As Deborah E. Lipstadt’s career shifts, she’s set to speak here

Deborah E. Lipstadt was working mainly as a Holocaust historian, until everything went haywire.

With the worldwide resurgence in antisemtism, life has pointed her in a new and unexpected direction. She’s now a foremost antimsemitsm explainer. She’s getting constant interview and speaking requests from all over the world, she said, rattling off appointments with the BBC, a German journalist, and many others “just this week.”

“I can’t do everything, so I pick and choose,” Lipstadt said. She chooses as much as she can. “If I can help people understand, then I feel a certain degree of responsibly to do that.”

One of Lipstadt’s speaking engagements will be at the Wisconsin Club’s Country Club, Nov. 20, 2019, 6 p.m. Tickets are $125. The event is organized by the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center of Milwaukee Jewish Federation. Sign-up details are at HolocaustCenterMilwaukee.org.

Lipstadt is the Dorot professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University, though she’s currently taking a break from teaching as a senior research fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She’s in Washington when not on the road.

After publishing five books related to the Holocaust, her sixth, published in January 2019, is a change of course. It’s called “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” and it’s a deep dive into the current problem and an attempt to answer difficult questions.

She’ll cover much of this ground in her speech, too, likely focusing more on antisemitism than her Holocaust scholarship. 

“I think what everybody wants to hear about is contemporary antisemitsm,” she said. “What’s the true state of affairs?”

More questions: Where did it come from? Is it something new? Did something change dramatically? How do we recognize it? What can we do it about it? How can we respond? What’s the danger of antisemitism?

Lipstadt tries to keep “Antisemitism: Here and Now” accessible by writing it as an exchange of letters between the professor and two other people. The others are fictitious, a Jewish college student and non-Jewish professor, each of them representing an amalgam of real people and their typical questions.

In one passage, the fictitious college student, Abigail, asks if there is any way to educate the haters. “I must sadly acknowledge, education will be of limited value for committed antisemites,” Lipstadt writes. “Their contempt for the Jew is not the result of ‘cognitive error’ …. Conspiracy theorists rely on circuitous reasoning, contending that the fact that the conspirators cannot be precisely identified ‘proves’ the conspiracy.”

About Nancy and Jim Barnett
Nancy and Jim Barnett are to be honored at the “Passing on the Legacy” event. Jim volunteers with the Veterans Administration, the Jewish Community Pantry and Discovery World. Nancy is an officer of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Harry and Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center and sits on the board of the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center, the Jewish Community Foundation and Congregation Shalom. She is a speaker for HERC.

The book might never have been written. But when Lipstadt wrote an Aug. 20, 2014 op-ed for the New York Times, “Why Jews Are Worried,” it was a highly-read story on the site. Lipstadt was buried in interest and reaction.

“Seventy years after the Holocaust, many Jews in Europe no longer feel safe,” she wrote in her New York Times piece five years ago. “Hiring an armed guard to protect people coming for weekly prayer is not the action of a secure people …. The telegram has arrived. Jews are worrying. It is time for those who value a free, democratic, open, multicultural and enlightened society to do so, too. This is not another Holocaust, but it’s bad enough.”

Lipstadt’s agent told her she should write a book on the topic. She was reluctant because she didn’t want to “wallow” in it, she said, but she soon took it on. “While I wrote things got worse,” she noted.

Lipstadt has published and taught about the Holocaust for close to 40 years. She may be most widely known because of the libel lawsuit brought against her by David Irving for having called him a Holocaust denier. Irving was then arguably the world’s leading denier. After a ten-week trial in London, a judge ruled in her favor. The episode was made into a movie, “Denial,” which was released in 2016.

As a Holocaust scholar, Lipstadt can see the current rise in antisemitism through the lens of history.

“I’m not surprised, but I’m shocked,” she said. “I know it’s there. I know it has a resonance and a shelf life that’s very long and very hardy.”