Deborah Lipstadt on Fighting Antisemitism and Hatred

Historian Deborah Lipstadt has spent her life ensuring the Holocaust is not forgotten. She famously defeated Holocaust denier David Irving in a libel suit in British High Court and is Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University. She joins Walter Isaacson to discuss how we can fight the scourge of antisemitism and hate.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Historian Deborah Lipstadt, like Schramm, has devoted her life to contesting evil in all its forms. Born to Jewish immigrants, daughter of a German father, she is perhaps most famous for defeating Holocaust denier, David Irving’s libel suit in the British High Court. She’s a professor at Emory University in Georgia and her new book is “Antisemitism: Here and Now.” She tells our Walter Isaacson what we can all do to fight this scourge of hate.

WALTER ISAACSON: Deborah, welcome to the show.

DEBORAH LIPSTADT, AUTHOR, “ANTISEMITISM: HERE AND NOW”: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me.

ISAACSON: Your book is shaped as a series of letters to two fictional people. Why did you choose that method?

LIPSTADT: Well, I was struggling with how to write it, and how to write in a way that would engage people and how to write it in a way that would raise concerns without sounding shrill. And I struggled, and then a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you try letters,” and the minute she said that, it just clicked. And the letters, the two people I’m writing to, a young Jewish student, whip smart student who’s about to graduate from Emory, and a colleague in the law school, non-Jewish. They became stand-ins for people I’ve had conversations with. They may be fictional but everything I say to them and everything they asked of me are conversations and questions and e-mails that I’ve had over the past years, what is this, how do we define anti-Semitism, how do — is it is just something, you know, West Potter Stewart said, Justice Potter Stewart from the American Supreme Court said about pornography, I know it when I see it. I can’t define it but can we define that? I think we can define it. And so far, it’s gotten very, very — that format has engaged people a lot.

ISAACSON: This new wave of anti-Semitism, is it a wave that you think will recede soon? Are you worried that it will keep swelling?

LIPSTADT: You know, I’m a historian. We deal in the past. We shoo predictions. We don’t like to predict because usually if you predict, you’re going to be wrong. When I wrote the book, the introduction of the book, I say that this was a very hard to write and I didn’t know why it was hard. After all, I’ve been skulking around in the sewers of anti-Semitism and hatred ever since I started working on the Holocaust, and that’s been close to 40 years. But then I realized that when I write about that I’m writing about what was and now, I’m writing about what is. Then I go on to say in the introduction of the book that though it was hard to write it was even harder to finish. I had to — my editor had to drag it out of my hands because every day there was something new, a woman in Paris being thrown out of the window of her apartment because she was Jewish, an event in Hungary (INAUDIBLE) Poland something in the United States. And then, I go want to saying, the book was finished in September, the beginning of September, that one thing I’m willing to predict is by the time this book appears something will have happened to make it outdated.

ISAACSON: That was Pittsburg.

LIPSTADT: Pittsburg. So, I can’t predict. But what I see right now with what I call the perfect storm of anti-Semitism doesn’t leave me comforted. I’m not a, you know, Chicken Little, dear me, the sky is falling, but I’m worried. I’m worried. And I hope people take action. I think, you know. we maybe can’t stop the shooters who — like the Pittsburgh or the people who shoot up synagogues or whatever it might be in other places, but we can make it clear that we won’t abide this kind of thing. You know, you’re at a family celebration, a family dinner and every — and someone says, Look, Uncle X, Y, Z is a racist or an anti-Semite, but don’t say anything because we want to keep it friendly,” but but you have to say something. You have to say something not because you’re going to change to Uncle X, Y, Z’s opinions but to telegraph to the other people, especially, but not only the young people table, that we don’t accept this, that this is not how we speak, this is — and we don’t allow this kind of talk, not within our confines where we can control it. I think that is really crucial, and that’s what I’m hoping this book will give people the ammunition to do.

ISAACSON: What’s new about any-Semitism today?

LIPSTADT: Well, what’s new today is the situation. Today, we see on the right, the political right, we see on the political left and we see it amongst Islamists, in Europe and in other places as well. So it’s sort of a perfect storm in a way that we haven’t seen it before.

ISAACSON: And what’s old about it? I mean what’s — how is it the same?

LIPSTADT: The charges — the thing that antisemitism, it’s what we call the oldest hatred because it goes back thousands of years. The charges remain the same. If you want to identify antisemitism, you sort of look for some sort of relationship to money. It always has to do with money. Jews love money. Jews want money or whatever it might be. Power and the serious use of that power. So that power to use to enhance themselves, to aggrandize themselves at the expense of others. Irrespective of whether you’re looking at the Nazis or the Communists or late 19 Century anti-Semite or going way back to church, the church, et cetera, you find those three things running through.

ISAACSON: And well, you’re a historian, why do those persist?

