February 21, 2020

Anti-Semitism: A Time for Concern, Not Panic

About a decade ago, I appeared on a panel with the late Robert Wistrich, who had coined the phrase “The Longest Hatred” to describe anti-Semitism. Wistrich had just published his thousand-page magnum opus, “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad.” I said to him, “Now what we need is a 250-page paperback edition that brings clarity to the issue because too few will read a thousand pages.” It almost cost me our friendship. Wistrich, a scholar’s scholar, was writing for scholars. Few — too few — in this internet generation would read what he had to say.

This conversation kept coming to mind as I read Deborah Lipstadt’s “Antisemitism: Here and Now” for she has written a popular book, part analytical, part anecdotal, part advice columnist and part reassuring steady presence to addresses the current problem of anti-Semitism. She chose an unusual format: letters addressed to a former student, a Jewishly committed, activist, progressive woman and an Emory University colleague, a non-Jewish left-leaning male professor of law, interested in Jewish events, open and inquisitive. These are composite figures, reader surrogates. Letter-writing is a lost art form and society is surely the loser for it. The substance of her response is conversational, dialogical, a meeting in the living room of one’s home or in her study. Lipstadt is a particularly welcome and interesting hostess in such a setting.

There are many virtues to this book, first and foremost accessibility. Lipstadt writes clearly and with precision. She addresses the issues directly, unapologetically. She says what she means and she means what she says. 

She is evenhanded. As I write this review, New York City’s Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Bill de Blasio is blaming the political right for anti-Semitism, and Matt Brooks of the Jewish Republican Coalition emailed an immediate attack blaming anti-Semitism on the left. Lipstadt would be quick to point out that they are taking cheap shots — attacking the other rather than the problem. She is balanced. She sees the dangers both on the progressive left and the extreme right. She understands the problem posed by British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and by Hungarian leader Viktor Urban. She refuses to blame radical Islamicists for all the ills of contemporary anti-Semitism but she is also unwilling to give them or their supporters a pass.

Lipstadt understands — as do her interlocutors — that the Jews in the United States are regarded as a privileged part of the white majority, affluent, successful, influential and prominent yet many Jews — perhaps most — consider themselves part of a minority. With power and prominence, Jews are subject to attack by those less prominent and powerful, and some of them find it impossible to identify anti-Semitism when Jews are so empowered. They easily tolerate and condone attacks on the Jews rather than confront anti-Semitism as they would confront other forms racism, xenophobia, misogyny and Islamophobia. Somehow, anti-Semitism and anti-Semites are given a pass.

Lipstadt is a product of American academic life. She is at home at the university, as are most Jews whether as students, faculty, administrators and/or supporters. The ethos of the university is liberal and, on many occasions, challenging, uncomfortable but not quite — perhaps not yet — hostile and dangerous to Jewish students. Often the campaign against Israel is led by Jewish faculty, Pitzer College’s faculty-led attempt to sever academic relations with the University of Haifa is but one example. Lipstadt understands that in a knowledge-based globalized world, it is suicidal for the American Jewish community to withdraw from intellectual life and, consequently, she offers advice, most especially to those progressive students who feel the sting of anti-Israel activity and discomfort when it moves unmistakably into anti-Semitic acts and accusations. Simply put, something is quite amiss with the value system of an anti-Semite, even if they proclaim their passion for justice and the environment, for gender equality and inclusiveness. Lipstadt is neither open to double standards nor accepting of anti-Semitism clothed in progressivism. One can hear her voice respond to the recent Dyke marches’ exclusion of Jewish symbols because of its sensitivity to Palestinian concerns. 

There are many virtues to this book, first and foremost accessibility.

Unlike those who savor condemnations of the left, Lipstadt is unwilling to give the other side a free ride — as should we. White supremacy also is a violent threat and Lipstadt willingly and knowingly attacks both left and right on the college campus.

Lipstadt is gentle, perhaps uncharacteristically so to both her student and colleague. Usually one to take to the barricades, I kept wondering if her gentle tone was counter-testimony to the turbulence of our time and a wise strategy to counteract it. She was subtle in her consideration of Israel, understanding that the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement isn’t an attack on Israel’s economy, where it has had zero impact because Israeli businesses are integrated into the global economy, and trade with the Arab world is only increasing. Even when approved by student government, BDS isn’t being implemented but it is an effort to delegitimize Israel and therefore must be confronted.

Unlike the conventional understanding of Israel as the protector of Diaspora Jews, Lipstadt understands that the alliance between Israel and right-wing Eastern European leaders endangers the Jewish communities of Poland and of Hungary, to which one could certainly add Lithuania, Latvia and Serbia. She also understands that Israel is a double-edged sword on American college campus. Anti-Semites mask anti-Semitism in the rhetoric of anti-Zionism while certain policies of the State of Israel alienate Jewish students — as well as most American Jews — and their would-be supporters. Written before the last election, when the alliance between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Kahanist right racists led the Jewish establishment to condemn such as an acceptance of racism and Lipstadt most properly to resign her membership in Young Israel, which endorses that
alliance, the situation has been exacerbated, the alienation deepened.

Her characteristic sense of humor comes to the fore in her last chapter where she asks a fundamental question of our time: How loud should our cry of “OY” be and will it overwhelm our sense of JOY in being Jewish? One can’t answer that question without quite knowing what the future holds but we can be certain that there is much to be joyous about in the Jewish present, much to be anguished about as well. Lipstadt brings a sense of balance to that equation, one most often lacking by those who grapple with anti-Semitism. Her tone is one of deep concern but not panic, and all analogies to the Holocaust are avoided as they should be. She does not reach broad conclusions, although such conclusions are apparent and she often hesitates to go beyond the anecdotal. 

Permit two examples: In the aftermath of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the good news was that civil society held as Pittsburgh came together and the nation mourned together. The mayor was there, as were the district attorney, church and civic leaders. The Muslim community came out in support of the Jews. So, too, did the African American community. There was a moment of silence during the World Series, and the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Penguins wore a Jewish Star on their uniforms. Hatred triumphs when civility is fragmented. 

Lipstadt punctures the comfortable myth that Israel is the protector of Diaspora Jews but doesn’t analyze the contemporary situation where Israel can fuel the flames of anti-Semitism and often acts solely in its national interest, which doesn’t easily coincide and may often conflict with the interest of the local or regional Jewish community. She illustrates how Israeli leaders make statements and advocate policies that betray Jewish concerns about human rights but doesn’t quite analyze the scope of the problem. She also doesn’t consider that Judaism in the Pew poll is now the most admired religion in America despite the rise of anti-Semitism.

She does know all too well that anti-Semitism must be considered in the context of the rising expressions of all hatred in the United States, which is magnified by the internet and reinforced by the communities formed on social media.

She couldn’t write everything. So, if you want to read a thousand detailed and footnoted pages, choose Wistrich, but if you’re more comfortable with 250 pages, “Antisemitism: Here and Now” is a wise choice and Lipstadt a most competent guide.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.