The signs are everywhere: Swastikas projected onto a building in West Palm Beach, Florida. Antisemitic flyers thrown onto lawns in Atlanta suburbs. A Kanye West post on social media announcing, “I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” Eleven worshippers killed in an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh. To understand what’s behind this current wave of antisemitic beliefs and incidents, we turned to Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. A longtime professor of Jewish studies at Emory University, Lipstadt has written several award-winning books about the Holocaust and other aspects of modern Jewish history.
Let’s start with the basics. In the U.S. today, there’s no simple picture of Jewish life. You have Jews who are extremely observant — who follow strict dietary laws, who dress a certain way, who don’t work or drive from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. At the other end of the spectrum, you have people who maybe go to synagogue once a year and identify as Jewish. In this context, how do you define antisemitism? What does it look like today?
It’s a prejudice like other prejudices — a hatred of Jews. But it’s also a conspiracy theory that cuts across ideologies, nationalities, ethnicities. It’s someone who says, “Jews are all-powerful. They control the media. They control the banks, the government.” Or, “Jews are all privileged.”
It comes from Christians, it comes from Muslims, it comes from atheists. It even comes from other Jews. One sees it in a variety of forms — on the governmental level, in the media, on the streets. It looks like it’s increasingly normalized. That’s what’s frightening to me. That it’s OK.
Is it really different from other prejudices, like racism or sexism?
Jews don’t fit the picture of your traditional victims of prejudice: “If you look so secure and so successful, what are you complaining about?” So, the Jewish kid on scholarship in my class at Emory — who’s also doing work on the side so she won’t graduate with $100,000 in debt — has to justify that she’s not privileged. Whereas with prejudice against other groups, this lack of privilege is taken at face value. We may present as educated and financially secure, even though we know very well there are many Jews who are not.
There’s another way in which antisemitism is different from other prejudices. With most racial and other prejudices, people simply look down upon the other. But antisemites punch down and punch up simultaneously. They look down on Jews and see them as lesser human beings — dirty. And they look up and see them as more powerful, as conniving and as a threat to the antisemite’s well-being. And if Jews pose a danger to your well-being because they are conniving and crafty, then you have to protect yourself by any means necessary.
And yet, in contemporary America, there’s also an admiration of Jews. Intermarriage rates are high. How do you make sense of that?
Jews are much admired for their accomplishments, but sometimes that admiration can turn on a dime into hostility.