An Interview with Deborah Lipstadt

Octavian Report: Do you think that anti-Semitism is getting mainstreamed, in one form or another, in American political discourse both on the Left and the Right?

Deborah Lipstadt: It is getting mainstreamed. Let me go back to what I see the major problem as being. I say this in my book Anti-Semitism: Here and Now, but were I writing it now I probably would be even more explicit about it: on the progressive Left there is a failure to take anti-Semitism seriously. For people on the Left, prejudice is refracted through a prism that has two facets. And as you well know from your high school physics class, prisms bend what you're seeing. Those two facets are class and ethnicity. They look at Jews and they see privileged people — even though there are many Jews who are not privileged — and they see white people and so they say, "If you are white and if you are economically privileged, ipso facto, you cannot be a victim of prejudice. To be a victim of prejudice means not to have power. If you have power you can't be a victim of prejudice."

So Jews ipso facto can't be victims of prejudice. They must therefore be making a false claim with an ancillary motive in mind. Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters often argue that accusations of anti-Semitism against his party are meant to bring down Corbyn or to turn the attention away from Israel. If you recall the Alice Walker/New York Times imbroglio, when she was attacked for promoting blatant anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, one of her responses was, more or less,"They were only going after me and David Icke because we support the Palestinians."

I think that's the construct within which this is all happening. It is spreading outside the confines of the progressive Left.

We recently had an incident here at Emory that was handled badly on every side. Student Voices for Peace, a pro-Palestinian anti-Israel group, is right now fighting this fight very aggressively. As a student group in good standing at Emory, SVP has the right to post on the bulletin boards in the dorms. So SVP prepared eviction notices, which have been used on other campuses. I don't think they were anti-Semitic. I think they were clearly anti-Israel. They may have backed up on anti-Semitism but it's hard to make that case. But then instead of putting them on the bulletin boards, SVP broke the rules and slipped them under the doors of all the students in one of the dormitories.

Within, I don't know, 12 hours, the rumor was being bandied about that only Jewish students’ doors had been targeted or tht doors with mezuzahs had been targeted. Neither of these claims was true.

Now, I grant you that if a white supremacist group slipped flyers under the doors of all the students in a certain dorm, if I were an African-American student or a Jewish student, I would feel more targeted than my white Anglo-Saxon Protestant neighbor. Nonetheless, they weren't targeted as such. But you couldn't quash the rumor in the Jewish community that Jewish students' doors were targeted.

Our new president, who's very good but who just didn't quite get it about how to respond, put out the most — I don't know if anodyne is the right word, but a very neutral and porridge-y statement. "We support freedom of speech but there may have been a violation," etc, etc. It was just a silly, silly statement. She ended up meeting with some of the Jewish leaders from the community. One of them said, "Look, I know we may not look like victims. But drive down the main street of this neighborhood” — which is about a quarter of a mile from the campus and lined with a number of churches and synagogues — “and note how how the synagogues look different from the churches. They all have fences around them and they all have police cars and a police presence in front of them."

Someone sitting there told me, "You could tell she understood at that point."

Having said all that, in terms of the Jewish community there is a tendency to cry wolf when it doesn't deserve to be cried. Or to say somebody's anti-Semitic when they are merely obnoxious. Or to say somebody's anti-Semitic when they are anti-Israel. So we're in this conundrum of overreaction from one side, underreaction from the other side, and a weaponizing on both the Right and the Left of anti-Semitism.

I had a piece in the Times of Israel at the end of January on weaponizing anti-Semitism and it also is drawn from what I argue in the book: that people on the Right are very quick to see anti-Semitism on the Left, they can tell you every little thing about BDS, while people on the Left can spot the anti-Semitism and white supremacy and “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville. But do you see it right next to you? That's my question. I think that's the failure.

OR: What should we read into the fact that there seems to be a complete inability on the Left to acknowledge anti-Semitism?

Lipstadt: Unless 11 people are killed in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh they can talk about anti-Semitism by itself because the death toll was so high and it was so outrageous. But anything less than that, and they will find a way of balancing it. I was up on Capitol Hill a lot in the days after the resolution and in the days after Rep. Omar's tweets. I talked with some representatives who thought that the resolution was just perfect, and others who thought, "You know what? This is wrong. This was an overtly anti-Semitic attack, this was a charge of dual loyalty. And this resolution is just wrong and it should be a condemnation of anti-Semitism."

And one of the members of Congress told me that one of his African-American colleagues stood up and said, "Why didn't we condemn when there was an incident which was purely racist?" And this member of Congress said to me, "If there had been a bill, if he had introduced a bill, I would have supported it 120 percent." If you come to the Corbyn folks and the Labour folks and you say, "This is anti-Semitic," they tell you, "No, it's not." But when something happens that it's overtly anti-Semitic, we can't just talk about anti-Semitism — we have to put it within that mix of all the other “antis”, all the other prejudices.