Ira Forman in Conversation With Deborah Lipstadt
Deborah Lipstadt knows a lot about anti-Semitism, and she’s talked a lot about it lately, ever since her book Antisemitism: Here and Now came out right in the middle of the biggest public furor on the topic in years. Lipstadt is a historian of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, and she’s written three previous award-winning books on the Holocaust and Holocaust denial, including one on the time she was sued for libel by a Holocaust denier. (She won.)
Not many people can match the depth of her immersion, but one who can is Moment Institute Fellow Ira Forman, who was the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism from 2013 until 2017. Forman now teaches the subject as a visiting professor of contemporary anti-Semitism at Georgetown University; he’s also a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Center for Jewish Civilization, the senior advisor for combatting anti-Semitism at Human Rights First. He also manages the Anti-Semitism Monitor. When these two experts sat down to talk shop, it wasn’t just another interview. See for yourself.
Ira Forman: You’re a historian. What does history tell us about anti-Semitism today, and maybe, if possible, tomorrow?
Deborah Lipstadt: There’s a historical constant here. Anti-Semitism is not just disliking Jews. Anti-Semitism is the pinning on “the Jews” of certain characteristics: money, power, smarts and the nefarious, malicious, diabolical use of power.
You also say it’s not the 1930s. Talk to me a little bit from a historian’s perspective on how this is different from the 1930s.
There’s one major difference. After the massacre at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, every governmental agency I can think of in the United States condemned it. In the 1930s, the hate was coming from governmental agencies. One story I always found chilling about Kristallnacht was about kids who were in a Jewish boarding school, and in the middle of the night their teachers woke them up: “Get out of your bed in your pajamas and run outside.” One of the kids said, “Where should we run to?” The teacher said, “Run to the policemen.” The little boy ran to a policeman who said, “I don’t protect Jewish children.” That’s a big difference.
Do you see any governments today that are anti-Semitic like that, as opposed to having some anti-Semitic policies? Would you compare Hungary or Poland’s behavior now to Poland in the 1930s?
No. They’re different types.
Since we’re talking about Hungary, let me ask you about the House of Fates museum there, which Moment just did a long piece on. Some people have said to me, “Look, this isn’t Holocaust denial. You have the government, at times, saying that they have some responsibility. Maybe the emphasis is not enough on Hungarian responsibility, and talking a lot more about Hungarians who were trying to save Jews and trying to avoid some tough questions, but is it so bad?”
That’s bullshit. And you can quote me on that. When the Germans came into Hungary in mid-March 1944, they did so not because the Hungarians had refused to deport the Jews. They did so because they were afraid the Hungarians were going to flip sides, because the Soviets were coming closer. In the space of seven weeks, 500,000 people were deported, of which over 400,000 are murdered in Auschwitz. You don’t do that with the small number of Germans who invaded Hungary. You do that with the Hungarian railway, with Hungarian infrastructure, with Hungarian civilians. It’s the killing of Hungarian Jews in that short space of time that makes Auschwitz the greatest killing field in the world. What they’re saying now is just a rewriting of history.
When you look at the Orban government, and you see the dog-whistle anti-Semitism it uses against George Soros and others, on the one hand, and when you see this rewriting of history, we’re going to pick our own Jews to decide the House of Fates—which one disturbs you most?
I find the absorption of the demonization of Soros by Jews revolting. I hear it all the time. “He was a Nazi collaborator.” Excuse me, how old was he? He’s 88 now, do the math. He was 14. His parents hid, his father hid him with a family. What’s he supposed to say? “On principle, I’m not going with you to help you inventory this Jewish property because I’m Jewish.” He was afraid to go pee because they would see he was circumcised.
I don’t expect more from an Orban. Orban’s going to rewrite the history; that’s the kind of guy he is. Even though he went to Oxford on a Soros scholarship; Soros’s foundation bought him a copying machine to do his original work. But the Jews who are cooperating with him, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu giving him cover, are very troubling for me, and I’m being restrained here.
