Deborah Lipstadt's new book, Antisemitism Here and Now, could not be more accurately titled, timely or impactful
Deborah Lipstadt is to combating anti-Semitism as Malala Yousafzai is to fighting for education. Dedicated to fairness and truth, with astonishing resilience and at some cost to themselves, their names resonate around the world. So a new book by Professor Lipstadt, Antisemitism Here and Now, could not be more accurately titled, timely or impactful. A professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, USA, her notoriety arose from the libel case brought by David Irving after she described him in her 1996 book, Denying the Holocaust, as a Holocaust denier. If ever there was a counterproductive lawsuit, this was it. Represented by that other doughty fighter against anti-Semitism, Anthony Julius, her victory brought at least a temporary halt to the growth of Holocaust denial. The case generated a masterly judgment by Mr Justice (Charles) Gray, who in 349 pages detailed Irving’s distortion of the history of the Holocaust. That judgment, and Julius’s own book, Trials of the Diaspora (2010), a study of anti-Semitism in Britain, are essential scholarly companions to this book by Professor Lipstadt, which in comparison is more of an introduction to the topic. For an in-depth study of the relationship of the UK Left and Jew-hatred, Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem (updated 2018) is the book to go to. This is by no means to diminish Lipstadt’s likely impact and usefulness, especially for those coming to the topic with an open mind and curiosity. It is very readable, lively and comprehensive.
The discussion takes the form of letters from a Jewish student and a non-Jewish professor to Lipstadt herself and her replies. Somewhat artificial in construct, it is nevertheless a useful exposition, because the challenge to rising anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel today often takes the form of debate with opponents: so this literary form of exchange is actually reflected in real-life disputes — where they are not loud and violent as is so often the case on campus and at cultural events. The title of Lipstadt’s own chair sums up the terrible truth that we have had to join up Holocaust study as an historical exercise and today’s anti-Semitism, with its return to the language used a century ago and more to demonise Jews. Holocaust remembrance, for all that is spent on it, together with the testimony provided most poignantly by the remaining survivors, has not served to reduce anti-Semitism. The hatred never went away; and, one generation on from the slaughter of six million, public memory has gone fuzzy.
The difference between anti-Semitism and “racism”, that deflecting term so beloved of Jeremy Corbyn, is that anti-Semitism has a history and a future, it morphs and it is contagious. Building yet another Holocaust memorial in Westminster at a cost of more than £100 million, welcome though that is in principle, cannot be shown to be effective in teaching tolerance and reducing hate. The growth in the number of Holocaust memorials around the world has kept pace with the new rise in anti-Semitic hatred. Where other genocides, for example of Roma or Rwandans, are included in the memorials, they serve, devastating as they are in themselves, only to dilute the uniquely Jewish nature of this hatred. The specific Jewish connection to Holocaust remembrance is gradually being eroded as its focus widens, reminding one of the way in which anti-Israel states in UN bodies are trying to erase the Jewish history of Jerusalem.
As a learning exercise, it is unlikely that those who most hate Jews and Israel will visit a memorial. It has even become difficult in some French and German schools to teach the Holocaust because of resistance from some Muslim students. In 2018 the European Agency for Fundamental Rights reported in Experience and Perceptions of Antisemitism that anti-Semitism is a worsening problem across Europe. In the UK, the Community Security Trust 2018 survey uncovered a record number of anti-Semitic incidents, of which one in 10 appeared to be linked to the rows about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party — a situation that has almost normalised anti-Semitic discourse in political life. Prof Lipstadt was a consultant to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and one wishes she could serve in a similar capacity here. Her book makes a convincing case that we need an entirely fresh start to Holocaust education: the vast sums spent on remembrance events and buildings have not achieved their purpose.
Understandably, there is a very American slant to Prof Lipstadt’s examples and sources of anti-Semitism: similarities between McCarthyism and BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions); the hatred and boycotts expressed on campus, and the notions of white supremacy and power that President Trump seems to tap into. It turns out that there are more similarities between Trump and Jeremy Corbyn than one might imagine. Rather than castigating racists, they embolden them because they serve a political purpose. They blame the victims who expose anti-Semitism or racism of fabricating it. Maybe political leaders have decided they do not have to worry about the upset caused. There are only about 250,000 Jews in the UK; as voters they are negligible compared to the many more who will not be repelled by overt Jew- and Israel-hatred that hallmark a political party.
Lipstadt is not so sure-footed on the British situation, but reminds us that we have yet to hear what sanctions were applied to the perpetrators of the anti-Semitism revealed in the Oxford University Labour Club in 2016. Several UK universities have dragged their feet when it comes to implementing free speech and protection for pro-Israeli speakers and Jewish students, while American campus authorities are more robust. We also get the only moment of light relief in the book when Lipstadt reports the slurs against Anthony Julius as the Jewish (hence grasping) lawyer representing Princess Diana in her divorce, oblivious to the fact that Prince Charles’s solicitor was also Jewish.
Universities are a troubling breeding ground for a new generation of anti-Semites. Extremist speakers visit in large numbers; the Prevent doctrine is rubbished by Muslim leaders and Government guidance on free speech is too woolly and unenforceable. Israel Anti-Apartheid Weeks flourish, while there is no Saudi Arabia Beheading Week or Pakistan Honour Killing Week. Being anti-Israel on campus has become a badge of progressiveness and BDS an easy cause for freshers to take up.
There is a quick canter through definition and history in the book; a reminder that just as in the Middle Ages Jews were accused of murdering Christian children, poisoning wells and robbing bodies, so today Israelis are accused of murdering Palestinian children, polluting West Bank water and harvesting organs. Lipstadt touches on the explanation of the resurgence of hatred as the return of the desire for homogeneity and nationalism, so like the mantra of a century ago. Social media’s unchecked hate platforms allow language and cartoons that would never have surfaced a few decades ago to spread to the easily roused, giving them the language they need to express anti-Semitism. Sadly, the EU itself, by undermining reasonable national solidarity and pride, is fertile soil for extremism and hatred, in a way reminiscent of the movements that marked the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and awoke in Theodor Herzl the impetus for Jewish self-determination. The anti-Semitism that is endured by Jews in France and Belgium today is far worse than anything in the UK, which is starting to serve as a safe haven for Jews leaving France.
Lipstadt’s book leaves us with some optimism and some good advice. She says we should not close down anti-Semitic speech, and does not recommend the UK law (Education Act no. 2 of 1986), which imposed freedom of speech duties specifically on universities. But then of course the Americans have their First Amendment with free speech as the default position. She recommends fighting the Labour Party from within, rather than quitting, and responding to the far Right as well as the Left. She wisely counsels Jews not to make fighting anti-Semitism the fulcrum of their identity as Jews, but to get things in perspective and enjoy religious, communal, intellectual and cultural traditions. So, a good book to have but far from being the only one.