[Remarks by Deb­o­rah Lip­stadt at the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Literature]

A num­ber of years ago I agreed to teach a Jew­ish Stud­ies course at Emory’s Can­dler School of The­ol­o­gy, a school which trains min­is­ters for Methodist and AME church­es. The School tries to ensure that every stu­dent who grad­u­ates from the pro­gram will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to take at least one course on a top­ic relat­ed to Jew­ish Stud­ies before they graduate.

Gen­er­al­ly the Jew­ish Stud­ies fac­ul­ty rotates the teach­ing of this class. Each fac­ul­ty mem­ber offers a course based on their own area of spe­cial­iza­tion: rab­binics, medieval his­to­ry, mod­ern his­to­ry, the­ol­o­gy, lit­er­a­ture and so forth.

That year it was my turn to teach the course. A few months before the course was to begin the The­ol­o­gy School’s reg­is­trar called and asked me to send over the course title and descrip­tion. I did. Short­ly there­after I received a call from the office of the Dean of the school: Deb­o­rah. Are you sure this is the course you wish to teach?” Yes,” I answered. Is there some­thing wrong?” No, not at all. It’s just not what we expect­ed. We were just check­ing to make sure we got it right.”

The course I had pro­posed teach­ing was Intro­duc­tion to Judaism: The Beliefs and Prac­tices of Judaism.” It was to be a basic intro­duc­tion to Judaism. Why then the con­fu­sion? Because I am a pro­fes­sor of Holo­caust Stud­ies. That is the title of my chair and my area of exper­tise. The school assumed that I would teach a course in that area.

When we uncov­ered why the con­fu­sion, I said to the Dean: If your stu­dents, who are going to be Chris­t­ian Min­is­ters are going to take one course in Jew­ish Stud­ies pri­or to their ordi­na­tion it should be about Jew as sub­ject, NOT Jew asobject. It should be about what Jews do and NOT what was done to Jews. It should address how Jews lived NOT how they died. The dean agreed and I pro­ceed­ed to teach a suc­cess­ful class.

I did not then and do not tonight, in any man­ner, shape, or form, intend to den­i­grate the impor­tance of Holo­caust stud­ies or Holo­caust cours­es. I would not have devot­ed my entire career to the top­ic if I did not think it was of great schol­ar­ly and didac­tic impor­tance. I would not have invest­ed years in fight­ing Holo­caust deniers – both inside the court­room and out­side of it – if I did not think study of the top­ic was cru­cial. More­over, there is much left to be stud­ied and researched. The next gen­er­a­tions of Holo­caust sur­vivors are doing excit­ing and impor­tant work. I encour­age young schol­ars to work in this field.

But tonight I come before you with a dif­fer­ent mes­sage. Even as we con­tin­ue vig­or­ous research and inves­ti­ga­tion of the Holo­caust, we as a com­mu­ni­ty must main­tain our vig­i­lance against the pos­si­bil­i­ty of trans­mit­ting to younger gen­er­a­tions of Jews the mes­sage that the thing which binds us, what is dis­tinc­tive about our cul­ture and our his­to­ry, is what was done to us.

If the main thing the next gen­er­a­tions know about Jew­ish his­to­ry is that we were per­se­cut­ed and suf­fered, they will lose sight of the tremen­dous her­itage of Jew­ish cul­ture, the­ol­o­gy, and wis­dom. There is the dan­ger that they will assume that what dis­tin­guish­es us is the attempts by oth­ers, those who can­not abide our exis­tence, to destroy us.

Long ago the revered schol­ar of Jew­ish his­to­ry, Colum­bia Pro­fes­sor Salo W. Baron, who was the first per­son to occu­py a chair in Jew­ish his­to­ry at a dis­tin­guished Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty, warned against suc­cumb­ing to a lachry­mose view of Jew­ish history.

Baron wor­ried that peo­ple would glean the impres­sion that the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence was naught but a string of per­se­cu­tions, expul­sion, pogroms, and oth­er forms of dev­as­ta­tions. [There is con­tem­po­rary and far less vig­or­ous ver­sion of this the­o­ry. It is entailed in the oft-repeat­ed joke: What is a Jew­ish hol­i­day? They tried to kill us. We sur­vived. Now let’s eat.”]

There were great dev­as­ta­tions in Jew­ish his­to­ry and Baron did not shy away from study­ing them. But he want­ed to shine a spot­light on the tremen­dous bursts of Jew­ish cre­ativ­i­ty: poet­ry, lit­er­a­ture, learn­ing, self-rule, and com­men­taries which marked our history.