LIPSTADT: Why do they persist? That’s a hard question. They start — the root is in the story of the death of Jesus in the New Testament. That Jesus, according to the story, the way it’s told in the New Testament, wanted to chase the money changers out of the temple. And that the Jews — even though he was a Jew. Everybody in the story is Jewish but it becomes “the Jews” got the Romans, the most powerful entity in the world to crucify him because he was harming them and they didn’t care what goodness he could have brought to the world. And those themes have remained constant. Jews are an anomaly. They should have disappeared a long time ago, not because of pursue but they should have just integrated and assimilated. We’re a small number. You know 12 million people. You ask somebody on the street how many Jews there are, they’ll tell you 60, 7 million or whatever it is. It’s 12 million, maybe 13 million Jews. So the fact that we’ve been around is an anomalous kind of thing and it’s – – and we don’t we don’t disappear. And that’s sometimes problematic for some people.

ISAACSON: Let’s start by talking about it on the right because you said it’s the right, the left -r


ISAACSON: — and the Islamist. On the right, we see it across Europe now.

LIPSTADT: That’s right.

ISAACSON: All over Europe, it’s rising, especially with the Nationalists like in Hungary and other places.

LIPSTADT: Hungary, Poland.


LIPSTADT: France. Of course, Marine Le Pen —


LIPSTADT: — was defeated but her party still exists. And you saw the yellow jackets, the yellow vests. You saw out were — outright expressions of antisemitism. So I don’t know if they’re on the right or the left or what they are. But certainly, Orban, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, the Polish government. Orban ran a campaign, the last electoral campaign, that was rooted in antisemitism with his attacks on George Soros. Now, you can agree with George Soros, disagree with his financial policies, his political inclinations but the campaign that Orban ran on Soros was clearly anti-Semitic. And it telegraphs to every Hungarian this is George Soros, the Jew. The Poles in their Holocaust Law which really calls for a rewriting of history. It says you can’t say any Poles collaborated with the Nazis. Well, that’s just not true. Look, there were many Polish rescuers. There’s no question about it. In Yad Vashem, the greatest number of rescuers from any one country is Poland. Of course, that’s where the greatest number of Jews were. But there were many who collaborated. We know that from the memoirs. We know that from German documents, much less from Jewish — from documents by Jews and memoirs by Jews. So the Poles have said that’s not allowed. We see them —

ISAACSON: It’s not allowed —

LIPSTADT: You’re not allowed to say that.


LIPSTADT: You’re not allowed to say — you’re not allowed to —

ISAACSON: — for collaborate.

LIPSTADT: Right. For collaborating. And originally, the law made it a criminal offense and then they changed it to a civil offense.

ISAACSON: Were you upset that Bibi Netanyahu went along with the Poles?

LIPSTADT: Absolutely. I think it was a big mistake. I think — look, Bibi Netanyahu made — Benjamin Netanyahu may be doing certain things for Riyal Politik, forging closer ties with Hungary, with Orban. Orban was in Israel this — in the summer. I think it was July — June or July of 2018. And Netanyahu welcomed him as a great partner in the fight against the antisemitism. You know, Poles —

ISAACSON: How did that make you feel?

LIPSTADT: Made me feel that whatever Netanyahu may be doing for Riyal Politik, this was a big mistake and more than — because that’s not a trustworthy partner. A trustworthy partner is not someone who engages in this kind of thing. And more importantly, Israel claims to be the official protector of Jews worldwide, that if there’s an act of antisemitism, Israel is going to speak out and criticize it and it often has and it generally does. And this was getting into bed with a very very dangerous entity in that respect. And when the Poles changed the law from a criminal offense to a civil offense, the law on the Holocaust, teaching about the Holocaust, and Netanyahu embraced it as if there was some great change. And it was really cosmetic. It was absolutely cosmetic. The historians at Yad Vashem decimated this decision. They were highly critical of it. It makes me wonder. It makes me wonder. I mean I know there are — when you’re a head of a country, you can’t have a, you know, pure look and you sometimes have to — politics made strange bedfellows but this was too much.

ISAACSON: When you see the rise of antisemitism in Europe from the populists, nationalists, sort of far-fringe right, do you think some of that has been incited by or at least given a blind eye by President Trump?

LIPSTADT: Yes. Yes. Yes. I want to make it very clear. I don’t know if Donald Trump is an anti-Semite. I highly doubt it. He has Jewish children. He has Jewish grandchildren who seem to be very proud of. And he has great connections with many Jews. Of course, some of my best friends are Jews is the cover for any anti-Semite just like some of my best friends are blacks is a cover for racists. But what he has done is made it comfortable to engage in rhetoric, violent rhetoric, rhetoric that is hateful. When he talked in Charlottesville, there are nice people on both sides. I’m sorry nice people, do not march through a town with their hands outstretched in the Nazi salute saying “Jews will not replace us.” Nice people don’t march with symbols that are swastika-like. He has done this over and over again. His rants about a hoard of refugees were being infiltrated which is what prompted the guy in Pittsburgh to do what he did. All those kind of things raise the level of or lower the level of discourse and raise the tenor of the attacks on one another. He has not been helpful in this regard. And the critics of this position will come back and say, “Well, he moved the embassy to Israel — to Jerusalem. He’s been so good to Israel.” That’s true. That’s true. None of it is untrue but it co-exists with this other part and that —

ISAACSON: And do you think antisemitism naturally co-exists with this sort of nationalism that’s been rising all over Europe and the United States?

