by Deborah E. Lipstadt
Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
The author is a leading scholar of Judaism who explores just about every manifestation of contemporary antisemitism, with plenty of history included for context which is a tour de force approachably presented. Antisemitism comes in different shades, all of them ugly not the least when it comes from those who regard themselves as champions of liberation. To fight this abomination in all its shades, the author has given us a sage, sober, and lucid manual for the perplexed and willfully blind.
Contemporary antisemitism is not about the Holocaust it is firmly in the past. Contemporary antisemitism is about the present. It is what many people are doing, saying and facing now. That gave this subject an immediacy that no historical act possesses. It is not just about the present. It is also about the future. Where are the troubling phenomena addressed here leading? And that question points to yet another difficulty. Most historians avoid speculation about the future. We eschew predictions because we know how quickly things can change. Often, those historians who have relied on their knowledge of the past to prognosticate have erred. When one writes about a contemporary problem, it is hard not to predict. The author attempts not to predict. Defining anti-Semitism categorizing the anti-Semite, and figuring out how best to spell the word, the author tries to unpack what it is we are witnessing. Is today’s antisemitism the same or different from what we have seen before? Where is it coming from: the right or the left? Is it, as some would contend, all about Israel? Are we seeing anti-Semitism where it is not? Are others refusing to see antisemitism where it clearly is?
Lipstadt has organized this book as a series of letters to two fictional people with whom I have become “acquainted” at the university at which the author teaches. Abigail and Joe are composites of many people who have turned to Lipstadt during the past antisemitism in general and about what they are personal witnessing. They may be fictional figures, but the questions they ask and the concerns they express belong to very real people. The author has structured the letters to reflect the situation as of summer 2018. The pace of recent events made it an almost impossible book to finish. It seemed that day a new development such as the murder of a Holocaust survivor in Paris, elections in Hungary in which the winning side relied on overtly anti-Semitic tropes, a Polish law rewriting the history of the Holocaust, white power demonstration in the United States , campus anti-Israel campaigns that easily morphed into expression of antisemitism, Labor Party antisemitism in the United Kingdom, the growing resiliency of white supremacist groups, and so much more that demanded analysis and inclusion in this work. Sadly, given the unending saga that is antisemitism. The author feels comfortable predicting that by the time this book appears there will have been new examples of antisemitism that should have been part of the narrative. Some readers may find themselves agreeing with the author at one point and being outraged by what she says at another. Irrespective of my readers’ positions on various issues, the author asks that the reader reads with nuance, the same nuance with which she has tried to write. Some may think that she has either exaggerated or understated the severity of the situation. Some may accuse me of finding antisemitism at the “wrong” end of the political spectrum.
Lipstadt has attempted as much as possible, to set her passions aside and see matters with a scholar’s analytical perspective. But we are who we are. She cannot, therefore, claim to have been totally dispassionate about what she has given to us. The book is written with the conviction that action starts with understanding, which will be applied differently by different people in different circumstances.
Lippstadt’s attempt is to explore a perplexing and disturbing set of circumstances written with the hope that it will provoke action. What precisely that action is remains in the hands of the reader. The stories of Abigail and Joe are gripping, filled with serious, joyful and meaningful incidents in their lives. The bibliography is complete with many of the references being top Jewish scholars. In one section Lippstadt is explaining the acts of violence: “As I have said in our exchanges, genocide begins with words and not with acts of violence. But these words are often the precursors to violence. How then can I speak of overreactions? Moreover, is there such a thing as oversensitivity to prejudice and hatred? Is the passions of the moment, I had failed to explain properly that I was taking into consideration context and proportionality in this particular incident. Even as we seethe with anger, we must act strategically, not passionately. The stakes are too high to do otherwise. We must assess each “assault” and ask, too high to do otherwise. We must assess each “assault” and ask, Is this just a prank by high school kids who don’t really know the meaning of the swastika that they are painting on a synagogue or a Jewish fraternity house? Will a strong reaction by a media produce copycats who also want to have their handiwork appear on the evening news?” This scenario and others are intentional and meaningful and therefore, a book that should be read by all. Read it and pass it on. That’s what I am doing.