In 2016, more than half of religious hate crimes in America targeted Jews. Almost exactly a year ago, a gunman burst into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 worshipers.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the situation is even worse. European Jews wearing yarmulkes in public have been attacked, usually by Muslim immigrants. Synagogues have been firebombed. Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized. At anti-Israel rallies, protesters have chanted, “Death to the Jews!” And claims that the Holocaust never happened have continued to echo from both extremes of the political spectrum.

Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt’s “Antisemitism Here and Now” traces this frightening rise in anti-Jewish agitation in the US and abroad. The book is lucid, balanced, well supported and timely. Nonetheless, it has a few flaws.

Having lived in Montana for over 30 years, and teaching a Holocaust Studies class at Montana Tech, I think I can speak with some authority about attitudes toward Jews in our state. I have always been very open with everyone about being a Jew. Thankfully, I have experienced little antisemitism in response.

But this doesn’t mean antisemitism doesn’t exist in Montana. Almost every student in my classes has heard some variant of a “cheap Jew” joke, even though few of them have met many actual Jews. I reply that the Holocaust could be seen as a “cheap Jew” joke, because Hitler claimed that the reason Germany was bankrupted in the 1930s was because wily Jewish financiers had stolen the nation’s money. Hopefully my students will recall this the next time they hear someone say, “Let’s Jew them down.”

What I have discovered in Montana isn’t massive antisemitism, but rather almost total ignorance about all things Jewish. One anecdote dramatically supports this point. A student of mine knew that Jewish boys have a bar mitzvah ceremony at the age of 13, and she also knew that Jewish males are circumcised. Putting two and two together, she believed that at their bar mitzvah ceremony Jewish boys get circumcised! Ignorance doesn’t necessarily lead to prejudice, but it is a precondition for it.

Unfortunately, “Antisemitism Here and Now” has a dubious format. Lipstadt writes the book as a series of fictionalized letters composed to a Jewish student of the author’s and a Gentile academic colleague, both of whom are concerned about the rise of antisemitism on their campuses. The format seems a bit too chummy, as the student and professor thank Lipstadt profusely for dispensing her wisdom. But this is a quibble.

Is President Trump an antisemite? Lipstadt provides an admirably nuanced response. She doesn’t feel our president is personally antisemitic. After all, the president’s daughter is a converted Jew, his son-in-law an Orthodox Jew, and he has Jewish grandchildren. On the other hand, when neo-Nazis marched in Charlottesville, chanting, “The Jews will not replace us,” Trump insisted there were “fine people on both sides.” Lipstadt sees Trump’s refusal to criticize white supremacists as tactical, since he doesn’t wish to rile a part of his base.

Lipstadt attacks antisemitism on both the far right and the far left. Her attacks on right-wing neo-Nazis are entirely persuasive. The belief harbored by these antisemites that a secret cabal of Jews is plotting world domination is pure fiction.

But Lipstadt’s barbs against far-left antisemitism — which usually alleges that Israel is a racist, colonialist state — are more problematic. No matter how extreme this ideology, and no matter the lies these groups perpetuate about the Jewish homeland (such as the myth that the Israeli Defense Forces use Palestinian body parts in medical experiments) the fact remains that groups calling for complete divestment from Israel do have one legitimate grievance: Israel does persecute the Palestinians through the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Lipstadt does say she doesn’t consider all criticism of Israel antisemitic. But she never draws a clear demarcation between what she considers valid criticism of Israeli policies and what she deems attacks on Israel so crazed they cross the line into antisemitism.

Despite its flaws, “Antisemitism Here and Now” issues a clarion call demanding that attention be paid to this rising problem. All decent individuals should take heed.

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Henry Gonshak is an English professor at Montana Tech. His column, “Reading Life,” normally appears on the first Sunday of every month, but due to The Montana Standard's error, it is running mid-month this month. He has published “Hollywood and the Holocaust” (Roman & Littlefield). He can be reached at: Hgonshak@mtech.edu.


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