LIPSTADT: I think it does. I think it does. It has a long history. I’m not against patriotism. I’m a great patriot. This country has been terrific to my family. My father came here from Germany before the Nazis. But you know family, very — it was successful, accomplished academically, children, grandchildren, et cetera. My mother came from Canada also, from a family that was — had nothing and they’ve built up a wonderful life as have so many of my relatives. But nationalism, nationalism suggests my country right or wrong. My country can do no wrong. My country above all others. Instead of a coexistence, it’s a zero-sum game. And history shows us that Jews get ground up in that kind of thing because they’re an easy target.

ISAACSON: What was your reaction to the Women’s March issues?

LIPSTADT: The woman — I was excited by the Women’s March. I thought was a great outpouring. Although, I was a little disturbed by the leadership. I didn’t know as much about them as I know now. And I think these are leaders who — first of all, up until just recently beginning of 2019, refused to acknowledge that Jewish women were a threat, could be oppressed by antisemitism, could be in danger because of antisemitism, refused to include them in the group of vulnerable women. And these were women who kept company with Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, who has talked about Hitler is a great man, who has blamed Jews for interesting — introducing homosexuality for oppressing blacks, and who most recently called Jews “Termites”. He said, “I’m not anti-Semitic. I’m anti-termites.” He said it and then he tweeted it. Now, these leaders have said, “Well, we need to be educated on this issue.” I’m sorry, if you need to be educated, especially these women of color and women who claim to know oppression, that it’s not good to call someone termites then I have no conversation with you. Because what do you do when you have termites? Who do you call? You call the exterminator. You know, Nazis. Jews know what – who you call. So I can’t have a convert — I couldn’t march with someone whose political positions I agreed with but he used the N-word, who talked about blacks in a derogatory fashion. African-Americans and or anybody from African origin in a derogatory fashion using what we call the N-word, I couldn’t march with them. How can I march with someone who calls me termites? Or how can I expect — you know, if you’re going to do that, I can’t march behind you.

ISAACSON: You won a big lawsuit, libel suit against David Irving, the person who was a Holocaust denier and wrote that the Holocaust didn’t exist. And yet after you won it, you were not in favor of suppressing him or anybody else from saying what they wanted.

LIPSTADT: Right. He sued me for libel, for calling him a Holocaust denier. I was offered the chance to settle with him. I wouldn’t do it because I would have had to agree that my books in which I mentioned him briefly, but which I mentioned him would be pulped, and I had to apologize to him. And say — you know, and if I said — I said to my lawyer or to the people who my lawyer didn’t want me to do it but the people who thought I should do it, I said, “What would you like me to settle for, 1 million Jews?” You can’t settle — certain people you can’t settle with. And we won the tremendous victory showing that he was an anti-Semite showing that he was a racist and showing most importantly that he lied outright when he said, “I have a document which shows X, Y, and Z.” It showed neither A, B, and C, one, two, and, three. It was just not at all correct.

ISAACSON: But you have been a supporter of allowing free speech even for people who are anti-Semitic. Why is that?

LIPSTADT: Well, first of all, I believe in the First Amendment. And I think the First Amendment is very important. And if you start having people picking and choosing what can be said and what can’t be said, I don’t want to put in the hands of politicians the power of deciding what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. And I think that also thinking strategically and not legally or morally that when you forbid something, you turn it into forbidden fruit to make it more appealing and I want to find out about this. Why are they making it forbidden? Why are they not allowing me to read this or see this? So I think both from a moral point of view and from a strategic point of view, I’m not against it. Now, that’s very different. I don’t want to be — I don’t want these rights to be curtailed. I don’t think laws against – – I don’t think laws against Holocaust denial work. Having said that, I understand why Germany might have them, why Austria might have them, why Poland might have them. It’s a different story. And, you know, what do they say, foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. So I’m not going to be — foolish consistencies. I’m not going to be unwilling to be inconsistent. But I — ultimately, I don’t want politicians deciding what can and cannot be said. I think it’s a dangerous situation.

ISAACSON: Deborah, thank you so much.

LIPSTADT: Thank you, Walter. My pleasure.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Hilde Schramm about her life’s work making sure people do not forget about the Holocaust. She also speaks with young climate activist Greta Thunberg. Walter Isaacson speaks with Deborah Lipstadt, Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies and author of a new book, “Antisemitism: Here and Now.”