When Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt was asked to define anti-Semitism in a sentence or two, she answered a question with another question and didn’t miss a beat:
“You want an elevator speech on anti-Semitism?”
Promoting her book “Antisemitism: Here and Now” on Tuesday at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, the Emory University historian considered whether the current wave of anti-Semitism is different from Jew hatred in the past.
“It’s the same, but it’s presented somewhat differently,” she said. “We’ve had anti-Semitism from the right and the left and Islamist extremists, but also sectors of the Muslim community who would never think of engaging in violence
Lipstadt had just returned from a speaking engagement in Sweden. She reported that in many areas of Stockholm, Jews preferred to keep their identities hidden.
As for solutions, Lipstadt told the crowd that they have to be the “unwelcome guest at the dinner party.” In other words, when someone casually says something that’s anti-Semitic, the Jew is responsible for correcting them.
“It’s not because you’re going to change their minds. It’s to change those who might be influenced,” she said. “We have to telegraph a message that we don’t tolerate that kind of talk, especially to young people,” she added.
At the same time, Lipstadt cautioned that Jews can’t call something anti-Semitism when it isn’t.
“If we’re always yelling ‘the sky’s falling’ when it’s not falling, you lose credibility — though I happen to think the sky is shaky right now.”
Much of the moderated talk and the question-and-answer session were devoted to determining exactly what is anti-Semitic.
Lipstadt alternated between metaphors such as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography (“I’ll know it when I see it”) and Russian-British-Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin (“Someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary”) to present a view of anti-Semitism that was subjective but also identifiable as a deliberate conflation of stereotypes for truth.
On the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, Lipstadt said, “I think there are many kids who are part of BDS who aren’t anti-Semitic. They might see it as their generation’s equivalent of anti-apartheid. However, if you look at the founding documents, it’s very clear [what they stand for].”
One attendee asked Lipstadt if Jews are experiencing a period similar to the Golden Age in Spain, which ended in the forced conversion of Jews to Christianity and their eventual expulsion, and if the “writing is on the wall.”
Lipstadt replied that she is not willing to predict the future, but even though it’s a much more difficult time, she is confident in Jews ability to thrive tend to thrive.
Lipstadt, a recipient of the National Jewish Book Honor Award for “Denying the Holocaust” and a presidential appointee at the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, said Jews should avoid self-victimization.
“For [non-Jews], I say, don’t think of us only as victims, we’re a lot more than that. For Jews, the danger is in accepting those negative stereotypes.”
Orrin Konheim is a Washington-area writer.