Review of Antisemitism: Here and Now

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Judah Kerbel

Antisemitism,[1] in the last number of years, has been a cause for concern in many European Jewish communities. Many American Jews have been paying attention to the situation in Europe while separating the unsettling European experience from the seemingly calm, accommodating American one. While antisemitism has not been completely absent from the United States in recent years, Americans have become acutely alarmed in just the last (roughly) six months alone.

On the one hand, two shootings in synagogues on Shabbat have made many question their sense of physical security. On the other hand, while not necessarily physically threatening, many American Jews were outraged by remarks made by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, which many argue carried antisemitic tropes, and the New York Times ran a cartoon in its international edition that most would agree was blatantly antisemitic. There are even more events that when reported, if at all, do not spark the vocal outrage as the most familiar incidences; on May 10, for example, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s daily briefing featured five stories related to antisemitism around the world that did not necessarily make world headlines. It follows, then, that many American Jews may be newly apprehensive about the Jewish future: is antisemitism on the rise, and should we be alarmed?

Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s latest book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, predates the events mentioned above, but sets out to grapple with the same type of questions. Its objective is to analyze manifestations of antisemitism around the world, especially in the United States, from the past decade. A professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, Lipstadt is famous for the trial in which she successfully defended herself against Holocaust denier David Irving’s accusation of libel.

The book is divided into seven parts. First, Lipstadt deals with basic definitions and premises regarding antisemitism, broadly speaking. She sees antisemitism as irrational and based on thinking in the realm of conspiracy theories. Not a new phenomenon, antisemitism can be summarized as “the hatred of a perpetual evil in the world” (i.e. Jews) and “hatred of [Jews] because they are Jews.”[2] It is an ideology that is persistent and coherent, yet delusional at the same time.

In the next section, Lipstadt elaborates on the many forms of antisemites and antisemitism that exist today, dividing them into four categories. Antisemites in some cases are, in fact, extremists, as we would expect—and this is at least partially enabled and mainstreamed by the internet. But many are not “extremists,” yet they still disseminate stereotypes and may even be “polite” about it; she calls these “the dinner party antisemites.”

Other people, including influential politicians, are “antisemitic enablers,” meaning they may not themselves harbor antisemitic views, but they enable it within their circles. Still others—“clueless antisemites”—may not even be conscious of the stereotypes they hold . They might innocently declare that Jews are good at obtaining bargains, not meaning any harm, but nonetheless sharing harmful conceptions of Jewish people at large.

The third section of the book deals with contextualizing antisemitism. In this section, Lipstadt discusses conspiracy theories, the tension between white Jews as privileged versus victims, the similarities and differences between antisemitism and other forms of prejudice, and the extent to which we should be worried about these phenomena. Lipstadt consistently underscores the importance of recognizing the fact that antisemitism comes from both left and right, and that both sides have a hard time condemning it. In some cases, as described in the fourth section, people may recognize the harm of antisemitism, but they rationalize extremist acts (especially Islamic extremism) against Jews by somehow blaming Zionism—what she terms a “yes, but” argument.

Furthermore, in the fifth section, Lipstadt explains how antisemitism also appears in the form of Holocaust denial—by some on the right, in the form of Neo-Nazism, and by some on the left, claiming that the victims of the Holocaust are now perpetrators of it or claiming that Jews collaborated with the Nazis. This is, of course, her greatest area of expertise.

In the sixth section, Lipstadt discusses anti-Zionism, particularly on college campuses, focusing especially on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Conversely, while anti-Zionism is often seen as an issue on the left, there are those on the alt-right that hate Jews but love Israel. Much of the alarm regarding antisemitism concerns Europe, and much of this can be attributed to anti-Zionism.[3] Finally, Lipstadt concludes with a section cautioning the Jewish community not to persistently view itself as hopeless victims.

Academically Informed yet Accessible

Lipstadt writes the book as if she is corresponding with an archetypal Jewish student, Abigail, and an archetypal non-Jewish colleague, Joe. While Abigail and Joe are fictional characters, they represent individuals with whom Lipstadt has interacted in recent years. In their letters, they turn to Lipstadt seeking insight into phenomena they encounter, how to process, and how to respond to what takes place. This style of correspondence makes the book both very engaging and easy to read. While the author is an academic, the intended audience is not.

