Book Review | How Bad Is It?
Antisemitism: Here and Now
by Deborah E. Lipstadt
2019, 288 pp, $25.95
Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (And What It Means For Us)
by Marc Weitzmann
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2019, 320 pp, $26
First things first. Deborah E. Lipstadt’s spelling of the subject of her new book is a matter of debate. Her subject is “antisemitism,” de-hyphenated and consigned to the lower case. Marc Weitzmann, whose reporting is on a specific instance of the phenomenon, sticks with the more widely used “anti-Semitism” (as does Moment). The seemingly trivial discrepancy actually hides broader disputes.
Lipstadt argues that the conventional spelling falsely implies there is something called Semitism and gives rise to the mischievous claim by speakers of Semitic languages that they are incapable of being against themselves. Given the term’s coinage by a 19th-century German Jew-hater, she takes the further step of denying it the dignity of capital letters. Weitzmann, whose spelling is more conventional, has written an unconventional work, a blend of family history, national history and police reporting to explore the subject in his native France.
Disputes over what is antisemitism/anti-Semitism today go beyond the orthographic. In Britain, for instance, more than half a dozen MPs have now quit the Labor Party, in part over party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s apparent tolerance of anti-Semitic discourse. As Lipstadt writes, that has included his defense of the former Church of England vicar Stephen Sizer, who has claimed that Jews engineered 9/11, kill Palestinian children for sport, harvest the organs of gentiles at gunpoint and do much else to deserve God’s (and Sizer’s) disfavor. Corbyn, Labor’s standing candidate for prime minister should the party win a parliamentary majority, dismissed criticism of Sizer by calling it part of a pro-Israel smear campaign.
Nonetheless, presented with the query, “Is Jeremy Corbyn an antisemite?” Deborah Lipstadt, the American historian from Emory University who famously bested the Holocaust denier David Irving in a British courtroom after he sued her for libel, calls that the wrong question. Lipstadt asks instead whether Corbyn has facilitated other people’s anti-Semitic expressions and whether he has failed to denounce anti-Semitism unless it comes from white supremacists or neo-Nazis, thus helping it gain strength among progressives. Lipstadt flunks Corbyn on that test and classifies him as an “enabler” of anti-Semites. Noting Donald Trump’s “dog whistles” that have emboldened American white nationalists, she places him in the same category.
Lipstadt is a reasoned observer of contemporary hatred of Jews, Judaism, Jewishness and Israel. Her survey of the types of current anti-Semitism and how (or whether) to confront them takes the form of an imagined correspondence with a young Jewish woman (a former student) and another with a gentile colleague on the Emory faculty. While not breaking much new ground, her book is a very useful guide to those perplexed by contemporary accusations of anti-Semitism and the denials issued in response.
Lipstadt neither belittles incidents of anti-Semitism in the U.S. nor takes an alarmist, tragic view of the Jewish community’s prospects. To her credit, she does not duck tough questions. When writing of the anti-Semitism of right-wing nationalist governments in Hungary and Poland, Lipstadt acknowledges the exasperating complication of an Israeli leader eagerly cozying up to those very governments, even as independent Jewish groups chastise them.
Jews who oppose Israeli policy should neither flinch from criticizing it, she says, nor discourage gentile friends from doing so. When it comes to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, her position is nuanced. On the one hand, the movement’s objective, she says, “is not boycotts or divestiture, but the toxification of Israel.” It is “a direct descendant of Marxist antisemitism and anti-Zionism.” On the other hand, she is tolerant of individuals who support BDS hoping it might bring about a two-state solution, something that Lipstadt herself favors. Accordingly, she counsels her former student against trying to block pro-BDS speakers from campus or boycotting pro-BDS professors, saying these tactics play into the hands of BDS supporters.
While I am sympathetic to Lipstadt’s take on BDS, valuing as it does support for Israel, calls for territorial compromise with the Palestinians and academic freedom, I wonder if it is too nuanced for general use. Protest movements typically demand action. When the cause was Soviet Jewish emigration, the American Jews of the 1970s largely supported anti-Soviet trade policies that upended U.S. foreign policy. (Henry Kissinger was caught on a White House tape telling President Richard Nixon, “I think that the Jewish community in this country on that issue is behaving unconscionably…, traitorously.”) Several decades later, can we welcome criticism of Israeli policy, but not the application of that criticism into policy?
As for Donald Trump, I would be curious to hear Lipstadt’s reaction to his 2019 State of the Union address, which included an unprecedented appeal to combating anti-Semitism and callouts to two Holocaust survivors who were among the President’s gallery guests. Can such loud philo-Semitic declarations drown out the “dog whistles” for which he is faulted? Does opposition to anti-Semitism require opposition to all forms of discrimination, or if it’s “good for the Jews,” is that good enough? Can we welcome the ovation for Holocaust survivors who found refuge in America in a speech that demonizes asylum seekers camped at our border today?
