“ We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.”
Martin Buber, I and Thou
Antisemitism: Here and Now is clearly a very personal book. You’ve written many academic books; what inspired you to write this book?
DEL: I have long been one of those who felt that Jews, particularly but not only in the United States, have overemphasized the threat of antisemitism. They were more inclined to see the glass as half empty than more than half full. Fundraising campaigns for both domestic and overseas Jewish causes seem to emphasize the negative. While what they were saying was factual, it bothered me that they seemed to ignore the fact that, in many respects, Jewish life has never been better. That doesn’t mean that the antisemitism was not real. It was. But we seemed to be losing sight of the good as we emphasized the bad.
Yet about five years ago, I noted increased expressions and acts of antisemitism, first on the political left and then on the political right. Something was changing. It also seemed to me that many observers and analysts were not taking the problem seriously. Maybe I was wrong. I did not know. So, I did what academics do when they see a problem that perplexes them: write a book.
Deborah, can you describe an incident of antisemitism in your own life that made you question society in a profound way? I have encountered those small acts of antisemitism, the ones that make something in your brain go “Click.”
DEL: My first teaching job after graduate school was at the University of Washington. I was the first Jewish studies professor on the faculty. A few months after my arrival, I was having coffee with a colleague from the history department. He offered me what he thought was a sincere compliment. “When we heard that a Jewish woman from New York was applying for the job, we were all very wary. But we were wrong. You are a terrific colleague.” I smiled, thanked him, and thought “You have no idea what a bigoted statement that was.” Today I probably would not have kept silent. I hope I could have dredged up some witty — but piercing — comeback.
The most profound and direct form of antisemitism that I encountered occurred when I was on trial in London after Holocaust denier David Irving accused me of libel. As I entered and left the courtroom, his supporters would whisper antisemitic cracks or send me anonymous – their bravery never fails to underwhelm — notes: “Jewish bitch. Die.” Seething, I had to sit in court listening to his snide antisemitic comments.
Truth be told, I find the first example more disturbing than the second. That may sound strange. But it is very true. And I hope that readers of this book will understand why.
In the book, you offer definitions of antisemitism, some critical dates in the development of antisemitism, and even discuss the multiple spellings of antisemitism. Some believe that antisemitism is as old as the Bible. How old do you think antisemitism is?
DEL: As I argue in the book, it goes back to the way the story of the death of Jesus has been taught by many church leaders for millennia. It has shown a remarkable ability to mutate and adapt to new situations. Irrespective of whether it is expressed by religious leaders (Christians, Muslims), political leaders (socialists, communists, liberals, Nazis, right wing conservatives, and others), or “societal” groups (country clubs, schools, universities, residential neighborhoods, and others), it always contains the same elements: Jews seek power. They will use their “smarts” for their own benefit even if it harms millions of others. And their “god is money.”
You wrote this book as someone deeply involved in campus life. In the book, you share correspondence with two fictional characters: a non-Jewish law professor named Joe who is curious and troubled, and a Jewish student named Abigail who is confused. They both struggle with BDS, the notion that Zionism is racism, the repurposing of WWII history, and the difficulty posed both by the political right and the left. Is it harder to be a Jewish college student today than when you went to university?
DEL: I think it really depends on what university a student attends. Large public universities, those with large graduate schools, tend to demonstrate stronger and harsher expression of anti-Israel and anti-Zionism. Often these attitudes morph into purebred antisemitism. But at the same time, it is crucial to remember that in many respects Jewish life on campus is thriving. Every major university has a Hillel and, often, a Chabad house. Every major university or college has a Jewish studies program, programs that are vibrant and attract both Jewish and non-Jewish students. This was not the case when I was in school.
Tell us about the letter structure you chose since this is your first book with an epistolary style. Was it easier or harder to write than your other books? While we’re on the topic, you sign Joe’s and Abigail’s letters with their first names but yours with your initials DEL. Is there a reason?
DEL: These days, I tend to sign most emails and personal letters DEL. Using that moniker also resolved the problem of signing my letters to Joe with “Deborah” and my letters to Abigail with “Professor Lipstadt” or “Deborah Lipstadt.” (I don’t think students and teachers should be on a first-name basis. I may be old-fashioned in that regard, but so be it.) So DEL it was!
Your middle name is Esther. You’ve been called a modern-day Esther. You took on Holocaust denier David Irving and won in court – a mesmerizing story captured in your book History on Trial and the movie Denial. Do you find yourself channeling the biblical Esther in your work?
DEL: I think it would be a bit egotistical to claim to channel Esther, or Deborah for that matter. But, in Jewish tradition, we give children names to link them to previous generations and previous figures in Jewish life. We do that in order to honor those who are no longer alive and to inspire the child to emulate the characteristics of the person after whom they are named. I sort of feel that way.
On the day the verdict in my trial was handed down, I returned to my hotel late at night to find hundreds of emails. One of them simply said: Book of Esther 4:14. This is the point in the story where Esther tells Mordechai that she cannot go see the king without being summoned. Otherwise, she might be killed. Mordechai, impatient with her concern about her own fate rather than the fate of her people, admonished her: “Who knows if not for this reason you became Queen?” Sometimes, when I reflect on what has happened to me, most particularly the trial, the movie Denial, and now this book, which appears at such a crucial and difficult moment for Jews, I think back on that verse.
Who knows??? If not for this….. I hope it does not sound too egotistical to say, it gives a certain purpose to my life.
