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Deborah Lipstadt on how anti-Semites go mainstream

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.

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.”

I think putting it in a context that makes someone stop and say, “Hmm… ”

OR: What about the two words one always seems to hear attached to Israel: apartheid and colonialism?

Lipstadt: Colonialism is when a major country or entity — Great Britain or France or whatever it might be — comes and takes over your country. What great entity were these bedraggled Zionists, these Russian Jews who were the early pioneers — what great entity were they representing? They were dying of malaria and trying to eke out a living.

So criticize but criticize accurately. Don’t take other contexts and put them on this issue.

Apartheid was created so that the black South Africans could keep a small group of white South Africans rich. That’s not the case here. Here there’s a fight over a piece of land. It’s a different kind of fight.

However, I also acknowledge that some of the policies and the decisions of Israel in recent years, like the Nation-State Law, have made that a harder fight.

OR: What is your take on the temperature of global anti-Semitism at the moment?

Lipstadt: I think what’s different about what we’re seeing now is that it’s coming from the Right and the Left simultaneously. It’s coming from Islamist extremists who can veer to the Right or veer to the Left. It’s coming from portions — and I want to be very careful here because I don’t want to be misunderstood — of the Muslim community who would never think of doing something violent but who are convinced that the stories they have heard and the accusations that have been made against Jews are correct.

In fact, I know a campus rabbi — very, very liberal; part of a Muslim/Jewish religious dialogue — and she said she had a partner in that dialogue who told her smilingly that “Of course Jews control the banks and the media. That’s why you get so much attention.” She said, “What was I supposed to say to someone who’s a dialogue partner?” That anti-Semitic rhetoric or motif, whatever you want to call it, is increasingly accepted in many sectors. I think that’s one thing that’s going on.

I think the other thing that’s going on as an overlay is that people are feeling emboldened. People who would never have thought of drawing a swastika on something or engaging in an act of anti-Semitic vandalism feel it’s okay now. I would say I think that’s partially because of the atmosphere that’s been created coming from the Right, from Trump and beyond.

On top of which there are two other elements. On the Right in Europe, you have populist, somewhat authoritarian leadership: Viktor Orbán in Hungary; Die Alternative für Deutschland in Germany; the Law and Justice Party in Poland, PiS. They make certain racial and even sometimes anti-Semitic kinds of rhetoric okay.

Consider Orbán’s attack on George Soros. I’ve heard from Hungarians up and down the pike that this was seen by the Hungarian populace as an attack on “Soros the Jew.” I said that recently when I was speaking in Sweden. A Hungarian diplomat was there from the embassy and it was his job to come up to me and say, “You’re wrong.” He said it was just about Soros’s support of Muslim refugees. I didn’t get into the argument because there was no point in it. But clearly, to the general population, Soros is Soros the Jew. It fits in to the anti-Semitic mythology. When you go to the conspiracy theory element of it, who’s better than Soros? Soros is the 21st-Century Rothschild.

The depiction of Soros as all-controlling, as a manipulative power behind the scenes — a depiction used of Rothschild as well — has its roots in Christian depictions of the Jew as the devil. In Christian theology, the devil can disguise himself. That’s one of the dangers of the devil. The devil has the power to harm God, as the Jews allegedly did to Jesus, and the devil has the ability to transform and disguise himself so that you can’t see where he is and what it is he’s doing.

OR: Do you think that most anti-Semitism, outside its hard core of support, can be countered by education?

Lipstadt: I’m going to tell you the most depressing fact I have mentioned in our entire conversation: I don’t know.

That’s coming from someone who has spent her whole career studying anti-Semitism and five years in a lawsuit and 10 weeks in court listening to a flaming anti-Semite and then writing about it. I’m not sure there’s an easy formula. I’m not sure there’s a “Do this; do that,” and it’ll all be solved. We’re talking about something that’s been called the oldest hatred. It has such deep roots that people engage in it without even knowing they’re engaging in it. I have a chapter in the book about the clueless anti-Semite. People who think that it is just a fact that Jews control the banks. It’s just a fact that Jews are rich. It’s just a fact that Jews are manipulative. It’s just a fact that Jews are all-powerful and can get governments to do what they want. How do you eradicate something like that? How do you go after something like that? It’s really tough.