A possible drawback to this style is that in responding to Abigail and Joe, Lipstadt is providing her personal analysis, not necessarily a scientific study. The questions posed are both based on and elicit opinion and perspective, so it may not always be easy to distinguish between scholarly consensus and personal judgment. There are not necessarily scientific answers to determine who qualifies as an enabler of antisemitism, the extent to which BDS or Holocaust denial should be fought, or how alarmed one should be by antisemitic events because, when applied in the present situation, personal judgment is involved. This work is Lipstadt’s commentary on current events.

At same time, the give-and-take between Lipstadt, Abigail, and Joe allows the experiences of antisemitism to extend beyond the confines of academic study towards a real, lived, and scary experience. Lipstadt clearly has passion for the subject. Yet, while many people can—and do—comb through the news and put together a narrative of antisemitism with expressed rage, Lipstadt brings expertise to the table as someone who is well versed in the historical discourse on the subject. She admits that her training deals with analyzing past events, not predicting the future, but she provides us with potential tools from the past that can help us better understand the present.

Before embarking on the heavy analysis of today’s world, Lipstadt discusses the definition of antisemitism and explores different types of antisemites, giving the reader insight on nuances that might otherwise not be considered. Of course, Holocaust denial still exists today, and Lipstadt is able to weave her expertise in this area into the current landscape of antisemitism more broadly.

More important, as a historian looking at the bigger picture, Lipstadt balances passion with measured consideration. One place where this is of great importance is in her analysis of the BDS movement. Is BDS inherently antisemitic? On the one hand, Lipstadt notes that BDS founders were intent on destroying Israel, and she unequivocally states that “the negation of Jewish nationhood is a form of antisemitism, if not in intent, then certainly in effect.”[4]

On the other hand, criticism of Israel is legitimate, and even many Israelis oppose policies of their government (as is likely true in any polity). Furthermore, despite her strong belief that BDS is antisemitic, she notes how some well-intentioned efforts to shut down the movement backfire. For example, by boycotting professors who boycott Israel, some of whom are incorrectly identified as supporters of BDS, one is utilizing the same tactics of BDS proponents. Those involved with Jewish organizations fighting on the front lines may be susceptible to using whatever methods possible to battle BDS, but Lipstadt’s lens as an academic has her take a step back to analyze the cause and effects of various responses.

The book contains footnotes and an index, as any academic book would. Given that this is not a heavy historiographical work, some of the footnotes cite academic writings, but many point to primary sources, such as news articles, op-eds, and videos. Even if some of Lipstadt’s perspectives are personal, the citation of these sources affords the reader the ability to investigate the phenomena on their own and demonstrate that she is not just presenting anecdotal evidence, although she does include a number of (sometimes humorous) anecdotes.

Many of the points Lipstadt makes may seem obvious and straightforward. In discussing current events, she analyzes phenomena that happen right in front of our eyes, and it is not impossible for other people to arrive at her conclusions. But what is significant is that someone who is scholarly and informed on the history of this issue is able to articulate these points. More than the sum total of her points, Lipstadt’s authority emanates from her biography and scholarship. And the reason why the style she employs is important is because antisemitism in the current world must not remain a discussion of the ivory tower.

On the one hand, Lipstadt’s book is an important guide for Jews to understand their own state of affairs today and for communal leaders in guiding their responses to antisemitism and anti-Zionism. On the other hand, the book is even more crucial for those less familiar with antisemitism, and Lipstadt, with her scholarly credentials, plays a crucial role in sharing these perspectives with the world.

Antisemitism: Related to or Different from Other Forms of Hatred?

