An Interview with Deborah Lipstadt

So, in a way, it's like you're never quite legitimate if you're coming as a Jew and saying, "This is clearly anti-Semitic." And I think that's upsetting a lot of Jews.

OR: What is your read on Jeremy Corbyn in all this?

Lipstadt: He has, and I suggest this in the book, an ideological perspective. Donald Trump has an egotistic worldview: it's all about Donald Trump and it's about strength. He likes these right-wingers because they're strong. But Corbyn is much more dangerous, Corbyn is institutionalized — and that's the problem.

OR: A recent op-ed in the New York Times suggested that Martin Luther King Jr. would be a backer of BDS today, despite evidence that he was very much on the other side of the question. Are you worried about a general historical amnesia and the effects it might have here?

Lipstadt: Very much so. But I see it a little bit differently. People are always weaponizing history and always using history to make an argument even when that argument doesn't work. But as I see it, the objectives of BDS and Student Voices for Peace are not their stated objectives. They know they're never going to get a university to say, "We're going to boycott, sanction, and divest." Their effort is to toxify Israel; to get to a place where a student who's going to a summer program in Israel instead of announcing happily in their dorm, "Hey, I'm going to Israel for ten days," is now going to still go but go very quietly and in a very circumspect fashion. A place where — especially if you're a non-tenured junior member of a political science department — you think twice about telling your colleagues about a trip you’re taking to Israel.

I think that is what we are seeing happen. We’ve seen it over AIPAC and the controversy with Democratic presidential contenders. Though I think (again, trying to look at both sides and be somewhat schizophrenic about it) that some of the AIPAC leadership have made a very big mistake by over-aligning with the Republicans so that they give ammunition to the notion of it not being a bipartisan issue. I think that goes back to Bibi’s now-infamous speech. Bibi stepped in and became part of that fight, and now he can say, "I did the right thing; look who won. Look who's in the White House. Look who just announced that the Golan is part of Israel. Look who's just talking now about the failure of the two-state solution. I'm getting everything I want. You think I made a mistake?" I think in the long run, if you take the long perspective, it is a big mistake.

OR: Do you think that we're going to see the Democratic party become an anti-Israel party?

Lipstadt: You're asking me to predict. I'm a historian. I say this in the book, in fact, in the introduction. I said that it was a hard book to write because usually I deal with history and here I was dealing with the here-and-now. And the question is sort of eerie: the last paragraph I added to the book was a paragraph at the end of the introduction, right before I hit send. I said, "It was a hard book to write because it was about contemporary events and not about history. It was a harder book to finish because I don't believe in historians should prognosticate. I think most historians who do prognosticate end up being wrong, but nobody remembers what they said, so they get away with it. I'm willing, however, to predict that something's going to happen by the time this book appears that should have been included."

I hit send on send on September 18th. On October 27th was Pittsburgh. So I'm wary of prognosticating. I do think the nature of the primary system, which always favors candidates who are more extreme than in the general election, is going to play that up. And we've seen a lot of imitative behavior on the part of these candidates: not going to AIPAC; not meeting with AIPAC; hanging out with various racists.

OR: Why do you think the Left has given up ownership of the cause of free speech?

Lipstadt: I remember when the Republican party co-opted the American flag. And finally, at one Democratic convention — maybe it was the 2008 convention — everybody was given little American flags. A “the flag is ours, too” kind of thing. I think this freedom of speech thing is being co-opted by people on the Right in part because many on the Left are giving them that opening. I talk in the book about the incident at Wellesley where a group of faculty ­— not students, but faculty — came forward after a Laura Kipnis lecture to say, "When speakers come to campus and cause distress to our students, students suddenly find themselves obligated to spend time and emotional energy, and while freedom of speech is important, we also have to protect them."

They sounded like idiots. So once again, just like with the American flag, we ceded to the Right. I see myself as a center-Left person. We ceded to the Right the American flag and all the symbols of patriotism and support of the military and support of the individual soldier. Now we're ceding to the Right the issue of freedom of speech.

OR: How do you respond to those who single out Israel for criticism?

Lipstadt: I think you have to respond, A, by saying, "Of course Israel has done things wrong. Name one country that hasn't done anything wrong." I recently read in the press a Palestinian advocate or Palestinian leader saying, "I don't believe in a two-state solution because Israel was founded on wrongs and you can't have a state that was founded on wrongs." So someone on the Left raised that with me, and I said, "That is interesting. Let's stop for a minute and put it in a broader historical context. Let's see if there are any other countries that were founded on wrongs. Why don't we start with the United States of America and the Native Americans and slavery? Okay, so we've done that. Now let's go north to Canada and let's think about Canada's treatment of the First Nations. Now let's go across the sea and down to Australia. I'm not citing Syria, I'm not citing Myanmar, I'm not citing China. I'm citing countries that we like to be like. Let's go look at Australia and the Aborigines or New Zealand and the Maoris."