Covering Jewish Life in Orange County

Historian Deborah Lipstadt Analyzes Anti-Semitism

“How can an animus that is so old be so wrong?” asked Dr. Deborah E. Lipstadt, professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University and author of several books, when she spoke about the irrational and delusional qualities of anti-Semitism to a packed house at Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School on Thursday, March 16.

Dr. Lipstadt wrote History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier in 2005, describing her successful defense against a libel suit brought in London by British anti-Semite David Irving. This book was made into the film Denial, starring Rachel Weisz, in 2016. Dr. Lipstadt also was the author of the books Denying the Holocaust (1993), and The Eichmann Trial (2011). She was a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In 1994 she was appointed by Bill Clinton to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, serving two terms.

In her talk, she cited Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity (“I may have trouble defining it, but I know it when I see it.”) as an apt parallel for defining anti-Semitism and other bigotry. Its victims know it when they see it.

Dr. Lipstadt described anti-Semitism as an irrational and delusional perception of Jews as a collective which, like an infection, can disappear for a time but always comes back. She argued that Holocaust deniers should not be debated, since their view is irrational and cannot be changed.

She cited the interesting observation of philosopher Isaiah Berlin, that an anti-Semite is “someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary.” Thus, she noted, if an aggressive driver cuts us off, we have the legitimate right to be angry with him, but if he is also black, we don’t have the right to be angry with him on that basis. This is hating him more than is necessary and adds an irrational collective element to our anger. This is what has been done to Jews.

Dr. Lipstadt addressed the contemporary situation by noting that “the political left and right meet on hatred of Jews.” She also criticized the present tendency to dilute the absolute nature of the Holocaust with a wrongheaded inclusiveness that equates the suffering of discrimination by other groups with outright mass murder and the attempt to eliminate an entire population.

Dr. Lipstadt’s talk was well received and enjoyed by the audience. The program was part of TVT’s speakers series.