Governments play realpolitik, but this is a bridge too far. If you are going to declare yourself to be the lead defender of the Jewish people worldwide, as the Jewish state does, you have a responsibility to the diaspora to speak out when it is under attack. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t claim to be the defender of the Jewish people and then get into bed with the anti-Semites.
Let’s move to the present now, and this whole controversy with Ilhan Omar. What does this tell us about the use of anti-Semitism today?
It’s exceptionally disturbing. Yair Rosenberg in Tablet says Representative Omar may be a true example of the “demi-clueless anti-Semite.” Not the clueless but the demi-clueless—I have that typology in my book—because she is one of the few that has shown a willingness to listen and step back from what she’s saying. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I just came back from London, where progressives of the Jeremy Corbyn type have a view of the world that’s refracted through a prism with two facets, ethnicity and class privilege. Jews are white in their eyes—ironically, because according to the people on the right, we’re not white. The killer in Pittsburgh came in saying, “You’re not going to destroy the white people.” But in the left’s view, Jews are privileged. If you’re white and then you’re privileged, then you have power, and only people without power are victims of prejudice. That’s their construct. Jeremy Corbyn will tell you, “It’s impossible for me to be an anti-Semite because I’m a progressive, and my mother marched in the anti-fascist demonstrations in the 1930s.” So calling me a prejudiced person, you must have an ulterior motive.
I think there are lots of kids on campus, and maybe even some adults, saying BDS is a good thing, saying, “Remember how we brought down apartheid with boycotting South Africa? Let’s bring down this terrible system with BDS.” I don’t think they necessarily are anti-Semites. They might be ill-informed. But if you look at the founding documents of BDS, Omar Barghouti is clearly calling for the destruction of the State of Israel.
Do you think it’s more important to look at what people’s intent is, what they’re thinking, whether they hate Jews, or what actually the effect of their speech is?
The second is more important. The effect of the speech or the effect of the action. I have no idea whether Jeremy Corbyn or Donald Trump are anti-Semites in their own hearts. That’s between them and their cardiologist. It’s what they do that’s my measuring rod.
How does that affect you when you look at this debate over having a working definition of anti-Semitism?
There are ways some people thought the definition was a good one. Some thoughtful people have problems with it. That’s not the issue. The issue was this blanket statement by Corbyn, that “We’ll determine what it is. You will not impose on us a definition.” They never do that in terms of racism, misogyny, Islamophobia. Now they might say, should this or that really be part of it, isn’t this problematic? But that’s not what they did. They determined that they would decide. I think it was Jonathan Friedman in The Guardian who said, “It’s the only group that’s an object of prejudice where they don’t let them define what it is.”
When I was at the Department of State, we always were thinking from a practical point of view about which Jewish community we should be most worried about in terms of their vulnerability to anti-Semitism. When you look around the world, obviously we all focus a lot on the United States, but about which community or communities do you say, “This is where we need to do something now”?
I don’t know what we can do. I was at a conference in London, and someone said it’s only a matter of time before something happens in Stanford Hill. That’s one of the Haredi communities in England. Let’s put it this way: There are places in France, there are places in London, which are very vulnerable to violence within, from people living there, whether immigrants or non-immigrants. We’re seeing that many of the actions have not been done by immigrants.
Well, certainly here, it’s non-immigrants. In terms of violence, it’s mostly been the extreme right. Do you think there is the possibility of something in the United States coming from another source as well?
It’s always possible. But right now I see it much more coming from the right, just by the evidence of what we see.
We’ve just been talking about Eastern Europe, where we don’t have violence now. Hungary has maybe up to 100,000 Jews. Ukraine probably has more than 100,000. Russia still has 100-200,000. We don’t have Muslim populations in most of these countries to any degree, but we have right-wing anti-Semitism extremists but no violence, so far.
There was that Jobbik guy in Hungary, who helped found the fascist movement, then found out he was Jewish.
His grandmother was a Jew.
Strange story. But those groups certainly seem capable of violence, and all Orban has to do is set it off.
