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.