By Deborah E. Lipstadt. Schocken Books, 2019. 304 pages. $25.95/hardcover; $12.99/eBook.Buy from QuakerBooks
In early March of 2019, news sources across the country reported a shocking incident that occurred at what is perhaps America’s best known and most prestigious Friends school, Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C. Students there inserted swastikas into an interactive game that was being used as part of a student assembly. This was apparently not the first time the infamous symbol had appeared on campus during this school term. And, of course, it is far from the only incident of antisemitic speech or actions reported in the media over the last few years. The contrary is true: from Hungary to Poland to France to Britain to Charlottesville to Washington, D.C., to Pittsburgh and beyond, antisemitism is again on the rise.
It’s not that it ever really left us, which is what Deborah E. Lipstadt’s Antisemitism: Here and Now is all about.
This is not yet another dry academic study of “the oldest hatred.” Those familiar with Lipstadt’s work will recall Denial: Holocaust History on Trial, her gripping account of being sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving, which was adapted into a Hollywood film. Like that book, Antisemitism is accessible and infuriating at the same time. Here Lipstadt takes a unique approach in presenting her take on the current upsurge in antisemitism: she creates an imaginary conversation between herself, a fictional student (Lipstadt teaches at Emory University), and a fictional colleague. These exchanges take the form of letters between these three voices on topics such as defining antisemitism; forms of antisemitism (from the “extremist” to the “clueless”); the ways in which some people attempt to rationalize antisemitism; different forms of Holocaust denial (which is just another form of antisemitism); and antisemitism and free speech on campus (in which she tackles the thorny issue of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement or BDS), among other areas of concern.
The BDS cause is one that has been taken up by many Friends. As I remain personally undecided on the issue, I found Lipstadt’s perspective very useful, given the respect I have for her other work and for this book overall.
But you’re reading Friends Journal, so you may be asking why Friends should be concerned about what may be a temporary spike in outward manifestations of “the oldest hatred,” something that seems to ebb and flow depending on the times, something that may always be with us, no matter how we try to stop it. Lipstadt explains exactly why it matters in her introduction:
the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic, and multicultural society. . . . When expressions of contempt for one group become normative, it is virtually inevitable that similar hatred will be directed at other groups. . . . the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss” (emphasis mine).
Antisemitism—particularly the kind of virulent, viral, violent antisemitism we are seeing in our country and across the world today—is a sickness in itself, but it’s also a symptom of a larger, more dangerous problem.
Incidents of vandalism at a school or the ill-advised statements of a member of Congress may seem like minor transgressions, but we dismiss them as such at our peril. We are living in an increasingly divided country. A scribbled swastika on a classroom white board is one thing: a torch-lit demonstration where a throng of young white men chant “Jews will not replace us!” is something else. And a massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue—what amounted to nothing less than an American pogrom—is an alarm we must heed.
Liptstadt’s book is a powerful warning. America was indifferent if not aggressively hostile to the plight of Europe’s Jews in the 1930s, with monstrous and tragic consequences. We cannot look away again, especially when the threat of everyday antisemitism is in our own neighborhoods, our schools, our offices, and maybe even in our meetings.