You’ve been doing this for a long time. We met in 2014 at the presidential delegation to the Berlin conference. You’ve seen how things have changed. At one point you said a Jewish optimist is someone who thinks things can’t get any worse.
Right, and a pessimist is someone who knows that it can.
Do you see any good trends at all?
It’s good that the governments, at least on the surface—even Orban—will say, “I’m against it.” It’s what we call in Hebrew half a consolation, you know? But that certainly is something. When the CNN study came out, showing that anti-Semitism was widespread, every government said, “Oh this is bad. This is a problem.” That’s a scene change.
Compared to 20 years ago, compared to even five years ago do you think?
They might have said it five years ago. 25 years ago, don’t you remember in France, when there was an attack on a synagogue and because they couldn’t get into the synagogue they killed people in the street? What did the French Prime Minister say, “Twelve innocent Frenchman and six Jews were killed, or something like that. That is very different from what you’re hearing out of governments today in Paris or London. Take French President Emmanuel Macron. The week that people were killed in a terrorist incident in the south, and a policeman was killed, it was the same week that that Holocaust survivor was killed. Macron talked about her at the funeral for the policeman who was killed. That wouldn’t have happened before.
So you’re the Jewish optimist here.
The only way I can survive. But yes.
Your book has some don’ts. One is clearly the overuse, the frivolous use, of charges of anti-Semitism. Another is the partisan or ideological use of anti-Semitism. Can you expand a little bit on both of those topics?
“I missed the bus, the bus driver must be an anti-Semite.” No one takes that kind of thing seriously. But when the EU passed a nonbinding resolution, saying states should boycott stuff from the West Bank—not Israel, but the West Bank—then Netanyahu and his then-ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, and others, said, “We Jews know what it’s like to be marked by the Europeans. This is like the yellow star.” Well, give me a break. That was so over the top and such unnecessary sort of citation of the Holocaust. It gives fuel to our opponents who would say, “See those Jews, they’re always playing the Holocaust card.” It’s historically wrong, it’s morally wrong, and strategically it plays right into the hands of your enemies. It’s crying wolf. It’s like saying BDS is like the Nazi laws of the 1930s.
What about the use of anti-Semitism charges as a partisan or an ideological tool?
There was that meeting when 1,200 students from J Street came to the UN. When they get there, the security people say to them, “I don’t know if it’s so smart for you to wear your J Street t-shirt. We can’t guarantee your safety.” Then, during a talk by South Carolina Rep. Allan Clemmons, a J Street student stands up and says, “I’m from J Street, and while we oppose BDS, we also oppose using goods from the West Bank. How, in presenting this, do we differentiate?” A thoughtful question. Maybe you don’t agree with it, but thoughtful. But he looks at her and he says, “J Street’s the most anti-Israel organization….” I’m paraphrasing here, you have the exact quote in the book. The place cheers. I called the reporter who wrote that story, and I said, “Tell me, is this how it really went down?” She said, “Yes.”
That’s coming from the right. Do you see it coming from the left as well?
Sure. Jewish Voice for Peace, most of those kids didn’t know they were Jewish until it came time to criticize Israel. Their behavior is outrageous.
Do they criticize anti-Semitism?
Yes, but I don’t know how many of them, for instance, would see Representative Omar’s statement as problematic. I wonder how many would say, “No, no, no she was just telling the truth about AIPAC”?
They certainly would see it in Pittsburgh, I assume.
Yes. This is [New York Times columnist] Bari Weiss’s line, “Jews were never so popular with the left as in the days after Pittsburgh.” The left loves dead Jews and Jewish cemeteries that are toppled. When it’s more subtle than that, they don’t see it.
Is this what’s happening when people say, well, Farrakhan has no power, the anti-Semites with power are on the right, so his anti-Semitism doesn’t matter?
Well, I think, first of all, he does have power amongst his followers, who are small in number, but he still is a figure who gets attention. But when he called us termites—when he said, “I’m not an anti-Semite, I’m anti-termite”—who do you call when you have termites?
Right. This is Nazi language.
Is there a middle ground where you might see something that you think is inappropriate or problematic, but you don’t really want to use the term anti-Semite? What do you do?
