Antisemitism: Here and Now – A Study and Teaching Guide

By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Study and Teaching Guide By Erica Brown

Antisemitism: Here and Now

A Chapter-by-Chapter Study Guide

“The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda.”

Martin Buber, I and Thou

A Note to the Reader:

…the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic, and multicultural society…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.” [page xi]

  1. Lipstadt opens the book with the observation “This has been a challenging project.” For a historian of the Holocaust, why would a book on antisemitism be more difficult to write than one on the Shoah?
  2. According to Lipstadt, why shouldn’t a conversation on antisemitism be driven by either increasing or decreasing numbers of antisemitic acts?
  3. What is an “elastic” view of antisemitism?

I. Antisemitism: A Conversation

Letter #1: The Perplexed

I feel comfortable as a Jew, except maybe when Israel is the topic of discussion.” [page 4]

  1. Why is Abigail, a Jewish college student, hesitant and confused in this first letter to her professor?
  2. Abigail cites the canard that Jews must be in some way responsible for antisemitism since it has persisted for so long. As you read the book, variations of this myth will come up multiple times. How does Lipstadt confront it?
  3. Joe, Lipstadt’s fictional, non-Jewish university colleague, also struggles with the rise of hate generally and the stubbornness of antisemitism in society. What does he not fully understand?

Letter #2: A Delusion

It is hard, if not impossible, to explain something that is essentially irrational, delusional, and absurd.” [page 7]

  1. How does antisemitism fit into the context of a conspiracy theory?
  2. What does a “self-sealing quality” mean and how does antisemitism have this feature?
  3. In this chapter, we come upon the first of several jokes that Lipstadt shares with her readers in the course of the book. There have been several books written on the relationship of Jews to humor – making jokes as a way to cope with suffering. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor E. Frankl writes of his concentration camp experience: “There were songs, poems, jokes, some with underlying satire regarding the camp. All were meant to help us forget, and they did help.” Do you think there is a relationship between being Jewish and being funny?

Letter #3: A Definition

If you cannot define something, you cannot address it or fight it.” [page 15]

  1. Abigail asks Lipstadt “Can someone be an unintentional antisemite?” Based on Lipstadt’s response, what do you think?
  2. The expression attributed to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin that “an antisemite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary” is itself perplexing. What does Berlin mean by this?
  3. Consider two formal definitions of antisemitism that Lipstadt shares in this letter. What differences do you detect between them? Which resonates more with you and why?

“A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” [emphasis added] [page 15]

International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance

“A persisting latent structure of hostile belief towards Jews as a collectivity manifested in individuals as attitudes, and in culture as myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and in actions – social or legal discrimination, political mobilization against Jews, and collective or state violence – which results in and/or is designed to distance, displace, or destroy Jews as Jews.” [emphasis in original] [pages 15-16]

Helen Fein

Letter #4: A Spelling

Rarely has so much meaning been vested in a hyphen and an uppercase letter.” [page 22]

  1. Spell-check (and the Oxford English Dictionary) offers only one correct spelling of “antisemitism” and it is not the one Lipstadt uses throughout the book. Why does Lipstadt insist on using one that is all lowercase and without a hyphen?
  2. There is an important subcontext for the spelling of “antisemitism” that Lipstadt shares with Abigail and Joe. What are the three faulty assumptions behind the word “Semitic” that Lipstadt points out?
  3. In “Antisemitism: No Hyphen” from Why?: Explaining the Holocaust, Peter Hayes writes that Wilhelm Marr, who created the word antisemitism, wanted a term that was “an abstract, pseudoscientific euphemism” that would
    1. differentiate Jews authoritatively from everyone else,
    2. root their difference in their very nature and thought processes, and thus
    3. assert that opposition to Jews was not a mere prejudice, but a response to a demonstrable reality that had to be dealt with politically.

What does Hayes mean by “not a mere prejudice” but something bigger than that?

Did it work? Can you think of other linguistic examples where a euphemism not only described or manipulated a condition but actually was responsible for perpetuating a falsehood?