So too, let us for just a moment shine a spot­light on con­tem­po­rary bursts of Jew­ish cre­ativ­i­ty. There is too lit­tle time to review all of them so let me just men­tion insti­tu­tions and devel­op­ments which have crossed my email tran­som in the past week: new Jew­ish music, Zamir Choral, con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish art, the Cen­ter for Jew­ish His­to­ry, the reju­ve­na­tion of Hil­lel on cam­pus, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Chabad hous­es, Lim­mud world­wide, and last, but far from least, the hun­dreds of thou­sands of stu­dents – Jews and non-Jews – who have tak­en course in Jew­ish stud­ies on a myr­i­ad of dif­fer­ent topics.

For these won­der­ful accom­plish­ments to be over­shad­owed by the actions of anti-Semi­tes would only com­pound the tragedy wrought by them. A cre­ative, thought­ful, and accom­plished peo­ple such as the Jew­ish peo­ple should be known by what they have done and not by what has been done to them.

Fifty years ago there was a vig­or­ous debate in Israel about what should be done to Adolf Eich­mann if he were to be found guilty. Some peo­ple were adamant that he should be hung. Oth­ers want­ed his death sen­tence to be com­mut­ed. Yet oth­ers sug­gest­ed that, irre­spec­tive of whether he was hung or forced to live the rest of his life in jail, he be tak­en on a sight­see­ing trip through the length and breadth of the State of Israel. Let him have to see what we have built. Let him see our kib­butz­im and moshav­im and our cities built where none exist­ed before. Let him vis­it our cof­fee hous­es where vig­or­ous debate and dis­cus­sion goes on con­tin­u­ous­ly. But above all, take him to our libraries, uni­ver­si­ties, and the­atres. Take him to the Israeli Phil­har­mon­ic. Make him stand in the mid­dle of the cam­pus of the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty watch­ing stu­dents rush­ing to their class­es. Let him vis­it the lab­o­ra­to­ries and the sem­i­nar rooms. Do all this not to change his mind about Jews or to rid him of his anti-Semi­tism, noth­ing will do that. Do it to demon­strate to him that: Mir Zay­nen do, we, indeed, are here. Despite your best efforts to destroy us we sur­vived. But we have done more than just that: WE THRIVE.

We thrive not, davka l’hachi’is, not just to show the anti-Semi­tes that they can­not destroy us. We thrive as a peo­ple and we thrive as a cul­ture because that is in the Jew­ish com­mu­nal DNA. We cre­ate. We inno­vate. We take the old and make it new. We take the new and infuse it with the best of the old. That is what, I would argue, Jews mean when, upon return­ing the Torah to the Aron Ha-Kodesh, the Holy Ark, dur­ing ser­vices they say: Hadesh yameynu keke­dem. Renew our days as days of yore.” Not return us to the past but take the best of the past and let it help shape the new.

And that is what we are doing here tonight. We are here to cel­e­brate Jew­ish cre­ativ­i­ty and cul­ture in the form of the Jew­ish book. And how appro­pri­ate it is that we do so on the eve ofShavuot, a Jew­ish hol­i­day which cel­e­brates the giv­ing of THE Book. It is that book that instructs us, even as we remem­ber how oth­ers tried to destroy us, Zachor et ash­er asah lecha Amalek, Remem­ber what Amalek did to you when you were leav­ing Egypt, how they attacked you on your way”, also reminds us u’vah’rta ba-chay­im, to ulti­mate­ly choose life.” It is that book that teach­es us v’samahta b’hagecha, v’hayita ach sameach.” You should rejoice on your hol­i­days and you should be very happy.”

One of the ways in which we choose life, one of the ways in which we show our embrace of life is by writ­ing, pub­lish­ing, read­ing, and cel­e­brat­ing Jew­ish books.

So tonight let us cel­e­brate the authors who have writ­ten a new crop of Jew­ish books.

Let us cel­e­brate the pub­lish­ers who pub­lish them.

And let us cel­e­brate the read­ers, who buy them in print, down­load them elec­tron­i­cal­ly, take them out of the library, and, above all, read them.

Let us also cel­e­brate a fam­i­ly that so trea­sures Jew­ish books that it has cre­at­ed this mag­nif­i­cent prize.

Though we are still one week from Shavuot, let us not just cel­e­brate tonight but let us be ach sameach, very very hap­py indeed.

Thank you very much.

Deb­o­rah Lipstadt’s most recent book, The Eich­mann Tri­al is now available.

Deb­o­rah E. Lip­stadt is Dorot Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern Jew­ish His­to­ry and Holo­caust Stud­ies at Emory Uni­ver­si­ty. Her books include The Eich­mann Tri­al, His­to­ry on Tri­al: My Day in Court with David Irv­ing (a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award-win­ner), Deny­ing the Holo­caust: The Grow­ing Assault on Truth and Mem­o­ry, and Beyond Belief: The Amer­i­can Press and the Com­ing of the Holo­caust, 1933 – 1945. She lives in Atlanta.