It’s situational. You have to decide what’s you’re going to say, especially with the clueless person. I’ll give you an example. One of the reviews of my book criticized me for being too nuanced and measured, saying in essence that I’m sitting and talking quietly while the house is burning down. She cited the place in the book where Abigail, my student, comes to me and says, “I have roommates who are saying things like, ‘I’m going shopping with you, because I know I’ll get a good deal,’ and I know they’re wrong but how do I answer them? How do I get at them?” The reviewer says, “I would have told Abigail to find new friends.” But there’s a chance to educate here. It’s a real situation. It happened. You try to educate, you try to reach out. But for so many people, especially on the more conservative end of the spectrum, it’s been, “If Farrakhan doesn’t like us I’m done with social justice, I’m done with prison reform.” It’s not a transaction. Maybe to them it’s transactional but if you really believe in it, you stay there and you fight, even if it’s hard to figure out how to fight.
What can people do? I get this question all the time, I’m sure you do, too.
I tell people it’s hard to answer. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it. If I could give you ten easy things to do, it would suggest the problem is not such a serious problem. But people are frustrated by that answer. If I were writing the book today, probably I’d have more of a consolidated section about what to do.
At one point you say, in the American context, we can’t rely on our political leaders always, we have to go to civil society.
I think civil society is a big part of it. That’s why I have the example of the “dinner party anti-Semite,” the person who says at the dinner party, “Oh, we just hired an Orthodox associate for our law firm, but he’s a hard worker and he’s honest.” My first job out of graduate school, I was at the University of Washington in Seattle, teaching Jewish history. About eight months into the position, a colleague took me out for coffee and he said, “Deborah, I have to tell you, when I heard we were getting a Jewish woman from New York for this position I was really worried, but you’re terrific.” I choked on my coffee. I was young. I was not tenured, he was tenured. I shut up.
What would you say today?
Today I would say, “I know you mean that as a compliment, but it is one of the most anti-Semitic things I’ve ever heard.” I would quote Franklin Foer and say, “A philo-Semite is an anti-Semite who likes Jews.”
You say many a time this is not a Jewish problem.
It’s not. Because any democratic society which has in it a core of anti-Semitism, or in which anti-Semitism is thriving, is not really a healthy society. If a good portion of your populace is taken in by conspiracy theories and fake news, you can’t get them to believe real news. If they’re taken in about Jews, about hordes of people coming from the south of the border, or whatever it is, then when you talk to them honestly about the economy, or about politics, or the social composition of society, they’re not listening.
This is an irrational behavior, and you mention many times anti-Semitism is irrational.
Delusional and irrational. It’s the same conundrum I faced when I was dealing with deniers. How do you explain and respond to a group that you think is of no value whatsoever without raising them up in value? David Duke is a hater and a misogynist, he’s washed up, he’s a nothing. How do you fight him without building him up? Anthony Julius, my lawyer in the denial case, said something to me very interesting at one point early in the fight. I said to him, “I want to beat this guy badly. I want to decimate him. I want to really destroy him.” He said, “Deborah, he’s not that important.” I looked at him, I said, “You’ve been working a year and a half pro bono. You’re working on this case full-time. What do you mean he’s not so important?” He said, “Think of fighting David Irving as the shit you step in on the street. It has no intrinsic value unless you fail to clean it off your feet, and you bring it into the house. Then you’re in trouble.”
You can clean that carpet 87 times with the strongest chemicals, whatever, when you have a little baby in the house and you know that baby’s crawling, I don’t want that carpet there. I don’t want him crawling on that carpet. That’s a conundrum, and it’s nonstop. How do we fight these people without building them up?
How do you make that decision?
In that case, I had no choice. He sued me for libel. I couldn’t just say, I’m not fighting you because I think you’re a shit. I would’ve liked to say that, but I couldn’t.
Is the Farrakhan question a similar challenge? How to respond without building him up.
It’s absolutely similar. Had he just called us termites and hadn’t been involved in a national movement, I would have ignored it. But once it involved the national movement there was no ignoring it.
