Deborah Lipstadt talks about American antisemitism, here and now

American journalist Chris Hedges hosted a political talk show recently, in which he and his guests claimed that “pro-Israel lobby groups have fabricated accusations of antisemitism on US college campuses in order to incite official crackdowns against Palestinian solidarity activism.”[1] The talk show was one of numerous examples fielded by hard left types in which elements of the pro-Israel lobby are charged with weaponizing the subject of antisemitism in order to silence pro-Palestinian voices.

Today, however, it is increasingly difficult for partisans like Hedges, or for the guests on his program, Ali Abunimah and Max Blumenthal, to get away with such blanket conspiratorial claims as important essays now regularly appear about the blindness of many on the hard left to antisemitism in their own ranks. Clarion calls by Jonathan A. Greenblatt head of the ADL and by others, including Brett Stephens in the New York Times,[2] point to work that must be done on America campuses on the left as well as the right. Indeed, most reputable efforts to wrestle with the nature of contemporary American antisemitism locate the seedbed of the hate on the left as much as on the right.

Prominent American historian Deborah E. Lipstadt, in the aftermath of her triumph against David Irving and his efforts to spread Holocaust denial as legitimate history, and the movie which followed documenting the trial, has recently published Antisemitism: Here and Now,[3] an exploration of antisemitism in contemporary America.  The book is presented in the form of an extended correspondence carried out with a thoughtful Jewish undergraduate and a non-Jewish colleague. It is not a study of trendlines in antisemitism and whether these are rising or falling (Lipstadt is concerned antisemitism is rising), but rather an exploration of why and how Jews are touted by some as conspirators against nation sates and economies, and also why and how an ongoing campaign of vicious calumnies against the Jewish state is spreading on American campuses.

At a key point in the first part of the book, Lipstadt takes up Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party and the numerous charges of antisemitism that have roiled that British body and affirms that the leader of the Labour Party has been a key ennabler of antisemitism, going along with and sponsoring the institutionalization of antisemitism.  Lipstadt shows how, in one failed effort after another, to deny, explain away, or put his antisemitism into a sanitized form of anti-Zionism that he Corbyn, his Party, and many leaders have had and continue having an enduring issue with the Jews.

Antisemitism is back, she argues later when Jewish college students are reluctant to affiliate with Jewish student organizations because they don’t want to spend their university years having to defend Israel or to counter prominent anti-Jewish hatred on their campuses. Numerous unremarked surveys back her up, and numerous testimonies by students attest to such challenges confronted in otherwise friendly environs.

Antisemitism is back when anti-Jewish commentators on the left invert victims and perpetrators, she argues, pointing to numerous examples of the recurrence of the medieval claim that Jews engage in actions seeking world domination.  That’s not antisemitism, these progressives often claim defensively, for it’s about Israel specifically, and not about Jews generally.

Antisemitism is back when Israeli scholars are prevented from speaking at American public universities, shouted down by activist students, without follow up punishment of the disrupters by administrators, and such students further have the chutzpah to claim that it is Jewish control of the media, AIPAC, and the Jewish lobby that stifles debate on campus.

Finally, antisemitism is back when the BDS movement on American campuses seeks to toxify Israel as the great evil and to demean its legitimacy, and to contribute to isolating Jewish students from their normal penchant to participate in socially progressive causes.

The appropriate response to such sentiment on and off campus, Lipstadt argues, in Antisemitism, Here and Now, is “engagement,” full and open response to the bigots, accommodators, rationalizers, excuse-makers, and enablers. Universities should be places of free and open intellectual exchange, respectful mutual relations, and honest efforts to find and speak the truth.  The persistence of left antisemitism makes this hard to achieve.  Lipstadt addresses her colleague.  “We too must speak up, especially to colleagues who have silently… acquiesced to policies that are riddled with antisemitism and antithetical to the principles for which the university stands.”

We must be willing to fight back when we become aware of colleagues who reject Israeli students and job applicants because of their national origin.  We must insist that antisemitism be treated with the same seriousness as racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. We must call out both friends and foes….

… We must make people aware that that antisemitism is not solely a problem of the Right or the Left, but that it exists in both arenas…[4]

Lipstadt concludes by emphasizing the importance of being comfortable in our own skins and actively calling out those who would give way and live passively alongside these challenges without realizing or doing anything about them. We must stand and we must mobilize others to stand with us. We must stand against those who resurrect McCarthyite tactics in the universities and must oppose those who would shut down free speech and academic freedom.

[1] “Israel lobby fakes campus anti-Semitism says US journalists,” Middle East Monitor, February 8, 2019.

[2] Jonathan A. Greenblatt, “It’s time to call out campus antisemitism by both the left and the right,” Washington Post, (Oct. 26, 2018); see also Brett Stephens, “The Progressive Assault on Israel,” New York Times, (Feb. 8, 2019). Stephens notes “a movement that can detect a racist dog-whistle from miles away is strangely deaf when it comes to some of the barking on its own side of the fence.”

[3] Antisemitism, Here and Now (New York: Shocken Books, 2019).

[4] p. 220

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He currently directs the Academic Engagement Network.
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