June 26, 2019

Is Europe too dangerous for Jews? Leading Holocaust historian shares her rising level of alarm

Deborah Lipstadt, author of the celebrated book “History on Trial: My Day in Court With a Holocaust Denier,” has eerily impeccable timing. Long before the terrorist events that shook France last week, the Dorot professor of Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University was scheduled to speak at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles on the rise of European anti-Semitism. The event, sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, will address the massacres in Paris and a troubling new trend Lipstadt has called “soft-core” Holocaust denial. Lipstadt was reached by phone literally as details unfolded of the terror attack at the kosher supermarket in Paris. Her book, “History on Trial,” a courtroom drama in which Lipstadt had to prove the Holocaust happened, has been optioned for film. Here she talks about the rising threat to Jews, its relationship to Israeli policy, and why, despite recent events, it is not 1939. 

Over the last few years, the rise of European anti-Semitism has caused alarm in Jewish circles, even before the events that took place in Paris last week. What should we make of this recent escalation?

Deborah Lipstadt: We’ve been warned about this. We’ve seen the signs of it. We’ve seen the attacks on Jews — and maybe the authorities took it seriously, but it certainly hasn’t been taken seriously enough by others — and now, in the most obscene, horrible way, [it] has percolated out to the general community. French Jews have been under assault [for years] and where’s the outrage? Not just for what is happening to Jews, but outrage at what’s happening to [European] society. The Jews are the litmus tests; the Jews are the weathervane.

Even before the attack on the kosher supermarket in Paris, there was something uncanny about the violent massacre of cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper. Even when Jews are not the targets, it’s hard to see these acts as anything other than repetitive iterations of dark Jewish history.

DL: This is not just a Jewish issue. Anybody who values a multifaceted, multicultural, liberal, democratic society should be terribly concerned. My thought is: It starts with the Jews, it never ends with the Jews.

Last August, in an op-ed for The New York Times, you wrote that people concerned with rising anti-Semitism tend to “overstate what is going on now and completely understate the situation in 1939.” What’s different now, from then?

DL: Things can be bad without it being a Holocaust. What happened at the supermarket in Paris was horrifying; what happened at Charlie Hebdo was horrifying. But the police were there to stop it. The government was there to condemn it. When these things happened in 1939 in Europe, there were no governments speaking out. [Anti-Semitism] was a government action! This is entirely different.

And yet, you also noted in your op-ed that far right, often anti-Semitic political parties have been gaining more and more traction in European parliaments.

DL: And that’s disturbing too. People who are not on the streets shooting anyone, but who are very respectable, sort of feel that if only Israel would solve the [conflict], everything would go away.

Are Israeli policies at all to blame for the rise of Jew hatred in Europe?

DL: When there are problems in the Middle East, these situations exacerbate, they get worse. Let’s just take Paris, for example. You have Ilan Halimi [the French-Jewish citizen of Moroccan descent] who was kidnapped and killed, held hostage in the most horrific way; then you had the murders in Toulouse at the Jewish day school; you had the murders at [the Jewish Museum in] Brussels; none of those things had anything to do with Gaza. Now, when things happen in the Middle East, do things get worse? Yes. But to simply link it all to Israel and put it all on Israel’s shoulders gives the perpetrators a free ride.

Historically, whenever anti-Semitism rears its head, certain conditions within the larger culture make it ripe for scapegoating the Jews. You’ve blamed “a distinct strain of Muslim anti-Semitism” for the latest resurgence. So when we say “European” anti-Semitism, we’re not even talking, really, about the average European.

DL: I’m talking in the main about Muslim extremism. You have a real problem in the Muslim community — which certainly doesn’t mean all Muslims or all European Muslims — of an extremist element that is deeply anti-Semitic, deeply hostile, and willing to cause pain and lash out. And that has been sort of coddled by European society, as opposed to saying, “These people are dangerous.” But I [also] think many Europeans have lost patience with Israel. There’s this feeling, “Well, the Jews have sort of brought this on themselves.”

So, how would you describe the phenomenon that what used to be exclusively anti-Semitic acts are now also happening to ordinary, secular Europeans?

DL: It’s a failure to be able to live and accept a multicultural, liberal, democratic society. And there’s been a certain infantilization of Muslim extremists in much of Europe, by saying, “Oh, we shouldn’t reprint these cartoons because they’re insulting.” That’s an infantilization and capitulation to extremists. Too many people are willing to say, “They’re anti-Semitic, but it doesn’t really affect me. My ox is not gored.” Well, your ox has been gored.

Why does it take an act of extreme violence against non-Jews for people to wake up and take to the streets?

DL: Because there’s a certain attitude of, “Well, this happens to the Jews; this is all because of Israel, and if only Israel would solve the problem with the Palestinians, all this would go away.” It’s a way of blaming the victim.

Last summer during the Gaza war, the U.K.’s Sainsbury grocery store removed kosher products from its shelves in response to anti-Semitic threats, which signaled to journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Israel and Judaism had been “thoroughly conflated.” And yet, those who hold anti-Israeli views will argue that they are critical of Israeli policies, not Jews.

DL: The two have been tied together. I mean, like BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] people who immediately after Charlie Hebdo said, “This was the Mossad.” [Note: On Jan. 8, an article in the Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner reported a BDS conspiracy theory linking the Mossad to the Charlie Hebdo shooting.] Those are the crazies. Those are the extremists. But to them, it’s one and the same. Kosher food has nothing to do with Israel, but I can assure you that the next time those supermarkets that were targeted want to order soup nuts, they’re going to see whether there’s a non-Israeli brand they can buy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to conflate the anti-Semitism in Europe with what he perceives as an anti-Semitic regime in Iran, which has avowedly denied the Holocaust but hasn’t publicly sanctioned anti-Semitic violence. What is the relationship between Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism?

DL: I don’t think Iran’s Holocaust denial is very important right now. Each time [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad would talk about Holocaust denial, his status in the free world would go down a little bit. He could talk about wanting to kill Israelis and wiping Israel off the face of the Earth — but [when] he said, “There was no Holocaust,” people got upset. I think hard-core denial has really diminished; what I see more of is a trivialization of the Holocaust — the “genocide” of the Palestinians, the “Nazi-like” tactics of the [Israel Defense Forces]. It’s not outright denial, but it’s denying the true nature of what’s going on. That’s what I call soft-core denial.

What would change if a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were reached tomorrow?

DL:The solution extremists want is the end of Israel. So a two-state solution is not going to suddenly calm them down. These are people who have been bred on terrorism, and bred on distrust, and bred on Sharia law. These people aren’t going away.

So how can Jews and liberal, democratic societies guard against acts of terror?

DL:I don’t know. I’m not a policy analyst. I’m a historian.

How would you characterize your current state of alarm?

DL: My state of alarm is higher than it’s been in the past and getting higher.

Having studied Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism for so long, don’t you ever get tired of these topics?

DL: (laughs) So tired. So tired! But, on the other hand, I feel lucky that I get to write about, study and teach something I care so much about. My vocation and my avocation come together, and that’s pretty nice.

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“The Longest Hatred: Confronting the Rise of Anti-Semitism in Europe” is free and open to the public, but advance registration is required. Individuals interested must register by Jan. 16 at ushmm.org/events/lipstadt-los-angeles. Contact the museum’s Western Regional office at (310) 556-3222 or email at western@ushmm.org with questions.