II. A Taxonomy of the Antisemite

Letter #1: The Extremist: From the Streets to the Internet

…easy ahistorical analogies to the Holocaust and Nazism cheapen the genocidal actions of the Germans and often create an unwarranted angst among people today.” [page 30]

  1. Abigail wants to understand what the uptick in antisemitic incidents means, while finding a way to respond to friends who believe that “all the concerns about antisemitism today are overblown.” What would you say to her friends?
  2. Lipstadt offers “coded” expressions that can be decoded as antisemitism. Name a few that she mentions. How is antisemitism both similar to and different from other forms of racism?
  3. Extremists, in Lipstadt’s portrait, “tend to proliferate during times when there is populist resentment against what is regarded as an ‘elite’ class of people – usually highly educated men and women with liberal political and social views.” If that is the case, why are we seeing a resurgence of antisemitism now?

Letter #2: Beyond the Extremist

There are many antisemites who would never dream of even using offensive rhetoric.” [page 43]

  1. “Funny, you don’t look like an antisemite.” Lipstadt discusses those who, as part of their strategy, make a point of not “looking” like antisemites. What’s the strategy of such white supremacists?
  2. The subtlety of this type of antisemitism can make it much harder to fight. Can you think of a personal example of this kind of encounter with antisemitism?
  3. How can one combat subtle forms of antisemitism that often fly under the radar?

Letter #3: Antisemitic Enablers

On some level, I find the utilitarian antisemite – the pot-stirrer who enables haters – to be more reprehensible than the ideologue who openly acknowledges his antisemitism. Because he is not affiliated with any extremist group, the utilitarian stands a better chance of both plausibly denying his antisemitism and influencing an audience that would never listen to an extremist. The unapologetic hater is, at least, honest about his feelings. With him, we know what we are up against.” [page 55]

  1. Lipstadt here distinguishes between an ideological antisemite and a utilitarian one. What is the difference between them? Do you think it should make a difference in how we respond to these different expressions of antisemitism?
  2. In a marginal note, Lipstadt contends that “White supremacists claim that ‘whites’ face a looming genocide. They, not the minority groups they attack, are the true victims.” Why do they see themselves as victims and how does this move the light away from their hate crimes?
  3. Lipstadt quotes journalist Franklin Foer that “Philosemites are antisemites who like Jews.” What does this expression mean?

Letter #4: The Dinner Party Antisemite

Someone who feels the need to boast that he has Jewish (or African-American) friends is more often than not someone who has problems with Jews (or blacks) who aren’t his friends.” [page 70]

  1. Joe describes the “gentleman’s antisemitism” he experienced among his parents’ friends during his childhood. Ask your own parents or grandparents to share similar experiences: college quotas, restricted golf club memberships for Jews, or professional roadblocks.
  2. Lipstadt claims that some people deny that a comment is antisemitic because it is made by a friend or family member. Can you think of a case in your own life when this has happened? If you had the chance to redo such an encounter, what might you say?
  3. “If you make bigoted statements about Jews, you are antisemitic, regardless of how many Jews you are related to.” Do you agree or disagree? Justify your answer.

Letter #5: The Clueless Antisemite

The clueless antisemite is an otherwise nice and well-meaning person who is completely unaware that she has internalized antisemitic stereotypes and is perpetuating them.” [pages 77-78]

  1. Abigail is upset because a friend assumed she’d love a sale or bargain because she is Jewish. She wants a clever retort but a thoughtful response might prove more helpful. What might you say in a similar situation?
  2. Stereotype threats happen when groups internalize the stereotypes others associate with them. Jews can be just as guilty of perpetuating antisemitism as non-Jews by using stereotypes about Jews. “When groups that have been subjected to discrimination and prejudice denigrate themselves, they do more than internalize a negative self-perception. They give license to others to do likewise,” contends Lipstadt. We often take offense when our group is the subject of jokes made by members of other groups, but not when someone from within our group makes a joke about Jews. Is this self-denigration healthy or itself a problem? Are jokes that are subtly – and not so subtly – antisemitic acceptable if told by Jews? Can we say things that others can’t? Or does it suggest that we, even subtly, agree with what is being suggested by the joke?
  3. How might the taxonomy of antisemites, as outlined by Lipstadt in this chapter, help in fighting antisemitism?