One important takeaway from Lipstadt’s book is the rise of anti-Semitism among progressives—or, at the very least, in a time when progressivism has much to do with identity politics, the exclusion of a Jewish identity from the ranks of favored narratives. Jews may find themselves dismissed as too prosperous, or too attached to Israel, to speak for the oppressed in current activist company. Lipstadt’s wish for both Left and Right in this political moment is “discomfort,” a discomfort caused by the acknowledgment “that extremism and antisemitism are found not only among people on the other side of the political spectrum.”
This would be an appropriate discomfort for the French to feel, given Marc Weitzmann’s exploration of his country’s past and present in Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France. Based on articles the French journalist wrote for Tablet, it is a passionate and challenging ride through French illusions and ambitions—and a good opportunity to apply Lipstadt’s categories to real-life situations rooted in history and filled with nuance. Weitzmann traces modern right-wing French anti-Semitism to reactionary royalists in the time of the French Revolution, who abhorred the notion of a citizenship and national identity rooted in a concept of human rights, the sort of citizenship offered to French Jews in the 1790s. French-ness of this modern variety struck them as synthetic and feminine, inferior to an authentic, masculine French identity rooted in blood and soil, church and monarchy. In the first half of the 20th century, such anti-revolutionary ideas were championed in France by the politician/writer Charles Maurras, who declared Marshal Philippe Petain’s Vichy regime during World War II “a divine surprise” and who, as Weitzmann tells us, has an enthusiastic contemporary American admirer in the sometime Trump-whisperer Steve Bannon.
As odious as that thread of French thought may be, and while its influence might be detected in the National Front of Marine Le Pen, it is not the source of most anti-Semitic incidents in France today. That distinction goes to the mostly Muslim, immigrant communities of today’s French cités, the country’s sprawling working-class suburbs.
Weitzmann traces French Muslim resentment of Jews to the mid-19th century, when Paris extended French citizenship to Algerian Jews but conferred a different, indigenous status on Arabs and Berbers. These two different policies spared the Muslim upper classes the impact of French laws banning polygamy and slavery, while it granted Jews the legal protections enjoyed by French colonists. Algerian Muslims thus maintained an “authenticity” that appealed to some French blood-and-soil royalists who would not have wanted them as citizens in any case, at the expense of the welfare of the Muslim poor. Jews, meanwhile, again acquired citizenship of a modern sort, at the risk of appearing as opportunistic changelings to those who detested and feared change.
The 20th century witnessed two bloody wars in Algeria: the fight for independence in the 1950s and the civil war of the 1990s. Immigrants flooded to France, and many ended up in the cités, where they became economic casualties of French industrial decline, their children prime candidates for gangs that dealt in drugs and violence.
The hatred of Jews may have never been too far beneath the surface. Weitzmann quotes a French sociologist of Algerian ancestry: “When [Algerian] parents want to reprimand children, it is enough for them to call them Jews. OK, every Arab family knows that.” In the neighborhoods where Muslims of North African or West African origin rub shoulders with Jewish neighbors, themselves also typically with roots in North Africa, it is now not rare for kippot to be ripped off the heads of young boys or mezuzahs off apartment doorposts.
But Weitzmann finds a complex set of motives when he actually dissects the most notorious incidents of anti-Semitic violence. For example, when Kobili Traoré, a Muslim from Mali, broke into the apartment of a French Jewish woman, Sarah Halimi, and killed her, he was widely described as a jihadist. “But, of course, he wasn’t,” Weitzmann observes. Based on the killer’s account of his crime to a psychiatrist, Traoré, convinced that he was being pursued by the devil and demanding refuge, broke into a neighboring apartment first where the family barricaded itself into a bedroom. Then he climbed into Halimi’s apartment and, upon realizing she was Jewish, killed her. “In other words, Traoré did not enter Halimi’s apartment to kill her because she was Jewish,” Weitzmann concludes, “but, remembering she was a Jew, he killed her to exorcise the devil.” It was, in the examining psychiatrist’s words, an “anti-Semitic delirious episode.” This is not presented by the author as reassuring news.
Weitzmann’s telling of the story of French anti-Semitism is fascinating and passionate. An outsider might ask, though, whether contemporary anti-Semitism in France is as wrapped in the country’s specific imperial history as he would have it. Sweden’s relationship with Muslim immigrant groups is not tainted by a colonial experience, but anti-Semitic incidents have risen similarly, in most cases by people described as Muslim extremists. If broader forces are at play, Weitzmann does not consider them.
So how bad is it? Weitzmann writes: “By and large, for the average French citizen, the odds of dying as a victim of a terror attack or an anti-Semitic act in France today are close to nil. Yet it can happen.” In fact, both these writers are measured in their appraisals of the current danger. Lipstadt urges Jews to be as mindful of the “Joy” stories as they are of the “Oy” stories—e.g., not just the spray-painted swastikas and Jew-hating slogans on an Emory frat house, but also the campus-wide show of solidarity against anti-Semitism that followed. She warns against becoming absorbed in what the historian Salo Baron famously called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” To focus solely on anti-Semitism, she cautions, is to risk “seeing the entire Jewish experience through the eyes of the people who hate us.” This is good advice, but the discouraging import of both these books is that “people who hate us,” for various reasons, are still here and are not going away.
Robert Siegel a special literary contributor to Moment, was host of NPR’s All Things Considered.
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