Holocaust historian speaks on antisemitism at college campuses

Deborah Lipstadt is a Jewish American scholar who spoke to the nation through W&L Hillel

Grace Mamon

Deborah Lipstadt, a renowned historian, explained the differences between antisemitism and racism in a national virtual talk hosted by Washington and Lee Hillel on Oct. 21.

The university’s chapter of Hillel connected with Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish college student organization, for support and advertising. This allowed Lipstadt, professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Georgia, to reach a broader audience than the university, making it different from other virtual talks this year.

Racism and antisemitism are both forms of prejudice, but there are differences. Racism is rooted in looking down on people because of their skin color, Lipstadt said. But antisemitism “punches up.”

“The Jew is smarter, the Jew is more powerful, the Jew is more controlling,” she said. “So at the same time that you loathe the Jew, you fear what they might do to you. Whereas with racism, you’re fearing that they’re going to pull you down.”

But neither racism nor antisemitism are rooted in reality, she said.

Her talk revolved around sources of antisemitism and an emphasis on hope for Jews.

Weinstein Scholars at Washington and Lee moderated the event. The Weinstein scholarship is awarded to one Jewish student per class year, said recipient Ian Bodenheimer, ‘22.

Bodenheimer said he enjoyed that the talk was broader than Washington and Lee.

“There were people from all over the United States that watched the speech, like I know my grandma in Maine watched it,” he said.

Bodenhiemer, also the vice president of Hillel at Washington and Lee, and Weinstein scholar Andrew Tartakovsky, ‘23, asked Lipstadt questions after her talk.

There have been instances of antisemitism on campus, Bodenheimer said.

“I feel that a lot of times college students feel like they don’t have an outlet because there are other marginalized groups that are at the forefront of national attention, but there has also been very notable anitsemitic discrimination,” Bodenheimer said.

Some types of antisemitism are more common on college campuses than others. Lipstadt identified five.

The first is the extremist, which is less likely to be found on a college campus. Lipstadt said there were extremist antisemites in Charlottesville in 2017.

“They are the most dangerous because they are the most likely to do the violence,” she said. “But also [they’re] the ones we can spot the most quickly.”

A second type is the polite or “dinner guest” antisemite. This person might say something like “‘we hired a young Jewish assistant for our law firm, but he’s very honest.’” Or on campus, you might hear, “‘we hired a Jewish professor, but they’re very liberal on Israel,’” said Lipstadt.

The final two types are antisemites from the left and right. They exist on the extremes of both sides of the political spectrum, Lipstadt said.

“The one place that the far-right and the far-left meet in unison is on the issue of anti-semitism,” she said.

Antisemites from the left typically view Jews as White, and conclude that they therefore cannot be oppressed because Whites are a privileged group. If a Jew tries to speak on antisemitism, the antisemite from the left might accuse them of trying to detract from racism or other forms of discrimination.

Conversely, the antisemite from the right will not view the Jew as White, and will therefore regard them as “other” or “lesser,” Lipstadt said. Holocaust denial is also a manifestation of antisemitism from the far-right.

The last type is Islamist antisemitism.

“Not all Muslims are antisemites by a long shot,” she said. “To assume that a Muslim is antisemetic is to engage in the same type of prejudice that is antisemitism.”

Lipstadt spoke more on the conflict between Israel and Palestine, saying that disagreement with Israel’s policies is not necessarily antisemitism.

“If you read the Jerusalem Post, you’ll find criticism of Israli policies,” Lipstadt said. “[But] when you question the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, when you say the Jews don’t have the right to a state, you’ve sort of morphed over into antisemitism.”

Lipstadt said she is worried that college-aged Jews will “go underground.” They may still participate in Hillel and other Jewish activities on campus, but perhaps they won’t “really broadcast it.”

“First of all they’re cheating themselves out of a wonderful experience and a wonderful identity and also they’re sort of giving into the antisemite,” she said.

Her final comment was the most powerful, Bodenheimer said. Lipstadt closed by saying that Judaism is not defined by antisemitism.

“Always take the positive, build on the affirmative,” she said. “We are not Jews because of antisemitism. We are Jews despite antisemitism, despite the best efforts of the world to do us harm.”