A necessary read: 'Antisemitism: Here and Now'

Although undermined by its structure, and debatable points presented as unchallenged truths, Deborah Lipstadt’s book exposing bigotry and hate suffered by Jews is an essential read, writes Ronan Breathnach.

A necessary read: 'Antisemitism: Here and Now'

Although undermined by its structure, and debatable points presented as unchallenged truths, Deborah Lipstadt’s book exposing bigotry and hate suffered by Jews is an essential read, writes Ronan Breathnach.

Between 1941 and 1945, more than a third of all of the Jews in the world were systematically murdered with the aid of European governments, police, and the general public. Though not the only group targeted by the Third Reich and its collaborators, the vitriol directed toward Europe’s Jews was unique in its pitch and commonality. From France across to Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere, the Nazis found eager support for their Final Solution.

As vivid and harrowing evidence of the Holocaust emerged, the Western world was finally forced to contend with the antisemitism that had been flourishing across Christendom since before the Reformation. Societies began to tackle their own bigotry and name antisemitism as the unacceptable prejudice that it is.

Overturning millenia of hate is no easy feat, however, and the promise to “never forget” has not been upheld. Today up to a third of Europeans admit to having little or no knowledge of the Holocaust, and growing numbers of Americans underestimate the number of Jews murdered by the Nazis and their co-conspirators.

All of this makes Deborah Lipstadt’s new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, an important and timely reminder of the continued presence and impact of this ‘oldest hatred’.

Deborah Lipstadt has structured her latest book as a Socratic dialogue between the author and two fictional characters. Picture: Elisabetta A Villa/WireImage
Deborah Lipstadt has structured her latest book as a Socratic dialogue between the author and two fictional characters. Picture: Elisabetta A Villa/WireImage

Known by most for her victory over the Holocaust-denying David Irving in a high-profile libel case, Professor Lipstadt has a long and distinguished career dedicated to the study of Jewish history, the Holocaust, and the rise of Holocaust denial. Akin to her now famous Denying the Holocaust, Lipstadt’s latest work is a history of the present that, as the title indicates, explores the resurgence of antisemitism in the United States and Europe.

Unlike the books that came before, however, Antisemitism possesses an air of intimacy and urgency. This is a lot more than a historian’s recording of events or challenge against academic fraud.

As Lipstadt makes clear in her opening ‘Notes to the Reader’, this book deals with the very real violence and hatred targeted at the people of her faith and which she herself has seen emerge: “it is what many people are doing, saying, and facing now”.

The timeliness of the book is its strongest selling point. Across its 304 pages, Antisemitism shows how, far from perishing with the Nuremberg trials, the demonising of Jews has persisted and reemerged across the political spectrum. So much so that armed guards are needed to protect the doors of Europe’s synagogues while neo-Nazis march in American streets and Jews hide their kippahs for fear of attack.

As Lipstadt argues with fierce detail, the tolerance for antisemitism and support for open antisemites among leading political figures from the right and left has emboldened white nationalists, Islamic extremists, and others who target and demonise Jews.

This has allowed violent behaviour, seen as utterly abhorrent in the wake of the second world war, to reemerge on the streets of countries like America, France, and, of all places, Germany.

Antisemitism shines a light on the bigoted hate and persecution being suffered by Jews around the world and should be read for this reason alone. Yet the book isn’t that well written.

Borrowing from the likes of Stoker and Plato, it takes the form of a Socratic dialogue between Lipstadt and the fictional characters Abigail, a Jewish student, and Joe, a Gentile academic colleague.

Each chapter sees the three correspond in an effort to define what exactly antisemitism is, and what can be done to tackle it.

The formulaic structure and lack of depth in the characters turns this letter writing from a narrative tool into an annoying distraction.

Most chapters follow the same structure: a brief letter from Joe or Abigail, or sometimes both, will ask about a recent event or particular aspect of antisemitism, to which Lipstadt will write a long and detailed response. This over-simplistic call and response sees the book fall between two stools.

Absent of any character development or narrative arc, Lipstadt’s letters lack the natural flow of other correspondence-based books, like Dracula, and serves only to break up her natural academic flow. Worse still, there is little to no real engagement between the three characters outside of niceties and platitudes.

This makes Joe and Abigail come across as empty vessels from which Lipstadt can spring onto her next point. In this way, the letters not only disrupt what would otherwise be a strong academic analysis, they detract from the weight of Lipstadt’s arguments with hollow interactions that risk coming across as self-congratulating cheerleading. This at times sees her project debatable points as unchallenged truths.

We see this best in Lipstadt’s criticism of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

While rightly identifying the antisemitism that motivates many involved in this movement and the problems inherent in a boycott, she goes too far in painting, as wrong, boycotting itself. The success of legislative “efforts to stop commercial boycotts”, that Lipstadt appears to condone, deny a powerful political tool to those who would seek to peacefully pressure Israel into ending controversial policies, such as the extension of settlements into the West Bank.

There are strong criticisms to be made against the BDS movement and the efforts to toxify Israel, that Lipstadt does a good job in laying out.

But, in penning a range of harmonious voices that accept boycotts against Israel as inherently bad and ignoring the complexity of the movement and the role such tactics played in forcing South Africa to end apartheid, she undermines her own position and argument. Simply put, the unchallenging exchanges between the three academically-inclined letter writers come across as contrived and flat.

Outside of the constructed correspondence, however, Lipstadt is in her element. Disinterested in pandering to any audience, she makes it clear that “some readers may find themselves agreeing with me at one point and being outraged by what I say at another”.

Any question of this being an empty promise quickly dissipates as she shifts from highlighting the dangers of the alt-right and Donald Trump’s retweeting of white nationalists, to skewering the toleration of antisemitism among progressive movements, such as the British Labour Party.

Even the Jewish nation fails to escape Lipstadt’s criticism. In the final chapters she takes the Israeli government to task over their ties with nationalist administrations who trade in antisemitic rhetoric and are attempting to whitewash their own atrocious history.

Lipstadt isn’t slow in admonishing Israel or Benjamin Netanyahu for offering absolution to figures like Viktor Orbán or Poland’s Law and Justice Party despite protests from local Jewish communities.

Though Lipstadt tackles antisemitism in all walks of life — from the Islamic extremists that hide behind the suffering of Palestinians to the modern neo-nazis who march with polo shirts and tiki torches — her greatest accomplishment is in highlighting the subtle discrimination that has persisted across Europe and the US, on both ends of the political spectrum.

This emphasis forces everyone to consider their own role in the long-running, and continuing, persecution of the Jewish people. It is no accident of history that Ireland accepted so few refugees from Hitler’s Germany and that the Jewish communities of this island quietly fell away in Catholic Ireland.

Antisemitism is an important and necessary read, if a bit too contrived in style.

Antisemitism: Here and Now, Deborah Lipstadt Scribe, €16.99

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