- The Conspiracy Exposed
Deborah E. Lipstadt
304 Pages; Cloth, $16.99
Over and over again, as I read Antisemitism: Here and Now, by Deborah E. Lipstadt, my mind kept returning to a year or so ago, when my wife, my son, and I were having dinner with other members of my wife's family at my sister-in-law's house. As we sat around the table drinking tea, the conversation turned to the Trump administration's open hostility towards Muslims—something my wife and her family take very personally, since they were all born and raised Muslim in Iran. Perhaps to lighten the mood, my brother-in-law's wife decided to tell a joke, which involved poking fun at the relative positions of privilege, or lack thereof, occupied by Christians, Jews, and Muslims in United States society. When she got to the part about Jews, she said, "And Jews fund the United States government."
"No, we don't," I interrupted her.
"It's a joke," my brother-in-law's wife responded, her tone suggesting I ought not to take it so seriously.
I don't remember exactly what I said in response, but my sister-in-law, trying to defuse the tension that was starting to build, turned to her brother's wife and said, "You can't say that about Jews—about Israel, yes, but not about Jews."
"Israel does not fund the United States government," I gave my sister-in-law a pointed look.
"I know," she said, a slightly pleading tone creeping into her voice. She did not want me to make a big deal out of this, "But at least there's a connection…"
"No!" I interrupted her, "There's not…" and I was going to say a good deal more, but then two things happened at once. My brother-in-law's wife turned to him and, in Persian, said, "But Israel is Jewish, isn't it?" Then my wife cut in with a much more measured, but no less appropriate response than I would have continued with, and I decided, in the interests of family harmony, hers was the wiser tack to take.
In the end, it didn't matter. My brother-in-law's wife told her joke anyway, either (at this point willfully) oblivious to its antisemitic content or, having been perfectly aware of that content from the start, determined not to let my "overly delicate sensibilities" get in the way of her making her point. Given enough time and more patience than I had at that moment, I could have unraveled for all who were present the knot of antisemitism that exchange was tied up in, but now that I've read Deboarh Lipstadt's book—she is Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University—I just wish I'd been able to hand each of the people at that table a copy.
Antisemitism: Here and Now takes the form of a correspondence between Professor Lipstadt and two composite characters she has created—Abigail, a Jewish student, and Joe, a non-Jewish colleague. Through these two characters, Lipstadt gives voice to "the confusion, worries, and distress about antisemitism" that people have expressed to her over the years. While I personally found the letters Lipstadt wrote for these characters somewhat stilted and emotionless, the epistolary convention serves her well nonetheless, in that it constructs for her letters a well-defined audience with a practical
need she is being asked to address. Abigail, after describing an experience not unlike the one I had at my sister-in-law's, articulates this need in the very first letter:
The most distressing part of the entire encounter was that I didn't know what to say to [the people expressing antisemitic views] without sounding defensive. I guess I am asking for your help in both understanding what is happening and figuring out how to respond.
Joe's letters express a similar need for both understanding and an "action plan," though from a non-Jewish perspective.
Antisemitism Here and Now...