A compelling moral component of this book is that Lipstadt is attuned to other forms of oppression in this country and in this world. Hate is not only wrong when it is against the Jews. Yet, championing all other causes except for antisemitism, and assuming that all Jews are privileged, is harmful. Antisemitism is surely unique in some ways, and Jews will obviously be extra alert to hatred against themselves. But consider the example of violence African Americans face from police officers. Lipstadt writes:

Fear of violence at the hands of police or being declared “out of place” because one wore a kippah or some other Jewish accoutrement is not a current reality for Jewish Americans. It is precisely because of this that Jews bear a special responsibility to speak out against not only this particular type of prejudice but also against all forms of discrimination. As the victims of prejudice ourselves, we know from personal experience how important it is to have the support of other communities when we fight prejudice against us.[5]

Likewise, from a religious perspective, this issue matters not only because we value tzelem Elokim and hold a religious value of compassion for all human beings, but also because if anything, our experiences of antisemitism—of being slaves in Egypt, even—should guide us towards empathy for the plights of other races.[6]

It is important to note that Lipstadt walked the walk on this one in her actions following National Council of Young Israel’s failure to condemn the Israeli political (religious Zionist) party Bayit Yehudi with post-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit. Lipstadt resigned from her Young Israel synagogue following this event.[7] Although I admittedly may not have done the same thing she did, it is noteworthy that the professor fighting antisemitism was also the most vocal in publicly calling out Jewish racism. In an ideal world, Jews care about the safety of others, and others do not minimize our need for safety as well. Indeed, her discussions of the “dinner party” antisemite who “has a best friend who is Jewish” and of the clueless antisemite, versus the extremist, might in turn cause us to be introspective about our own prejudices. Most people I know would not support Jim Crow laws today, but does that make us immune from other forms of prejudice?

But inasmuch as Lipstadt cautions against ignoring hatred against other minorities, she also points to many examples of progressive causes that exclude Jewish students, or make them disavow any form of Zionism. In some cases, those excluding Jews assume that Jews are “white” and have privilege, while ignoring the fact that Jewish communities can feel threatened to the point of feeling the need to hire security guards for synagogues and community centers. Liberal Jews are also asked to choose between their liberal and Jewish identities.

In a case from 2015, a Jewish student at UCLA applied to a student judicial board and was asked, during the vetting, how she would commit to maintaining an “unbiased view.” Lipstadt comments, “it’s difficult to believe that had the question been directed to a person of color, or a member of the LGBTQ community, or a woman, the students would have had any trouble recognizing the explicit bias in what was being suggested.”[8] It also seems that the concept of “safety” applies to many minorities, but not to Jews. In a recent case (after the book was published), Jewish members of the LGBTQ marching in a parade in DC were asked not to display a flag with a Jewish star.[9] Whatever the opinion of the Orthodox reader is about pride parades, it should be extremely troubling to all that inclusivity stops with Jews.

The discussion of antisemitism as both a part of general racism and as a uniquely Jewish experience highlights the fact that antisemitism comes from all ends of the political spectrum. While this may seem obvious to many, in an American political climate that is deeply divisive, it is easier to see and call out antisemitism outside of one’s own circles. Much to her credit, Lipstadt adamantly pushes back against this divide with great force. She is deeply concerned about white nationalism/supremacy and antisemitism enabled by the far-right, including supporters of Donald Trump, but she is also deeply concerned with progressive antisemitism, including those in the circles of Jeremy Corbyn in Great Britain, and she deals extensively with anti-Israel initiatives that border on antisemitism. One cannot be concerned about Charlottesville without also taking concern with the affiliations of leaders of the Women’s March with Louis Farrakhan, and vice versa.

Lipstadt acknowledges in her introduction that “some readers may find themselves agreeing with me at one point and being outraged by what I say at another.”[10] But that only highlights the urgency of taking her work seriously. It is at our own peril that we do not consider the broad scope of antisemitism in the world. Instead of just pointing fingers at others, it is also crucial to work within our own circles to do our best to weed out antisemitism. This point is instructive to both politicians as well as to Jewish organizations across the spectrum.

How to React to Antisemitism?

A final theme in the book is how to react to antisemitism. Lipstadt argues that we need to be on guard without allowing fear to spark excessive alarm. She devotes a chapter to discussing the particularly alarming resurgence of antisemitism in Europe. Jews feel unsafe wearing Jewish paraphernalia on the streets, and researches have seen a normalization of antisemitism that has not occurred since World War II.

Still, Lipstadt denies comparisons to Nazi Germany, “which was state-sponsored antisemitism in which national and local governmental bodies as well as academic institutions enthusiastically participated.”[11] There is still good taking place in both Europe and the United States. She therefore suggests “attention, not panic.”[12] One might expect someone studying antisemitism to panic at every scent of its possible manifestations, but she teaches us to maintain perspective. Her level-headed analysis without avoiding the problems is strongly worth considering.

