Three years ago, when Antisemitism: Here and Now was proposed as the title of the book she was writing, Deborah Lipstadt had second thoughts – it sounded too ominous.
Now, the American historian wishes it had not been so prescient, because a “perfect storm” of anti-Semitism is gathering worldwide. As she completed the book, which was published in February, Lipstadt begged her publisher for a few more pages, as almost every day another instance of hatred toward Jews was in the news.
Lipstadt, the Dorot professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta, was the guest speaker at a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Montreal Holocaust Museum (MHM) on June 3.
Best known for her legal battle with British Holocaust denier David Irving in the 1990s, Lipstadt said fear of violent anti-Semitism, even in the United States, has become “the new normal.”
Lipstadt is also concerned by the “enablers,” who may not be anti-Semitic, but are “emboldening” those who are. She mentioned U.S. President Donald Trump and British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“The question is not ‘are they anti-Semitic’ – I don’t know what is in their hearts – but they are making anti-Semites feel what they are doing is allowable, acceptable, appropriate,” she said.
The far ends of both the right and left find common ground on Jews, according to Lipstadt, who terms this nexus “the weaponizing of anti-Semitism to score political points.”
While the extreme right does not regard Jews as “white,” the left finds it inconceivable that Jews should see themselves as victims, she said.
Then there is “clueless anti-Semitism,” which shows that anti-Semitism has “so deeply permeated society that people do not recognize it.…
“It has become so normative that, on some level, (cluelessness) is more dangerous than (the white supremacists) who shout ‘The Jews will not replace us.’ ”
Today, anti-Semites feel uninhibited in casting Jews as “rich, privileged and powerful,” selfish, shadowy figures who are “out to do us harm,” she said.
Lipstadt said criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic per se, but may be when the entire blame is placed on that state alone.
What worries her is that the Middle East conflict, as it plays out on campuses, is driving Jewish students “underground.” They are avoiding open support for Israel or overt displays of being Jewish, she said.
Many have to choose between joining Hillel and, say, an environmental or LGBTQ group, she added. “I feel heartbroken; it’s mind-boggling that this is happening in the 21st century.”
The evening was the first chance to see an artistic rendering of the new MHM by the architectural firm Architem. After 40 years in Federation CJA’s Cummings House, the MHM is finalizing a move to its own, much larger premises at an as yet unannounced downtown location.
Last year, the Azrieli Foundation confirmed that it was contributing up to $15 million toward the project, or about a third of the estimated cost.
MHM president Dorothy Zalcman Howard said the museum has seen a surge in visitors in recent years. In 2018, visits increased 20 per cent compared to the year before, with 22,000 people coming through its doors, half of whom were students. In addition, demand for its pedagogical services and travelling exhibitions has soared in Canada and internationally. In the past year and a half alone, 600 Canadian teachers have participated in its training programs.
The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, as the MHM was originally known, was started by the Association of Survivors of Nazi Oppression and a group of young Jewish leaders, most of whom were not personally connected to the Holocaust.
One of them was Steven Cummings, who became the centre’s first president.
Noting that 10,000 survivors settled in Montreal, Cummings said that, “Our duty was to tell their stories, to remember those who perished and those who were never born. But how do you do it? How do you make people understand six million is more than a number?” That the Federation allocated less than 2,000 feet for the centre made that more challenging.
The centre was inaugurated on Sept. 9, 1979, when those who conceived of the project walked from the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue to Cummings House. They carried an urn of ashes from the Auschwitz crematoria and some survivors wore the striped uniforms of the camp’s inmates.
That urn was permanently installed in a stone pillar from a destroyed Warsaw synagogue in the centre’s memorial room.
Cummings said that, “We must continue to do more. We can’t allow anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers to define who we are, but our duty is to tell the survivors’ stories and never forget.”