Review essay of Deborah E. Lipstadt, Antisemitism: Here and Now, Schocken Books, 2019

In her new book, Lipstadt details antisemitism on the right and the left. She urges Jews to balance the oy of being Jewish with the joy of being Jewish.

In the introduction to her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, historian Deborah Lipstadt acknowledges that this was a challenging project for her. Though her academic career has been devoted to teaching and writing about the Shoah, a very difficult subject, her focus was always on the past. In this book, however, she was tasked with writing about antisemitism in the present. As she explains: “…the pace of recent events made it an almost impossible book to finish. It seemed that every day a new development…demanded analysis and inclusion in this work. Sadly…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”(p. xii). Tragically, she was proven correct; since the book was completed, we have witnessed the horrific shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Chabad of Poway Synagogue in California. These episodes of violence in American synagogues have left the Jewish community to grapple with security measures to protect their members and employees.

At this moment of mounting anxiety about antisemitism in both the United States and Europe, Lipstadt’s book offers a review of the evidence and a perceptive analysis of the phenomenon.  It is written as a series of letters between Lipstadt, the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, and two fictional correspondents: an academic colleague (Joe) and a student (Abigail). Lipstadt notes that Joe and Abigail are “composites” of people who have expressed their concerns about antisemitism to her over the last few years (p. xii).

Deborah Lipstadt is probably best known for having successfully defended herself (in 2000) against a libel suit brought in London by Holocaust denier David Irving; the suit was filed after she challenged Irving’s work in her book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (1993). Lipstadt wrote about the trial in History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier (2005), which was the basis for a popular film, “Denial” (2016). Lipstadt’s other books have focused on the response of the American press to the Holocaust, the Eichmann Trial, and the ways in which the Holocaust has been viewed in the United States.  

In Antisemitism: Here and Now, Lipstadt offers a definition of antisemitism and provides background on its origins in Christian religious doctrine and the emergence of more secular, racial formulations, beginning in the late 19th century. She emphasizes the “delusional” and persistent nature of antisemitism, as well as its recurring themes (pp. 16, 240). The author documents the upsurge of antisemitic rhetoric in the United States, voiced by both white supremacists on the right and progressives on the left. She also chronicles the many antisemitic incidents in both Eastern and Western Europe in the last two decades.

In Lipstadt’s view, white supremacists pose a major threat today, especially frightening because of their successful use of social media to disseminate their views and because the alt-right movement has sought to mainstream many of their ideas. The author highlights the march in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 as a particularly ominous moment, pointing out that the marchers who chanted “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” were not dressed like neo-Nazis, but rather presented themselves as clean-cut, “ordinary Americans” (p. 32).  

Turning to those on the left, Lipstadt distinguishes between “campaigns that disagree with Israeli policy [toward the Palestinians] and those that essentially call for the elimination of the Jewish state” (p. 205). Lipstadt offers illustrations of leftist antisemitism in the women’s and LGBTQ rights movements (pp. 198-99; 201-03). But most of her examples derive from college campus settings with which she, as a professor, is most familiar. She observes that while most Jewish college students are able to express their Jewish identities on American campuses, some may feel very much on the defensive (pp. 110; 193). Progressively inclined Jewish students, in particular, often find themselves ostracized by organizations on campus with which they are aligned on issues such as racial justice, women’s issues, environmental sustainability and LGBTQ rights, but from which they feel increasingly excluded if they express support for Israel (pp. 192-98).  

One of Lipstadt’s key contentions is that contemporary antisemitism, as was true in the 19th century as well, stems from both ends of the political spectrum. Though members of both camps hasten to demonize those on the other side, she maintains that they must also recognize the antisemitism voiced by their political allies (p. 211).  

Lipstadt reminds her readers that antisemitism is by no means an issue of concern only for Jews. She notes that, historically, Jews have thrived in open, pluralistic societies that value freedom of speech and religion. In contrast, heightened antisemitism is an indicator of an unhealthy society, in which democratic institutions are at risk, and other marginal groups are likely to suffer as well. As she puts it:

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…” (p. xi. Also see pp. 117; 189-90).

As a professor of modern Jewish history, I appreciate Lipstadt’s placement of contemporary antisemitism along the continuum of Jew-hatred through the centuries, especially as it developed in the modern period. Sadly, many of the time-worn tropes have resurfaced in antisemitic rhetoric today.

But the section of the book that most resonated for me was Lipstadt’s conclusion. She asserts that Jews today should certainly be concerned, though not alarmed, about antisemitism, and should remain vigilant. Indeed, Jews would be foolish not to do so. However, she urges Jews to “balance the ‘oy’ with the ‘joy’ ”—that is, not to get so caught up in victimhood and the need to defend themselves against antisemitism that they lose sight of the joy of being Jewish, and all of the positive aspects of Jewish life (pp. 236; 242). She cites the prominent historian Salo Baron, who argued against viewing Jewish history only in terms of persecution and suffering, instead emphasizing Jews’ remarkable literary and cultural achievements through the centuries (p. 236). This is something that I also impress upon my students, who are preparing to become rabbis in the Jewish community. Modern Jewish history is replete with examples of recurring antisemitism, as well as Jews’ efforts to defend themselves against these vicious accusations. But that is only part of the Jewish story. As Lipstadt puts it (pp. 241-42):

What is necessary for Jews to survive and flourish as a people is neither dark pessimism nor cockeyed optimism, but realism. It would be ludicrous to dismiss as paranoid the concerns of those who react strongly to the escalating acts of antisemitism in recent times…But at the same time it would be folly for Jews to make this the organizing principle of their lives…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. This need for Jews to balance the “oy” with the “joy” is an exhortation that could well be shared with many other groups that have become the objects of discrimination and prejudice…Never stop fighting the good fight, even as you rejoice in who you are.

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