now. 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. Where are the troubling phenomena addressed here leading? And that question points to yet another difficulty. Most historians avoid speculating about the future. We eschew predictions because we know how quickly things can change. Often, those historians who have relied on their knowledge of the past to prognosticate have erred. And yet, when one writes about a contemporary problem, it is hard not to predict. Aware of this, I try very hard in this book to avoid doing so. After addressing some basics of the issue—defining antisemitism, categorizing the antisemite, and figuring out how best to spell the word—I try to unpack what it is we are witnessing. Is today’s antisemitism the same or different from what we have seen before? Where is it coming from: the right or the left? Is it, as some would contend, all about Israel? Are we seeing antisemitism where it is not? Are others refusing to see antisemitism where it clearly is?
While there seems to have been a decided increase in both physical acts and rhetorical expressions of antisemitism in recent years, our conversation should not be rooted in or motivated by numbers or by antisemitic acts. This would suggest that, if the numbers decrease, our worries should abate. I remember that during the 2000 American presidential campaign many Jews predicted that Al Gore’s selection of Joseph Lieberman as his running mate would precipitate a rise in antisemitism. It didn’t happen. Some pundits then opined that perhaps antisemitism was dead. They looked at the American social landscape and saw Jewish presidents presiding over universities that once had strict quotas. They saw Jews sitting on the boards of major corporations and being elected to public office from regions without a significant Jewish population. Even the skyrocketing rate of intermarriage, a source of angst within the Jewish community, could be spun into something positive. If so many non-Jews are so willing to have Jews in their families, how prevalent could antisemitism be? But today, antisemitism is “back.” (I am not sure it ever really went away.) An accurate accounting of the uptick in antisemitic incidents is important because it does provide necessary empirical evidence. Nonetheless, numbers should not be what drive us. What should alarm us is that human beings continue to believe in a conspiracy that demonizes Jews and sees them as responsible for evil. Antisemites continue to give life to this particular brand of age-old hatred. They justify it and the acts committed in its name. The historical consequences of this nefarious passion have been so disastrous that to ignore its contemporary manifestations would be irresponsible.
Another reason numbers should not drive us is that antisemitism is a worldview, a conspiracy theory. It therefore cannot simply be measured by the number of recorded antisemitic acts or by the number of people being categorized as antisemites. A recent study in Great Britain called the approach I have taken the “elastic” view of antisemitism. If Jew-hatred is an attitude, it exists, like all attitudes, “in society at different levels of intensity, and with different shades to it. . . . Some people may be strongly antisemitic, others less so; and while still others may not fit into either of these categories, they may still hold certain [antisemitic] attitudes—even if these are small in number and weak in intensity.”
Since antisemitism affects Jews, some readers may be inclined to think that only Jews should be concerned. That would be a mistake. Jews, as the intended target of the antisemite, may indeed be more sensitive to it. Such is the case with any expression of particular hatred and prejudice. But the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic, and multicultural society. It is axiomatic that if Jews are being targeted with hateful rhetoric and prejudice, other minorities should not feel immune; this is not likely to end with Jews. And, conversely, if other minority groups are being targeted with hatred and prejudice, Jews should not feel immune; this is not likely to end with these groups, either. Antisemitism flourishes in a society that is intolerant of others, be they immigrants or racial and religious minorities. When expressions of contempt for one group become normative, it is virtually inevitable that similar hatred will be directed at other groups. Like a fire set by an arsonist, passionate hatred and conspiratorial worldviews reach well beyond their intended target. They are not rationally contained. But even if the antisemites were to confine their venom to Jews, the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss. No healthy society harbors extensive antisemitism—or any other form of hatred.
. . .