You are the product of a strong Jewish day school education and Jewish summer camps. You spent your junior year abroad in Israel in 1967, a seminal year in Israel’s history. For a person who is both cheerful and immersed in the positive aspects of Jewish life, why did you become a historian of the Holocaust?
DEL: Many years ago, Yehuda Bauer told me the following story. He had started his academic career as a historian of the Yishuv, the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine. One day Abba Kovner, the leader of the Vilna ghetto resistance and one of Israel’s most beloved poets, said to him, “What is the most significant thing to happen to the Jewish people in the 20th century?” Bauer said, “The establishment of the state of Israel and the Shoah, which took the life of one out of every three Jews alive.” Kovner admonished him: “There are many who are studying the history of Israel. There are virtually none who are studying the Shoah. That must be your topic.”
Several times in the book, you stress that antisemitism cannot be the sum total of one’s Jewish experience or perspective. Why do you think Jewish identity for so many is anchored in someone else’s hate rather than in the warm embrace of a vibrant Jewish life?
DEL: Hate, prejudice, and persecution are the great equalizers.
You need not be an educated or identifying Jew to be the subject of oppression. The Germans did not distinguish between highly identifying Jews and totally assimilated ones when they gathered their prey. (In fact, they thought of assimilated Jews, i.e. those Jews who could not be easily identified as Jews, as more dangerous than Jews who could be easily identified. Assimilated Jews could, the Nazis argued, more easily do their evil deeds without being noticed.) One does not have to know anything about Jewish tradition to know that I or my family can be the objects of hatred.
You make an important distinction between antisemites and antisemitism, asking your readers to fight antisemitism while not elevating “its purveyors.” Can you help readers better understand this distinction?
DEL: This is a big challenge. How do you fight discrimination and hatred without making the purveyor of that hatred seem to be more important than they are? In the book I mention what my lawyer Anthony Julius told me shortly before my trial. “Think of fighting David Irving as you would of cleaning the shit in which you stepped off your shoes. The dirt has no intrinsic importance but you must get it off your feet and not drag it into the house. If you do the latter and get it into the carpet and on the floors, you will be in real trouble.” Antisemites, racists, homophobes, and the like are low lifes. We must fight them – clean them off our feet — without making them seem very important.
Having said that, I acknowledge how difficult it is. During my trial, my legal team made David Irving look absurd in the courtroom. He was repeatedly caught in lies, prevarications, and misquotations. Simply put, he looked silly.
In truth, it wasn’t anything we did to him. It was what he did to himself. Even when the evidence showed that his argument was completely false, he refused to retreat. We boxed him in with the truth. His so-called evidence never proved his claims. In fact, at one point the judge admonished Irving that the document he had in front of him and was questioning one of our experts about did not say what he said it said. He ended up, in my opinion, looking like the court jester, sort of pathetic.
Currently many Jews and non-Jews are appalled by the likes of the Reverend Louis Farrakhan, who regularly demeans Jews and LGBTQ people. In many respects, he is a “has-been,” someone of no real importance. We must find a way of fighting him without building him up in significance.
In the book’s introductory note, you write that this book is your “attempt to explore a perplexing and disturbing set of circumstances…written with the hope that it will provoke action.” What specific action/s would you like the book to provoke that will make you feel that the book has had genuine impact?
DEL: I don’t have an all-encompassing checklist for readers, i.e. do precisely this, that, or the other. I wish I did. But I do think there are certain steps that anyone who wants to fight prejudice, in this case antisemitism, can do.
It is crucial that today Jew and non-Jew not keep silent in the face of hatred and prejudice. We must challenge everyone – wisely and adeptly – when they engage in any form of prejudice, including antisemitism. Even if the person making the comment is someone we “love” or a member of our family and the gathering is a festive one (Thanksgiving dinner, Seder), we must speak out. We must do so, not for the sake of the hater, but for the other people – especially the young ones – around the table. We must telegraph two messages to them:
We virulently disagree with such comments.
We don’t remain silent in the face of prejudice and hatred for the “sake of peace.”
But we must do so wisely and strategically. As angry as we may be, we must respond in a fashion that, rather than reveal our anger, shows the person making the comment to be the bigot, hater, or idiot that they are.
We must differentiate between an asinine antisemitic comment and something that is just asinine.
It is not sufficient to say, “I know it when I see it.” We must be prepared to teach, explain, and enlighten. We must be prepared to explain to the truly unenlightened why their comment is antisemitic or is founded on antisemitic imagery, such as Section II/Letter #5, in which Abigail tells me of an incident where she, the only Jew in the conversation, is told that there is a place for bargains.
We must especially challenge those on the same side of the political transom as us. Since I began writing this book and publishing related articles, posting items on Facebook, or tweeting about it, I have been repeatedly struck by how many people see antisemitism only on the other side of the political transom. Some just ignore what is right next to them. They are quick to blame the other side. Recently, some Facebook commenter, who proudly describes herself as a supporter of the right, made the absurd argument that the shooter in Pittsburgh had been encouraged to do what he did by antisemitism on the left. Those on the left ignore the overt antisemitism in their midst but are apoplectic about antisemitism among the populist right.
We must carefully differentiate between criticisms of Israeli policies and a critique that is antisemitic. Sometimes the line between the two is blurry. But if we malign someone as engaging in antisemitism when they are not, we lose our ability to criticize them when that criticism is legitimate.
And finally, we must never let the OY become the defining principle of our lives. Judaism is far too rich and vibrant a tradition for us to make it into something solely of sadness and persecution.