Deborah Lipstadt, an American historian whose trial against Holocaust-denier David Irwin was dramatized in the movie Denial, was in Toronto on Jan. 31, to speak about her new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now.
When and why did you decide to focus on modern anti-Semitism?
I became really conscious of it around 2014. I wanted to explore it, figure out where is it coming from, what is it about, is it something about which we really should be concerned, is it something about which we’re overreacting?
When academics see a problem, they analyze it and then they write academic articles or books about it. A journalist might write a newspaper article. A community organizer might figure out programs to fight it, academics try to understand it. So it was a very natural thing for me to do.
But I didn’t want to do it. I had to be convinced to do it. I didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to spend all the time that would be necessary swimming in what I call the sewers of anti-Semitism. And we haven’t really ever seen this kind of simultaneous attack of anti-Semitism, coming from the right, the left and the Muslim community.
What is your definition of anti-Semitism?
I look for a reference to money – something financial. I look for an indication or expectation or comments about Jewish power. The smarts, money, ability to gain a lot of power, even though they’re fewer in number, and the nefarious or malicious use of that power.
Maybe sometimes it’s easier to understand if you contrast it to racism. The prejudice of racism sees the person of colour as lesser than us – they’re going to bring us down, they’re going to mix with us and pollute us in some way or another. The anti-Semites see the Jew as smarter, but smarter in a nefarious kind of way, smarter in a malicious kind of way, with the ability to gain control.
You ask a Holocaust denier, “Why do the Jews create this myth of the Holocaust?” They’ll tell you they did it to get a state, even though that’s historically incorrect – the State of Israel was not a direct outcome of the Holocaust, but that’s what they’ll say.
And how were they able to do it? They were able to get the Allies to hold Nuremberg trials, even though there was no genocide. They got the Allies to plant evidence. So this small, bedraggled group of people was able to convince the Allies to do their bidding, they were able to control them. They were able to force the Germans to pay out billions because they were smart, cunning and conniving.
What do you think of the Jewish community’s responses to anti-Semitism?
I don’t come to a blanket conclusion, because it changes. I think sometimes we respond very appropriately and sometimes we don’t respond appropriately. It’s not a generalized kind of thing. I think sometimes we see anti-Semitism where there isn’t any and sometimes we fail to see it where it is. It depends who it is and what it is.
Here’s my thumbnail sketch answer: I think sometimes people on the political right only see it on the left, and sometimes people on the political left only see it on the right.
Do people on the left and right have different ideas about what anti-Semitism is?
I think that’s part of it. But I think there’s also a tendency to say, “Well, if this person shares my political views, they couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic.” Take someone on the left, for example. If this person is a progressive, considers themselves a progressive, they may think a progressive cannot be anti-Semitic, it’s just impossible, so there must be something else going on here.
I also think sometimes it is a different definition. That’s why I give the definition of anti-Semitism to say, if it fulfills this template, it doesn’t matter whether it’s on the right or on the left. Not only should you be fighting it, but more than that, each of us has more clout when we’re fighting the group with which we’re affiliated. You have more street cred with the crowd that shares your views than you do with the crowd on the other side of the agenda.
What are different ideas of anti-Semitism on the right and left?
I don’t want to lump everyone on the left and right into the same box. But I think there are people on the left who believe you can say that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist, you can blame Israel for the situation in the Middle East, you can say things about Jewish control of the media or you can say, “I’m going to be very brave and criticize Israel.” And I think on the right, various leaders of various countries, including my own, use stereotypes and divide people and ignore anti-Semitism in their own ranks, while saying, ‘Oh, it’s only on the left. You only have to worry about the left.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that right-wing anti-Semitism isn’t a concern and is cozying up to far-right governments, such as those in Poland and Hungary. Could there become a point where Israel’s actions diverge from, or even harm, the interests of Jews in the Diaspora?
Yes, I think there’s a real problem there. Netanyahu’s sort of giving Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a pass, even though Orbán has rewritten the history of the Holocaust to clear Hungary’s record, when Hungary’s record is disastrous. And we’re not just talking about the Hungarian people, but the infrastructure of Hungary – the militia, the railways, the industry, the police were all part of the Holocaust in Hungary. And Orbán will tell you that Hungarian non-Jews were victims just like the Jews and everybody fought the Nazis. That’s just a rewriting of Holocaust history.
Or when Orbán attacks in an overtly anti-Semitic way and Netanyahu gives him a pass and says he’s our partner in the fight against anti-Semitism. Look, I understand Prime Minister Netanyahu has to act realpolitik. Israel has very few reliable friends and Hungary is turning out to be what he considers a reliable friend. But when you present yourself, as Israel does, as the leader in the fight against worldwide anti-Semitism, you can’t make common cause with anti-Semites.
What’s the intersection between Holocaust denial and modern anti-Semitism?
I think Holocaust denial is a form of modern anti-Semitism. The only way Holocaust denial works is within an anti-Semitic template, as I explained earlier. And for a denier to be right, who has to be wrong? All the survivors, the bystanders, the people on the eastern front who saw Jews being shot in ditches, the people who lived in towns near death camps, thousands of historians would have to have been duped or in on the hoax.
And the perpetrators who said, “We did it.” All these would have to be wrong for deniers to be right. Also, the deniers have no counter-narrative, they have no witnesses, they have no evidence whatsoever. Where did these people go? Where did these people disappear to? It beggars the imagination. It’s such an off-the-wall kind of concept. For someone to believe in that, for someone to accept that, for someone to say, “Oh, maybe it has some validity,” there’s no explanation other than the fact that somehow they’re bringing an anti-Semitic perspective to it, even if it’s unconscious. Because it makes no sense.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity