Columns Jeffrey Salkin: Martini Judaism Opinion

Deborah Lipstadt teaches us how to spell antisemitism

Deborah Lipstadt. Photo courtesy of Emory University

Microsoft Word knows how. This website knows how.

Deborah Lipstadt tells us why.

Why is it antisemitism, and not anti-Semitism (which, even as I type it, gets red flagged)?

Because there is no such thing as Semitism to be anti. There is no such thing as Semites; rather, there are only Semitic languages, like Hebrew and Arabic.

That is just one of the important insights that Prof. Lipstadt offers in her new book, Antisemitism Here and Now.

I read the book in one sitting. I could not put it down. You won’t be able to turn away from it, either. It is that good — and it is that relevant.

Deborah Lipstadt is an American Jewish heroine. A professor at Emory University, fate catapulted her to international fame when Holocaust denier David Irving sued her in a British court for libel. Watch the movie based on the case — Denial. Deborah won. So did the survivors. So did truth.

Deborah’s timing on this book is impeccable. It sees the light of day a few months after the Pittsburgh shootings, and days after the controversies over the Women’s March.

Let me hasten to say: these events are very, very different, but they have generated important conversations about what some have called the oldest hatred.

Deborah Lipstadt’s book is not an academic history of antisemitism. This is something more valuable — an act of zooming in the moral lens on what is happening in the world today.

Deborah imagines a series of correspondences between herself and a college student and a fellow academic on the various aspects of antisemitism.

The result: a book that is conversational in tone, and often controversial in content.

Why controversial?

Because it will make many people uncomfortable.

First, antisemitism is different from other hatreds.

We tend to lump all hatreds, prejudices, and bigotries together.

Not so fast.

All bigotries are terrible. Antisemitism is uniquely terrible.

It is irrational. It bases itself on imagining that the Jews conspire to influence and run the world.

(Not so fun fact: the word “cabal,” meaning a secret conspiracy, comes from the word “cabbalah” or “kabbalah” — Jewish mysticism. Because Jew haters used to believe that the Jews used mystical techniques to run the world).

You might think that this idea is old and obsolete.

If only.

Deborah reminds us of the essential anti-Jewish paranoia of Louis Farrakhan: “It is now becoming apparent that there were many Israeli and Zionist Jews in key roles in the 9/11 attack.”

Deborah introduces us to Joy Karega, an assistant professor at Oberlin College, who goes totally retro on us and accuses Jewish financial interests of manipulating the United States. (There are also professors who have taught that Israelis harvest Palestinian organs — which goes all the way back to the blood libel).

Second, Deborah pulls no punches. She is a centrist — and she names the antisemitism that exists on both sides of the political spectrum.

Consider the twin ideologies: Trumpism and Corbynism.

Trump has made antisemitic ideas and statements, referring to the supposed Jewish proclivity in business and making deals. He engages in antisemitic dog whistles about globalists. He refuses to condemn white supremacists and antisemites.

Corbyn, for his part, engages in deliberate baiting of Jews and Israel. He defends known terrorists.

Fundamental to Corbyn’s political weltanschaung (world view) is an automatic — critics might call it knee-jerk — sympathy for anyone who is or appears to be oppressed or an underdog. Those who fight with rocks are always preferred to those who use tanks…anyone white, wealthy, or associated with a group that seems to be privileged cannot be a victim. Anyone who is or claims to be victimized by those who are white, wealthy, and/or privileged deserves unequivocal support. It is doubtful that Corbyn deliberately seeks out antisemites to associate with and to support. But it seems that when he encounters them, their Jew-hatred is irrelevant as long as their other positions — on class, race, capitalism, the role of the state, and Israel/Palestine — are to his liking.

Corbynism is now the dominant ideology of the British Labor Party.

It is also becoming the dominant ideology of the far left in the United States.

Third: not all antisemitism is the same. Location matters.

Take antisemitism in America. It is present, and lethally so.

But, it is nowhere close to what American blacks confront. Black parents have to give their children “the talk” about how to behave around the police; American Jewish parents don’t. In the United States, Jews can wear kippot anywhere.

Not so in Europe, where the re-emergence of antisemitism (the virus that never went away) has forced religious Jews to doff the kippah and wear baseball hats.

In the United States, antisemitic acts tend to come from whites on the right.

In Europe, despite the antisemitism of nationalists, what is the source of antisemitic violence?

Deborah makes it very clear: “Most of these attacks were committed by European Islamist extremists and their sympathizers.”

And, she wonders aloud: why do so many people rationalize such terror? Why did prominent intellectuals actually applaud the fatwa against Salman Rushdie? Or, the attacks on those who satirize Islam?

These are uncomfortable questions.

Fourth: anti-Israel rhetoric is often antisemitic.

We are not taking about criticizing Israeli policies.

We are talking about the deliberate attempt to make Israel toxic — especially as those attempts manifests themselves on campus, in acts against cultural artists, and through the BDS movement. She abhors the fad of equating Israeli acts with those of the Nazis as an obscene historical distortion.

And yet, Israel’s supporters sometimes shoot themselves in the foot — through actions against BDS that are counterproductive; through overreactions to Israel’s critics, such as Natalie Portman; through McCarthy-like tactics against academics who have been critical of Israel.

Fifth: yes, worry about antisemitism. But, it is not the reason why you are Jewish.

Deborah reminds her readers not to make antisemitism the cornerstone of their Jewish identity.

Or, to put it another way: Judaism is not about how “they” hate us. It is about how God loves us.

Read Deborah Lipstadt’s new book. It will be among the best Jewish books that you will read this year.

And then, give it to your children and grandchildren.

About the author

Jeffrey Salkin

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is the spiritual leader of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Fla., and the author of numerous books on Jewish spirituality and ethics, published by Jewish Lights Publishing and Jewish Publication Society.