III. Contextualizing Antisemitism

Letter #1: A Cognitive Failure?

…is there any way of educating the haters?” [page 83]

  1. According to Lipstadt, what is “at the heart of all conspiracy theories”?
  2. Lipstadt brings in examples of “rational answers to irrational accusations.” Why doesn’t this work as an approach? What does or might work?
  3. In her discussion of Professor Joy Karega’s support of antisemitic conspiracy theories and theorists, Lipstadt touches on the minefield of black/Jewish relations. Earlier in the book, Lipstadt condemns the competition for victimhood that can take place between minority groups that have both been victims of prejudice. Using personal experience and outside resources, how would you describe black/Jewish relations today? How do you think ruptures between blacks and Jews can be healed?

Letter #2: Delegitimizing Antisemitism: Jews Can’t Be Victims

The fact that you have a Jewish heritage does not automatically equip you – or anyone else, for that matter – to know what to say when challenged by someone who minimizes the significance of antisemitism today.” [page 90]

  1. As this letter begins, Lipstadt boldly writes that “Antisemitism is not in the same category as racism.” Later she writes that “Antisemitism is different in structure, history, and contemporary impact than other forms of racism.” In what ways is antisemitism the same, and in what ways is it different?
  2. Sometimes Jews can be very sensitive to threats of antisemitism but ironically espouse racism. How might you begin a conversation with someone who behaves this way?
  3. In an editorial in Science, Jose-Alain Sahel, the chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, shared the following observation after the massacre of Jews at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue: “The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas asserted that looking into the face of one’s fellow invokes the imperative: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ This sounds naïve and far too simplistic in the face of guns and strongly held prejudices. Yet, is there anything else more meaningful than looking into human faces and listening?” Describe a time you listened very carefully to a victim of racism.

Letter #3: Antisemitism and Racism: The Same Yet Different

As the victims of prejudice ourselves, we know from personal experience how important it is to have the support of other communities when we fight prejudice against us.” [page 99]

  1. Should we, as Abigail suggests, look for commonalities in victimhood, or does doing so diminish the uniqueness of the hate shown towards any particular group identity?
  2. Lipstadt condemns the “my discrimination is worse than your discrimination” game. But people still play it. In fact, in America, it seems to be more popular than ever. What is harmful about perpetuating this narrative?
  3. The fact that many American Jews do not experience everyday antisemitism and have achieved a historically unprecedented degree of success in this country has led some to dismiss the significance of antisemitism, especially when it takes place in Europe and other geographically faraway places. What would you say to such a person?

Letter #4: A Time to Panic?

People who speak of the campus as a ‘hotbed’ of antisemitism overstate the case and are positing something that is at odds with most students’ reality.” [page 110]

  1. Abigail’s grandparents and their friends bemoan the “explosion of antisemitism” throughout the world today and compare it to 1930s Germany. Do you know people who do this? Do you make these comparisons?
  2. Why does Lipstadt believe that such comparisons are inaccurate and potentially harmful? Do you agree with her?
  3. Near the end of this letter, Lipstadt distinguishes between current manifestations of antisemitism in America and in Europe. She believes this requires our attention rather than our panic. What do you think is the difference between the two? Can you cite an example of each?

IV. “Yes, But”: Rationalizing Evil

Letter #1: The Ominous Case of Salman Rushdie

Jews, together with other religious and ethnic minorities, have always thrived in societies where freedom of speech and religion have been highly valued. They have blossomed in societies that welcome an array of cultures and beliefs.” [page 117]

  1. Joe is troubled by what he believes might be a connection between antisemitism and the intolerance and violence of Muslim extremists. Does Lipstadt agree?
  2. Lipstadt uses the case of life-threatening responses to Salman Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, to highlight the indifference of other artists, politicians, and intellectuals to Muslim extremism. Can you think of other contemporary cases that illustrate this and the broader political forces at play?
  3. “‘Yes, but’ is the top of the slippery slope of immoral equivalencies,” states Lipstadt at the end of her letter. What does she mean by this and how does it apply to antisemitism?

