In conversation with Sixth & I’s senior rabbi, Shira Stutman, Lipdstadt touched upon the long provenance of antisemitism, which found its way into Christianity’s earliest texts, to more modern interpretations. But much of this established hatred, she assessed, remains rooted in conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world.
Deborah Lipstadt, a Holocaust historian currently teaching at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., is perhaps best well known for her brush with David Irving, who sued her for libel in the UK for calling him a Holocaust denier. That experience led to her 2005 book, History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, and a 2016 movie starring Rachel Weisz.
Her most recent book centers upon the conceit that she is addressing two individuals about antisemitism today—a Jewish student and a non-Jewish colleague. But the issues raised are based on real interactions, Lipdstadt asserts. The book cover focuses on the tiki torches wielded by white supremacists at a 2017 rally who, among other things, shouted antisemitic slurs. Then, when advance copies of the book were circulating, a white nationalist committed a massacre at a synagogue, in the largest single instance of violence against Jews on American soil.
Lipstadt described white nationalists of the far right believing in age-worn conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world and working with Blacks to destroy the white race. Liberal billionaire George Soros, Lipstadt says, has emerged as the 21st century version of the Rothschilds.
On the other side of the political spectrum, some voices on the left see things through a particular prism of race and class. Since American Jews are seen as wealthy and white, the claim goes, they can’t actually be discriminated against. And any attempt to challenge this must be a cover up for something else. The relation to right-wing conspiracy theories grows starker in the midst of recent firestorm over Democratic Representative Ilhan Omar leaning into the notion that a Jewish lobby controls the government through money.
Lipstadt made it clear, in a 15-minute q&a session with the audience, that she wasn’t calling out specific leaders as antisemites. But giving voice to these conspiracy theories has broader repercussions, as the Tree of Life Synagogue proved. Lipstadt also touched upon BDS and a “myopic” focus on Israel’s faults, and she shared personal anecdotes, like a neighbor trying to get her daughter to come to terms with the fact that their shul needs police protection.
She also attempted to tell a few jokes, bittersweet as they were, like this one that she heard in the 1970s Soviet Union (to paraphrase): a shoe company gets a large shipment of shoes and a long line forms early on a cold morning. Later, the shopkeeper walks outside and says, “We are running out of shoes. All Jews must leave the line and go home.” So they do. Later, the shopkeeper reappears and says, “We are running out of shoes. All non-Party members must leave the line.” This exchange repeats a little later, with the shopkeeper asking those who didn’t serve in WWII to leave. Finally, they run out of shoes and turn away the elderly veterans. As these folks shuffle away, they proclaim: “those lucky Jews; they must have known what was coming!”
The problem with antisemitism, Lipstadt says, is the problem with most conspiracy theories. It is illogical, and attempts to counter it with facts only feeds into the narrative. But the Holocaust historian also urged the audience not to give into despair. Before giving way to the signing portion of the evening she talked about the last chapter in her book: “Oy versus Joy.” In this epistle to reject victimhood, Lipstadt hopes we take pride in our heritage and what we’ve given the world.