By – January 14, 2019

In the wake of the Unite the Right ral­ly in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia in the sum­mer of 2017 and, more recent­ly, the Pitts­burgh syn­a­gogue shoot­ing, it is painful­ly clear that anti­semitism is alive — and spread­ing — around the world. This aware­ness leads to a slew of dif­fi­cult ques­tions: Is today’s anti­semitism the same or dif­fer­ent from what we’ve seen before? Is this a prob­lem only on the far right or is the left to blame as well? And what, if any­thing, can we do about it?

In Anti­semitism: Here and Now, Deb­o­rah E. Lip­stadt, Dorot Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry and Holo­caust Stud­ies at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty, explores these ques­tions in a series of let­ters to fic­tion­al com­pos­ites: Abi­gail, an intel­li­gent Jew­ish stu­dent, and Joe, a non-Jew­ish col­league. Lip­stadt takes the role of approach­able pro­fes­sor as she defines anti­semitism and dif­fer­ent types of anti­semites, con­tex­tu­al­izes their actions, and pro­vides frame­works for real-life responses.

In the first and sec­ond sec­tions of the book (“Anti­semitism: A Con­ver­sa­tion” and A Tax­on­o­my of the Anti­semite”), Lip­stadt presents an elas­tic” view of anti­semitism, one in which hatred of Jews exists at dif­fer­ent lev­els of inten­si­ty and in dif­fer­ent shades, begin­ning with extrem­ists and their enablers. She digs deeply into new orga­niz­ing and ter­ror­is­tic tac­tics used by cyber-anti­semites,” and exam­ines Don­ald Trump as a key enabler of anti­semitism through his retweets, dog whis­tles, and nor­mal­iz­ing ver­biage. While Lip­stadt argues that these anti­semites are either con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists or ide­o­logues who can­not be rea­soned out of their views, she does acknowl­edge that we can cre­ate a fire­wall between them and those whom they might influ­ence” with facts that con­clu­sive­ly demon­strate how delu­sion­al their per­cep­tions of Jews are.” On the oth­er end of the tax­on­o­my are din­ner par­ty” and clue­less” anti­semites, those who have inter­nal­ized anti­semitism that they then exhib­it through jokes, com­ments, or polit­i­cal actions. These types of anti­semites should be called out or edu­cat­ed, Lip­stadt writes.

While Lipdstadt skill­ful­ly exam­ines anti­semitism on the left in the case of the Women’s March lead­ers, there are times when her argu­ment is less con­vinc­ing. She risks alien­at­ing young read­ers in the chapter“Campus Group­think: Not-So-Safe Zones” when she describes stu­dent pro­test­ers and more mil­i­tant off-cam­pus advo­ca­cy groups” as play­ing a“zero-sum game” that pre­vents the free exchange of ideas” with cam­pus vis­i­tors. Yet, Lip­stadt is unclear on how stu­dents are sup­posed to com­bat aca­d­e­m­ic extrem­ists whose very goal is to project a decid­ed­ly nor­mal’ image.”

Ulti­mate­ly, it is these real-life chal­lenges the read­er is still left won­der­ing how to tack­le by the end of the book. Nev­er­the­less, Lipstadt’s sweep­ing, acces­si­ble edu­ca­tion on mod­ern anti­semitism is a wel­come start­ing point in dire times. As she brave­ly writes in her open­ing, A Note to the Read­er”: I have tried to avoid writ­ing a call to arms or a cri de coeur, but I rec­og­nize that on some lev­el this book is pre­cise­ly that. It is writ­ten with the con­vic­tion that action starts with under­stand­ing … My attempt to explore a per­plex­ing and dis­turb­ing set of cir­cum­stances is writ­ten with the hope that it will pro­voke action. What pre­cise­ly that action is remains in the hands of the read­er.” Per­haps a sec­ond book could pro­vide read­ers with even more action­able advice.

Lau­ren Krouse is a writer based in North Car­oli­na. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Non­fic­tion from UNC-Wilmington.

Discussion Questions

Dis­tin­guish­ing this book from her life’s work by not­ing its focus on con­tem­po­rary anti­semitism and the unfold­ing Jew­ish future, rather than analy­ses of the past, Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt mas­ter­ful­ly weaves the most burn­ing ques­tions of our time through her cor­re­spon­dence with two fic­tion­al thought part­ners. In her joint let­ters to Abi­gail,” a Jew­ish stu­dent in many of Lip­stadt’s uni­ver­si­ty cours­es, and Joe,” a col­league post­ed at the uni­ver­si­ty’s law school, Lip­stadt con­nects the three in a year-long con­ver­sa­tion that explores the cur­rent rise in anti­semitism, first through its def­i­n­i­tion in light of the past, then through analy­ses of its overt and more nuanced pro­mul­ga­tion in today’s world. Lip­stadt invites every read­er into the teacher-stu­dent rela­tion­ship that is born of a year of deep reflec­tion and ani­mat­ed by the back­drop of our ever evolv­ing polit­i­cal and social realms.

Per­haps most salient of all is Lip­stadt’s depic­tion of the strug­gle to locate one’s sense of agency amid such desta­bi­liz­ing times and with­in today’s increas­ing­ly messy nar­ra­tive of Jew­ish life and the ideas and peo­ple who threat­en it. It is through this prism that the ques­tions per­tain­ing to Jew­ish iden­ti­ty sur­face, forc­ing read­ers to con­sid­er their Jew­ish­ness in rela­tion to exter­nal­ly imposed per­cep­tions, vic­tim­hood and oth­er­ing, as well as con­sid­er the place of Israel in the larg­er scheme of anti­semitism. Tak­en togeth­er with Lip­stadt’s strong dis­cour­age­ment of anti­semitism’s becom­ing the linch­pin of (one’s) iden­ti­ty” and her belief that the Jew­ish tra­di­tion is far too valu­able to be tossed aside and replaced with a sin­gu­lar con­cen­tra­tion on the fight against hatred,” it is this set of con­sid­er­a­tions that will be most empow­er­ing for readers.