Letter #2: Pixilating the Problem

…liberal friends are very happy to criticize Catholicism, Christianity, and Judaism, but when it comes to Islam, it feels as though all their open-minded principles are disregarded.” [pages 123-124] – Lloyd Newsom

  1. In this letter, Lipstadt turns her attention to the murder of Theo van Gogh in 2004 by a Dutch-Moroccan Muslim extremist for producing a short film about Islam’s oppressive laws regarding women and the global responses to his murder. Which response that she cites, if any, disturbs you the most?
  2. In this letter, Lipstadt poses a profound ethical dilemma: should a news outlet publish material that may be inflammatory – and may even serve as an incitement to murder – for the sake of freedom of expression? Make a compelling case for both sides.
  3. Should newspapers apologize for reporting on stories that some find offensive?

Letter #3: Parisian Tragedies

In the end, there is only one acceptable response when freedom of expression is met with terrorism and murder: a plain and unequivocal declaration that this is wrong. Nothing – not poverty, anger, disenfranchisement, religious belief, or anything else – can justify it.” [page 127]

  1. Quoting journalist Theodor Holman, Lipstadt writes, “Tolerance has been transformed into cowardice.” What does this mean? Later, Lipstadt distinguishes between being murdered for something one does as opposed to being killed because of something one is. What is the difference, according to Lipstadt? Do you think this difference makes one or the other more acceptable or understandable?
  2. What is the “short journey” from intolerance to extremism to antisemitism that Lipstadt describes?
  3. Lipstadt concludes that “There are ways of disagreeing with the policies of the Israeli government without sounding antisemitic. And blaming all Jews for something wrong that Israel has done – that’s antisemitic.” Describe an acceptable way of disagreeing with policies of the Israeli government.

V. Holocaust Denial: From Hard-Core to Soft-Core

Letter #1: A Matter of Antisemitism, Not History

…when I first heard of Holocaust deniers…I, too, dismissed them as not worthy of serious analysis. Then I looked more closely, and I changed my mind.” [page 140]

  1. Abigail initially thought that Holocaust deniers were in the same category as flat-earth theorists. What does Lipstadt write that might change her mind?
  2. Why do deniers, given the implausibility of their arguments, attract adherents, according to Lipstadt?
  3. Lipstadt refuses to enter into debates with Holocaust deniers, stating “You can have your own opinions, but not your own facts.” Why not debate deniers?

Letter #2: Inverting Victims and Perpetrators

I often hear Israelis described as the equivalent of Nazis.” [page 146]

  1. What is “genocide inversion” and how can it be countered effectively?
  2. Lipstadt makes a distinction in this letter and elsewhere between hard-core and soft-core denial of the Holocaust. What is that distinction and which does she believe is harder to fight?
  3. Lipstadt uses the term “Jew-baiting.” What is it and what is its intended outcome?

Letter #3: Branding Victims and Collaborators

Critics…who claim there was a collaboration between Nazis and Zionists do so for one repugnant reason only: to imply that the Jews themselves were complicit in the Nazis’ horrendous crimes.” [pages 154-155]

  1. In Letter #3, Lipstadt describes the Ha’avara or Transfer Agreement. Here she discusses the way it is used by soft-core deniers. How is it used as a form of denial?
  2. Lipstadt claims that what she’s described in this letter is “one of the more sophisticated and slippery forms of Holocaust denial.” What reason does she give?
  3. Discuss the “Livingstone Formulation” and the problem with it.

