The last time Deborah E. Lipstadt donned a cap and gown at Brandeis University was in 1976, when she earned her doctorate in history from the department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.
It was a thrilling moment, with her mother proudly in attendance, a culmination of years of academic studies, she acknowledged.
In the four decades since, Lipstadt, now the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Emory University, has become a go-to Holocaust expert. The author of a half dozen award-winning books and numerous other articles, Lipstadt is a clarion voice in high demand, speaking and writing during unsettling times that have seen an alarming rise in anti-Semitism across the world.
Lipstadt was born and raised in Far Rockaway, N.Y. in a Modern Orthodox family that treasured its Jewish heritage and educational achievement. She rose to prominence in 2000, when she successfully defended herself in a libel suit from David Irving, whom she had called a Holocaust denier. Her 2005 book, “History on Trial,” about the dramatic London courtroom battle, inspired the critically acclaimed 2016 feature film “Denial,” starring Rachel Weisz.
On Sunday, May 19, Lipstadt will deliver the commencement speech at Brandeis and receive an honorary degree from the institution that launched her career.
“Getting this honorary degree is a very big deal,” said Lipstadt in a phone conversation. With both her parents deceased, Lipstadt’s sister will represent their family at this milestone.
In her most recent work, “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” Lipstadt unpacks the current state of anti-Semitism: as a convergence of attacks from both right-wing white nationalists and the Left. She does so through a series of letters she penned to two fictionalized characters, one a Jewish student and the other a non-Jewish faculty member both eager to understand the history of anti-Semitism and its current manifestation.
Lipstadt cautions that because of social media, the hatred espoused by white nationalist extremists is reaching new audiences. She also warns against staying silent in the face of seemingly more casual anti-Semitic remarks by “dinner party” anti-Semites.
On the left, Lipstadt helps readers understand when harsh critics of Israel and supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement cross the line into anti-Semitism.
“I am not saying that everyone who opposes Israel is anti-Semitic. We have to be very careful,” she told the Journal. At the same time, she is forthright about the danger of those who single out Israel while remaining silent about severe human rights violations in other countries.
Lipstadt has harsh words for the current partisanship within the Jewish community. “It’s a food fight about whose anti-Semitism is worse,” she said, arguing that these antics are the “last thing we can afford.”
Lipstadt is a fierce defender of free speech and academic freedom who does not generally favor efforts by some on college campuses to shut down events by BDS supporters. She feels the tactic is often counterproductive and gives ammunition to the anti-Israel cause.
“I think students are really beleaguered and the universities, thus far, have not really taken this issue seriously,” she added. “On some campuses, you have students who don’t want to wear their kippah. Not all, by any means, but things are changing quickly, and on some campuses, students are reluctant [to show their Jewish identity.”]
In the book’s section, “Is It Time to Panic?” Lipstadt cautioned that it’s a mistake to exaggerate the scope of anti-Semitism in this country, whether in college campuses or society at large.
However, the increased wave of anti-Semitic violence and killings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and the shooting at San Diego’s Poway Chabad Center (which both happened after she wrote the book), have exacerbated Jews’ anxieties.
“If I were writing today, I would say, ‘not panic,’ but real vigilance,” said Lipstadt.
In a closing chapter, Lipstadt encourages a Jewish identity built on more ‘joy’ than ‘oy’, arguing that fighting anti-Semitism should not be the “raison d’être” for Jewish identity. “Be there also at the rejoicing … take pride in the positive,” Lipstadt said.
In thinking about her commencement speech before a diverse array of graduates, Lipstadt said understanding the dangers of anti-Semitism is a concern for all students.
“Anti-Semitism is built on a Jewish conspiracy notion. Any society that succumbs to that will believe all sorts of conspiracy theories. Once you have that dominate, a democracy is not healthy. If you see a rise in anti-Semitism or tolerance of anti-Semitism, you are beginning to see a society that is rotting from its insides,” Lipstadt said.