I have organized this book as a series of letters to two fictional people with whom I have become “acquainted” at the university at which I teach. One is “Abigail,” a whip-smart Jewish student who has taken many of my courses and who is trying to understand the phenomenon of antisemitism. The other is “Joe,” a colleague who teaches at the university’s law school. A non-Jew, he has a deep appreciation for both the successes and travails of the Jewish people, and he counts some of his Jewish colleagues as his most important conversation partners on campus. Abigail and Joe are composites of many people who have turned to me during the past few years to express their confusion, worries, and distress about antisemitism in general and about what they are personally witnessing. They may be fictional figures, but the questions they ask and the concerns they express belong to very real people. I have structured the letters to reflect the situation as of summer 2018.
While the contemporary nature of the events discussed made this a challenging book to write, the pace of recent events made it an almost impossible book to finish. It seemed that every day a new development—the murder of a Holocaust survivor in Paris, elections in Hungary in which the winning side relied on overtly antisemitic tropes, a Polish law rewriting the history of the Holocaust, white power demonstrations in the United States, campus anti-Israel campaigns that easily morphed into expressions of antisemitism, Labour Party antisemitism in the United Kingdom, the growing resiliency of white supremacist groups, and so much more—demanded analysis and inclusion in this work. Sadly, given the unending saga that is antisemitism, I feel comfortable predicting that by the time this book appears there will have been new examples of antisemitism that should have been part of the narrative.
Some readers may find themselves agreeing with me at one point and being outraged by what I say at another. Irrespective of my readers’ positions on various issues, I ask that they read with nuance, the same nuance with which I have tried to write. Some may think that I have either exaggerated or understated the severity of the situation. Some may accuse me of finding antisemitism at the “wrong” end of the political spectrum. Should some consider me too willing to see the glass as half empty and others consider me too willing to see it as half full, I (ever the contrarian) will then assume my analysis is just right.
I know from personal experience how easy it is to make pronouncements and to declare others wrong, particularly when the subject is so disturbing. I have tried hard to avoid doing that here. I have attempted, as much as possible, to set my passions aside and see matters with a scholar’s analytical perspective. But we are who we are. I cannot, therefore, claim to have been totally dispassionate about what I have encountered. I have tried to avoid writing a call to arms or a cri de coeur, but I recognize that on some level this book is precisely that. It is written with the conviction that action starts with understanding, which will be applied differently by different people in different circumstances. My attempt to explore a perplexing and disturbing set of circumstances is written with the hope that it will provoke action. What precisely that action is remains in the hands of the reader.
Table of Contents
A Note to the Reader ix
I. Antisemitism: A Conversation
The Perplexed 3
A Delusion 7
A Definition 11
A Spelling 22
II. A Taxonomy of the Antisemite
The Extremist: From the Streets to the Internet 29
Beyond the Extremist 42
Antisemitic Enablers 44
The Dinner Party Antisemite 68
The Clueless Antisemite 76
III. Contextualizing Antisemitism
A Cognitive Failure? 83
Delegitimizing Antisemitism: Jews Can’t Be Victims 90
Antisemitism and Racism: The Same Yet Different 96
A Time to Panic? 101
IV. “Yes, But”: Rationalizing Evil
The Ominous Case of Salman Rushdie 113
Pixilating the Problem 119
Parisian Tragedies 125
V. Holocaust Denial: From Hard-core to Soft-core
A Matter of Antisemitism, Not History 139
Inverting Victims and Perpetrators 146
Branding Victims as Collaborators 152
De-Judaizing the Holocaust 156
VI. The Campus and Beyond
Toxifying Israel 167
BDS: Antisemitism or Politics? 177
Campus Groupthink: Not-So-Safe Zones 184
Progressivism and Zionism: Antisemitism by Subterfuge? 192
Responding to the Progressive “Critique” 205
Myopia: Seeing Antisemitism Only on the Other Side 211
VII. Oy versus Joy: Rejecting Victimhood
Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Dental School and a Fraternity 225
Speaking Truth to Friends: Beyond Victimhood 234
Celebrating the Good in the Face of the Bad 239