A similar approach applies to Zionism. Lipstadt spills much ink decrying antisemitism that is disguised as only criticism of the State of Israel. Yet, when we hear critiques of Israel in the news, she argues, we need to not jump to call it antisemitism every time—that can, in fact, backfire. Delegitimizing Jewish peoplehood is antisemitism, but Lipstadt also supports appropriate criticism of Israeli governmental policies when they are wrong. She directs this point especially towards Jewish organizations that are well meaning but sometimes respond counterproductively to such critique.

While being on guard against antisemitism is important, Lipstadt makes it clear that this is not the end-all and be-all of being Jewish. This is highly instructive coming from someone whose lifework is studying and fighting antisemitism. Lipstadt argues that Jews should do Jewish and engage with tradition and culture; she expresses her sadness when she encounters those whose only engagement with Judaism is reacting to antisemitism. I find it very powerful that she chose to include this point.

It is an important message to us all that while reactions to antisemitism or the Holocaust may bring us together or serve as a reminder of our Jewish identity, the importance of those reactions is found in our drive to live as Jews in our daily lives. That is why one of the best reactions to the recent horrific shootings in synagogues was to encourage people to go to synagogue the next week, and hopefully for weeks after. As a rabbi, I hope my congregants will be invested in acting against antisemitism, out of concern for Jewish peoplehood and our own safety. But my deeper aspirations are to convey a passion for and commitment to Judaism that is enriching and compelling on its own terms.

On some level, it is unfortunate this book may have appeal for only a limited amount of time, as it deals with issues that are fairly current. Of course, only time will tell how rapidly the world will change and whether this book will be instructive or whether it will be a useful artifact of antisemitism in the early 21st century. An even more unfortunate reality is that there are more items that became relevant after the book went to press. Her analysis of the shooting in Poway, or remarks by Rep. Ilhan Omar, would have been necessary had this book been published a year later.

Thankfully, the internet will allow Prof. Lipstadt to continue to contribute to this conversation. Ultimately, this book is all too necessary for anyone who is in need of insight or who wishes to discuss the current relationship between the Jewish people and the world around us. Indeed, beyond the need for Jews to read this for self-understanding, we should share this book with those around us who may not grasp the severity of antisemitism today. But, hopefully, we will reach a point at which this book is truly only history, and we will reside in peace with all humankind.

[1] I deliberately choose to spell “antisemitism” without the hyphen and in lower case, as Lipstadt does. She explains her rationale in the opening chapters of the book. In brief, Wilhelm Marr (a German antisemite who coined the term to target Jews) spelled it this way, and it remains in lower case without the hyphen in French and Spanish as well. Also, the term “Semitic,” with regard to language, refers to a broad category of languages, so “antisemitism” therefore refers to hatred of Jews, not hatred of people who speak Semitic languages (p. 23-24).

[2] Deborah Lipstadt, Antisemitism: Here and Now (Shocken, 2019), 19.

[3] See the chapter “A Time to Panic?”

[4] Lipstadt, Antisemitism, 178. See also p. 190.

[5] Ibid., 99.

[6] Rabbi Dr. Jeremy Wieder, “Sensitivity to the World Around Us,” YU Commentator, December 17, 2014.

[7] Her synagogue was among several Young Israel synagogues to soon after issue a statement asking the National Council of Young Israel to not make political statements without the consent of member synagogues. The synagogue has since broken away from the Young Israel movement, and Lipstadt rejoined.

[8] Lipstadt, Antisemitism, 94.

[9] Lipstadt notes a similar case in Chicago from 2017 on p. 198.

[10] Ibid., xii.

[11] Ibid., 109.

[12] Ibid., 110.

Judah Kerbel is the rabbi of Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills, NY, and a development associate for RIETS. He holds semikhah from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, an M.A. in medieval Jewish history from the Bernard Revel Graduate School, and a certificate of completion in the mental health counseling program of RIETS/Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He received a B.A. in Jewish studies and psychology from the University of Maryland and learned at Yeshivat Har Etzion.