I think there are things that can be done. We have to speak out. You have to educate. You have to show people the irrationality. You have to demonstrate the delusional aspects. But to eradicate? I’m not sure.

OR: Have we reached, to reference one of your chapter titles, a time to panic?

Lipstadt: No, no, no. And I don’t think panic helps. Witness what happened here at Emory with the eviction notices. People here panicked. Recently I was at a reception and someone said, “Oh, well, I heard the Jews’ rooms were…” I said, “No. That’s not true.” They said, “Oh, that’s what I heard.” A mother who was in my office recently — an Emory alum there with her son applying to university — asked, “What’s it like for Jewish students? We heard about the eviction notices.” I said, “You know, those were put on everybody’s door.” She said, “Oh, I didn’t know that. I had heard the opposite.” There’s a willingness to believe the worst.

OR: Do you think the Holocaust could happen again?

Lipstadt: No. In winter of 2018, CNN released a really well-done study showing the degree of anti-Semitic attitudes across Europe. These attitudes were widespread: 20 percent said Jews have too much influence in media and in the financial sector; 25 percent they have too much influence on wars and conflicts. The people who did the study were surprised by these results. I was interviewed by CNN about it. I said, “Listen, it’s different. It’s different because this time the governments are fighting it.” This is not government-sponsored anti-Semitism.

Yes, Viktor Orbán dabbles in it. Yes, the pols dabble in it and engage in it. But when they’re called out, they deny it. They don’t say, “Yeah, it’s okay. I’m an anti-Semite.” No one is overtly using it in a major way, and if they do, they’re condemned for it. Indeed, though Orbán does use it, he always wants to fall back on staying friendly with Israel. They know you can’t be labeled an anti-Semite and completely get away with it. That’s one of the reasons why I think a lot of them say, “Oh, I’m not an anti-Semite. I’m anti-Israel.”

OR: Are you worried about the future of Israel?

Lipstadt: I’m worried now about the direction Israel is moving and the Netanyahu government. I’m a great lover of Israel. Israel is a miracle. I think it’s an amazing thing: what it’s accomplished; what it’s built up. But I’m worried about some of the political developments there, just as I’m worried about some of the political developments here in the United States.

OR: Do you think Israel is losing the Jewish community in the U.S.?

Lipstadt: I think to some extent the connection is getting weaker. I think it’s a result of two things: this relentless campaign of toxicity, as I talked about earlier, and some of the policies, which are hard to defend.

OR: What is the purpose of the pseudo-history of Holocaust denial? Why is it so persistent?

Lipstadt: I think first of all, it’s familiar. As I explain in the book, when you say to a denier, “Why did the Jews make up this story? What’s in it for them?”, they’ll say to you, “What did the Jews ‘get’ out of the Holocaust? A state.” Even though that historically can be, I think, questioned quite seriously or challenged. Deniers bring up reparations as well. So there you have two rationalizations for Holocaust denial which make sense to anybody who’s been raised in the Western world. It makes sense within the context of the anti-Semitism: “Oh, the Jews do that. They’re manipulative, and they’ll deny the Palestinians a state, and they’ll get money because that’s how Jews are.”

In other words, it resonates. The stereotype fits. I think that’s part of it.

I think part of it is that there’s a sense that Jews remember that history very well and with this rise or increased emergence of anti-Semitism, it becomes much more relevant to many Jews. As I said earlier, “We may be victims. You may be going after us, but we’re not going to take it. We’re macho. We have discovered the need to fight back.”

It’s the raising of the fists. I think that being called an anti-Semite or saying that what you say is akin to what the Nazis said is still the kiss of death for a politician or other people in public life.

Hardcore denial was dealt a real blow by my trial. It wasn’t destroyed because, just like anti-Semitism, it’s going to be around for a while. But it was a dealt a blow. Soft denial is the Ken Livingstone kind of denial where Livingstone says, “Of course, the Zionists were in cahoots with the Nazis,” or “Hitler didn’t want to kill the Jews but the Zionists made him.” Everyone hates people in SS uniforms. Everyone hates the person in the Ku Klux Klan uniform. It’s when you move further away, when you get into shades of gray, that it becomes more acceptable.