Letter #4: De-Judaizing the Holocaust

I worry not just about the rewriting of history but also about the attack on democracy that seems to come with it.” [page 156]

  1. Both Abigail and Lipstadt ponder the “interlocking directorate” of trends in Europe: the “trampling on historical accuracy” that feeds on antisemitism and attacks democracy. How does Lipstadt link these behaviors and attitudes?
  2. Lipstadt makes a broad claim that countries that participate in these behaviors are “engaged in blatant and conscious efforts to rewrite their histories.” Why would they want to do so?
  3. Discuss the change of legislation in 2018 by the Polish Parliament and its aftermath.

VI. The Campus and Beyond

Letter #1: Toxifying Israel

BDS-inspired academic and cultural boycotts can be inconsistent and capricious.” [page 172]

  1. Abigail is concerned about freedom of speech on campus and cites examples of Israelis who are barred from speaking on campus or so badly heckled they can’t be heard. Have you ever personally experienced this squashing of a “free exchange of ideas” on campus or beyond?
  2. Abigail sees herself as progressive, but she has been told that if she supports Israel and believes in Zionism she cannot be politically progressive. Lipstadt shows her the faulty logic of the left. How does she quell Abigail’s anxiety?
  3. Lipstadt offers three principles that form the bedrock of the BDS movement and concludes that boycotts are “blunt instruments.” What are the principles and what does she mean by a blunt instrument?

Letter #2: BDS: Antisemitism or Politics?

I often hear the argument that the BDS movement can’t be considered antisemitic because many of its members are Jews…It is sadly true that one of the most pernicious results of prejudice is when members of a persecuted group accept the ugly stereotypes used to characterize them.” [page 183]

  1. Joe chimes in with a critical question: “However antithetical to academic freedom BDS may be, can it truly be called antisemitic?” Take us through Lipstadt’s response.
  2. How can one compellingly fight the assertion that Zionism is racism?
  3. What does Lipstadt mean when she differentiates between the actual goal and the stated goal of the BDS movement?

Letter #3: Campus Groupthink: Not-So-Safe Zones

Students on American college campuses seem to have taken notions of political correctness, as well as ideas about ‘inclusivity,’ ‘exclusivity,’ and ‘safe space,’ to a point where they trump freedom of speech.” [page 185]

  1. In this letter, Lipstadt questions the silencing of opinions on campus that may be deemed offensive, quoting Salman Rushdie’s words: “Ideas are not people. Being rude about an idea is not the same as being rude about your aunt…” What does Rushdie mean?
  2. Lipstadt makes a connection between silencing and antisemitism on campus. How are these trends connected?
  3. In their book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that “The notion that a university should protect all of its students from ideas that some of them find offensive is a repudiation of the legacy of Socrates, who described himself as the ‘gadfly’ of the Athenian people. He thought it was his job to sting, to disturb, to question, and thereby to provoke his fellow Athenians to think through their current beliefs and change the ones they could not defend.” How is this coddling trend changing the atmosphere of university life and society’s capacity to debate?
  4. Some pro-Israel groups have attempted to limit the activities of pro-BDS groups on campus. Is it dangerous for Jews to want to prevent certain kinds of speech but then object when Israelis are silenced? Are the two instances fundamentally different?

Letter #4: Progressivism and Zionism: Antisemitism by Subterfuge

Many Jews involved with progressive causes are increasingly feeling this tug, if not outright war, between their Jewish and political identities.” [page 195]

  1. Abigail shares her distress that she has been labeled privileged, rather than progressive, because she is Jewish. Some campus groups refuse to work with Jewish groups or even individuals unless they affirm that they are against “Israeli racism.” How can Abigail make the case for her own activism? Why might a Jewish student support Palestinian rights on campus?
  2. Lipstadt raises the concern that such pressures encourage “self-censorship” of essential aspects of one’s identity in order to fit into a group. She also discusses accusations leveled at Jews of instrumentalizing antisemitism. What does “instrumentalizing antisemitism” mean?
  3. Does Lipstadt believe anti-Zionist Jews are antisemitic? What do you think?