In Latin America I saw a story that Jewish communities were approached by the Catholic church after anti-Semitic statements were made by someone in the public sphere, said, “Do you want us to denounce this?” The community saying, in both cases, “No.” I don’t want you to raise it so people are talking about it. Of course, there it’s different from here.
It’s different because they’re scared.
The Jewish community here is not scared.
That’s right. It’s so interesting to watch the British Jewish community. I was at JW3 on Saturday night, and a woman, I would say probably in her 50s, a very nice looking woman raised her hand and said, “I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for 30 years.” She joined when she was 20-something. “My parents were members of the Labour Party. This has been my political home. Where do I go from here?”
I think the Jewish Chronicle has a poll of Jews saying, would you consider emigrating from Britain/UK if Corbyn is the prime minister? Something like 80 percent said yes. What do you think that means?
You never know with those kind of things. I think most wouldn’t, but the very fact that they think that, are willing to say that, is striking. It reminds me of an anecdote from Marianne Kaplan’s book on Jewish life in Nazi Germany, 1933 to 1945. What was it like to live in Nazi Germany as a Jew? What was it like to send your kids to school where their teachers were Nazis? What was it like to only be able to shop after 4 p.m.? There’s an anecdote where a woman writes that she was in first or second grade at a Jewish school, I think in 1934, and the teacher asked how many of you are thinking of emigrating? How many of your families? Everybody in the class raises their hand. I think it’s the woman who wrote the memoir who goes on to say it, not Marianne Kaplan, she goes on to say, “I’m not citing that as a statistic to show you that everybody in my community was thinking of emigrating, but I’m showing that we, at six years old, knew what Auswanderung meant.” This shows it was being discussed. This one is leaving, that one is leaving, where would you go? In Britain, I don’t think that 80 percent would really pick up and leave, but that you’re getting such a response is indicative of the discomfort, of the worry, of the pain that this community is feeling.
You talk about the perfect storm from the left, from the right, from parts of the Muslim community. Are the things that you need to do the same, against anti-Semitism from these different sources?
No. It’s different. With the book, I’m hoping to get Jewish leaders thinking about this so they step away from their political agenda. There are Jews now in the Republican party who are just delighted over what’s going on with the Democratic party, saying, “This is great. This is great.” Then the people on the right who said, “Oh, the shooter in Pittsburgh didn’t like Trump, so it has nothing to do with Trump.” Well, it was all Trump’s rhetoric that got him ginned up. “A swarm, a hoard, a this, a that, the other, coming over the border.” It’s a really serious time and we can’t afford that weaponization. We can’t afford to score political points on anti-Semitism.
Take Trump’s visit to Pittsburgh. I wasn’t at the rally against his appearance, but my sense is that there were people at the rally who really felt it was inappropriate for this to be politicized, but there were also people who saw this as a great way of beating up on the president.
What heartens you the most when people speak out?
What heartens me the most is when someone is willing to turn to the person next to them and say, “I share 80 percent of your values, but I can’t march behind you because you won’t condemn anti-Semitism.”
I did a forum in Stockholm, and a woman came up to me afterward and said, “I’m a former politician. I was in the Green Party but I had to leave because of anti-Semitism.”
I would assume.
What heartened you most after Pittsburgh?
What heartened me most was the number of non-Jews who showed up in shul on Friday. I happened to be in St Louis at a conference. A Holocaust scholar from Canada and I found where the synagogue was and we schlepped ourselves to a synagogue. The place was packed with non-Jewish leaders. I heard that at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Washington, DC, on Friday night there was a line outside the door, and Rabbi Shira Stutman stood up and said, “I just want to know how many of you are non-Jews so we can welcome you,” and 40 percent of the people there stood up.
Would that happen in Europe?
It might happen in the UK, it might happen in France. But that was a stunning moment. Whoever thought of that hashtag, #Show Up For Shabbat, created a phenomenon. Suddenly on CNN, and MSNBC, you have people talking about Shabbat. I mean, it was horrible, but it was great.