Deborah Lipstadt’s book “Antisemitism Here and Now,” completed in May 2018, has an unfortunately predictive opening sentence: “By the time this book appears there will have been new examples of antisemitism.”
Five months later, a white supremacist entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people. And just a month or two ago, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, two freshman members of Congress, made antisemitic remarks reinforcing stereotypical tropes about Jews and money.
These two recent, but different kinds of attacks on the Jewish community make Lipstadt’s book all the more germane for becoming aware of a resurgence of antisemitism in the world today.
Lipstadt, a professor of Jewish history at Emory University, thoughtfully examines present day antisemitism by using a literary device, the epistolary novel. She presents accounts about the increasing number of incidents of antisemitism in a series of letters between fictional composite characters “Abigail,” a liberal Jewish student and “Joe,” a liberal Jewish faculty colleague, and herself.
In these letters, the author poses and answers questions about the white supremacist demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, antisemitic enablers such as British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, President Donald Trump and participants of the gay pride parade in Chicago who removed marchers because they carried a Star of David banner.
Through the questions posed by Abigail and Joe, the author reports on and discusses issues involved with the white nationalist movement in the America and an incident involving Ken Loach, the British filmmaker and Labour Party activist who, in 2016, refused to condemn Holocaust deniers because “history is for all of us to discuss.” She responds to questions about a 2013 survey by German researchers who studied thousands of anti-semitic messages sent to the Israeli Embassy in Berlin, 60% of them coming from “educated middle-class Germans, including lawyers, scholars, doctors, priests, professors and university and secondary school students.”
The letters also address inquiries about the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels and the siege of a synagogue in Paris. Lipstadt gives countless examples to support her argument that antisemitism is a millenniums-old prejudice that will not end.
She points out that antisemitism is difficult to define.
“It is hard, if not impossible, to explain something that is essentially irrational, delusional and absurd.” In its most extreme case, antisemitism purports that Jews are responsible for all the evil in the world. More commonly, Jews are accused of controlling the banks and the media; they are stereotyped as “cheap, pushy, rich or just good with money.”
Antisemitism is also articulated by unaware people who have so internalized anti-Semitic images that they make statements like “Jews are bargain shoppers.” Lipstadt calls for people of all political stripes to examine their potential blind spots regarding antisemitism. She writes, “The existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic, and multicultural society.” Regardless of our political leaning “we must insist that antisemitism be treated with the same seriousness as racism, sexism, homophobia and Islamophobia.”
Lipstadt imparts a convincing case for alarm over this recent increase of antisemitism, but she also wants readers to know that the U.S. has made some progress. No longer do universities have quotas on Jewish students and overt antisemitic violence is far less prevalent in the U.S. than in Europe. This work is an evenhanded, intelligent and thoughtful overview of contemporary antisemitism. It is a book for our time and deserves to be widely read.