Letter #5: Responding to the Progressive “Critique”

…we must carefully differentiate between campaigns that disagree with Israeli policy and those that essentially call for the elimination of the Jewish state. There is a vast difference between being opposed to the policies of the Israeli government and being an antisemite.” [pages 205-206]

  1. Lipstadt is concerned when Jews reflexively respond to criticism of Israel by labeling it an expression of antisemitism. What is her worry?
  2. According to the book, many progressive groups in America do not protest violations of human rights in other countries where they are flagrantly ignored. To understand this mindset, defend this inconsistency.
  3. According to Lipstadt, “We must not think of fighting antisemitism or anti-Israel animus as a one-size-fits-all process.” How can we “customize” each debate?

Letter #6: Myopia: Seeing Antisemitism Only on the Other Side

Those on the left see Jew-hatred only on the right. Those on the right see it only on the left. Both are correct in what they see. But they are blind or rather willfully blind themselves to the antisemitism in their midst.” [page 211]

  1. Having taken on the left, Lipstadt now takes aim at the far-right. She calls bizarre the white supremacist admiration for Israel – those who hate Jews but love Israel. Explain this trend.
  2. Discuss the new Polish law that makes it illegal to publicly criticize Poland for its role in World War II and how this affected Poland’s Jews. What is the Polish government trying to achieve? Why have Holocaust historians responded so vehemently to this law?
  3. Lipstadt warns Abigail and Joe “to call out both friends and foes,” not to give in to despair, and to be present to confront antisemitism on campus and beyond it. How might one’s simple presence challenge progressives or far-right extremists?

VII. Oy Versus Joy: Rejecting Victimhood

Letter #1: Missing the Forest for the Trees: A Dental School and a Fraternity

And what exactly is a small act of antisemitism? Shouldn’t there be a zero-tolerance policy for any act of antisemitism? [page 227]

  1. Lipstadt acknowledges that there can be oversensitivity to prejudice, but she invites readers, even when seething with anger, to “act strategically, not passionately.” Why mute passion in the face of hate?
  2. Lipstadt recalls in detail the painful and humiliating experience of Jewish dental students in the 1950s and 1960s at Emory, her own university. What happened and what was the eventual outcome?
  3. Lipstadt uses two cases at Emory – the dental school debacle and the AEPi swastika incident – to discuss antisemitic acts and the subsequent compassionate, unified campus response to them. She challenges readers to remember both the act and the response. Why ?

Letter #2: Speaking Truth to Friends: Beyond Victimhood

…if antisemitism becomes the sole focus of our concerns, we run the risk of seeing the entire Jewish experience through the eyes of the people who hate us.” [page 236]

  1. Lipstadt uses the work of two Jewish historians, Salo Baron and Simon Rawidowicz, to make the case for a rich and vibrant Jewish history and culture that encompasses much more than a laser-like focus only on antisemitism. Look up these historians and then consider the significance of their contributions as they appear in this letter.
  2. According to Lipstadt, “By anticipating the worst, Jews protect themselves from being blindsided by bad turns of events.” Pessimism here is a coping mechanism. We may understand it as such, but it has repercussions. What are they?
  3. Joe is concerned that his criticism of Israel may be misconstrued as antisemitism, so he censors himself. Lipstadt tells him not to. Why?

Letter #3: Celebrating the Good in the Face of the Bad

Although I have devoted most of my professional life to the study of the persecution of the Jews, that has never been what has driven me personally as a Jew.” [page 241]

  1. In this concluding letter, Lipstadt writes to Abigail alone. Lipstadt abandons her professional tone to speak to her student from the heart. Why?
  2. Building on her penultimate letter, Lipstadt warns that antisemitism turns Jews into objects rather than subjects. What does she mean?
  3. The book closes with a personal plea for Abigail and all her readers to have an expansive view of lived Judaism so that antisemitism is not the chief driver of Jewish identity. “Jewish tradition in all its manifestations – religious, secular, intellectual, communal, artistic, and so much more – is far too valuable to be tossed aside and replaced with a singular concentration on the fight against hatred.” Lipstadt is describing a real phenomenon. Why might people make antisemitism the main focus of their Judaism?