Interview: Deborah Lipstadt on antisemitism and Rep. Omar’s “foreign allegiance” remark

Deborah Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She’s the author of numerous books including: Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory and The Eichmann Trial, and, most recently, Antisemitism: Here and Now. Professor Lipstadt and I exchanged emails this week on Right vs. Left antisemitism, and how one should discuss it in America. Below is a transcript, lightly edited for clarity.


Adam Rubenstein: As you begin to define antisemitism in your new book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, you write that “Antisemitism is not simply the hatred of something ‘foreign’ but the hatred of a perpetual evil in this world.” So on Rep. Ilhan Omar’s recent comment about “foreign allegiance” in the context of pro-Israel Americans, and in discussion of her Jewish colleagues; what do you make of it? Is this textbook antisemitism?  

Deborah Lipstadt: Sadly, I believe it is. Dual loyalties is part of the textbook accusations against Jews. They are cosmopolitans, globalists, not loyal to their country or fellow citizens. (That is why so many people were shocked when Stephen Miller used it at a press conference about DJT’s critics.)

AR: The right and the left seem to be playing a game of ‘whataboutism’ on calling out antisemitism that goes something like: “Rep. Steve King’s an anti-Semite and you didn’t say anything then, so your criticism of Rep. Ilhan Omar isn’t legitimate.” Is partisanship in calling out antisemitism something new? What might be done about this? Should we worry about this trend?

DL: I don’t remember a time when there was such sustained attacks from both the right and the left simultaneously. I think it is that phenomenon that leads to the ‘whataboutism.’ My argument is (as, I wrote about this in the Times of Israel) that we are only seeing antisemitism on the other side of the political transom from where we reside. When people do that (King was wrong and Omar was wrong…. Equally so…Not one or the other.) I discount the criticism of those who only see it on the other side. I tend to think they are just trying to score political points.

I think I am “onto something” here because when I do occasionally read the comments to my posts, talks, reviews etc. I see those on the right excoriating me as a lefty (they use far more malicious terms). And vice versa. When both sides hate you that convinces me I must be right!!

It reminds me of when I wrote my book on Eichmann. Anti-Arendt folks thought I was too easy on her. Pro-Arendt folks thought was unfairly hard on her…. Voila, I must have gotten her just right.

AR: In your view, are Rep. Omar’s statements antisemitic or are they simply anti-Israel? Antisemitism and anti-Zionism aren’t in theory the same thing, but they often have connection points. Is what Rep. Omar says, her “foreign allegiance” comment, her support for BDS, and that support for Israel in Congress is “about the Benjamins,” i.e. Jewish money, simply “critical of Israel” or does it cross the line into antisemitism?

DL: This is such a nuanced topic and I deal with it in depth in the book. But simply put, (and giving her the benefit of the doubt… which is harder to do each time she engages in one of these attacks), she may think she is only criticizing Israel and its policies but one cannot ignore the fact that she is relying on traditional antisemitic tropes to do so. (To be an equal opportunity critic: When Kevin McCarthy accused Soros, Bloomberg, and Steyer of BUYING the election it was quite striking and evocative of traditional antisemitism.)

What it suggests to me is that, at best, these people exist in a place where antisemitism is out in the ethosphere; they hear it, breath it in, and don’t even recognize it as antisemitism. We see that same thing among some, and I emphasize only some, members of the Labour party. Many others know exactly what they are doing. You can only apologize so many times before I quote the Bard: Methinks the gentleman (gentlelady) doth protest too much.

AR: Antisemitism, anti-Semitism, Jew-hatred: what to call it? You have a letter in your book about the nomenclature, but could you parse the differences for us. How should we be spelling and referring to antisemitism? What’s at stake?

DL: It should be spelled as one word. Its inventor wanted it to mean one thing and one thing only: Jew hatred. He coined this word because he want his word to encompass, not just Jews who are religious, but Jews who have abandoned all links to the religion. He wanted to depict Jews as a metaphysical enemy. He wanted something large. And he got it. He certainly did not mean being against “semites” (whatever that is…. There are people who speak semitic language but that’s it….) – hence no hyphen.

I sometimes use the term “Jew hatred” but I “prefer” (prefer in the sense of “how do you prefer your poison?”) antisemitism because it should be by now, in the wake of Hitler and the Holocaust, a thoroughly discredited term. It should be gone. And it’s not. In fact, unless you are living under a rock, you know it is back and it has become increasingly acceptable.

It is a serious accusation. We should not use it against those with whom we disagree politically or otherwise. We should use as a badge of shame. That is why I am so careful about pinning it on anyone. When I do so I want it to stick and stick hard and be painful.

Final point: The Pittsburgh event was the worst. People were murdered. However, I am also terrified by the way antisemitism has become ubiquitous: floats in Mardi Gras parades, swastikas on synagogues, cutting down of trees in memory of the Shoah and of Ilan Halimi, etc. etc. etc. Antisemities have become emboldened and that should worry us greatly. They have not been created by these events but they have felt free, to borrow a phrase from the other side of the prejudicial barrier, to “come out of the closet.” They feel free to say things that would not have said a short while ago.

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