Keynote Address by Deborah E. Lipstadt, MA’72, PhD’76
There are many wonderful and exciting moments in the life of a university, when a student wins a prestigious fellowship, when a faculty member discovers a cure to some horrific disease, when a sports team exceeds all expectation and brings home that trophy, or the day when the freshmen arrive brimming with dreams and expectations.
Of course, the excitement of that day is tempered by the angst some family member feels while trying to assemble an Ikea bought, easily assembled item, following instructions that are written in a language unknown to most literate people.
But no moment is as celebratory as graduation. It surpasses them all. It is both an institutional and personal celebration. And within the ritual of graduation, there is no more special moment than right now.
A few hours ago, you were worried about getting here on time, remembering your cap, gown, and other paraphernalia. Your guests and family were concerned about finding parking, getting seats, and positioning themselves in the best spot to get a picture of you as you entered this venue.
But right now is the peak. You are surrounded by your friends and your teachers, people from whom you have learned so very much and with whom you have grown into adults. Graduate students, you entered here with a notion of what you wanted to do. You leave as specialists in your field, with the authority that comes with the degree that will be shortly conferred upon you.
Now is the moment to rejoice, to celebrate, to fling our caps, virtually that is, into the air with abandon and with joy. And now is the moment that I, as your graduation speaker, should speak of chasing your dreams, realizing your passions. I should send you on your way in a positive and upbeat fashion. I should challenge you with the prophetic words, "May you dream dreams and see visions."
And yet, I shall not do that, not because I do not celebrate you with you or wish you well, but because the moment and the situation we are currently facing demands much more than that.
Today, I stand before you, concerned, worried, and dare I say it, as someone who eschews hyperbole, truly frightened about the future. Never in all my years have I worried more about the future of our country and beyond.
Our world is riven by deep divisions, divisions that many people, politicians, pundits, social media forces and others, seek to deepen and make more severe. These are divisions that are rooted in hatred and in contempt. The sentiments the haters express may not be new, but today the haters feel embolden, they feel free to express and even celebrate their contempt for others.
I approach this topic from the perspective of having the lifelong study of antisemitism and its horrific impact. I have spent the past few years delving deeply into contemporary antisemitism. That study leaves me greatly worried about the future of our nation and beyond.
But one cannot study antisemitism without recognizing that it is a prejudice, one akin in so many respects to the other horrific isms, racism, homophobia, sexism, and hatreds of other ethnicities and religions.
Were prejudiced not so lethal, we could dismiss it as, simply put, idiotic, or just plain stupid. Think about the etymology of the word prejudice, prejudge. Don't confuse me with the facts. I've made up my mind. I've made up my mind about a person before I even have met them. As one pundit observed, "You meet the stereotype right in front of your nose, while the person is still two blocks away."
These prejudicial stereotypes have no basis in logic yet they cause horrific damage. Well, antisemitism is a form of these prejudices, akin to racism and the others. It has certain distinctive elements, which often are not evident to those not schooled in the matter.
Let me briefly enumerate them. The racist punches down. He or she sees the black or brown person, the Muslim, as lesser than and dangerous to the white Christian. The racist charges these people will harm the white Christian gene pool, whatever they construe that to be.
The racist declares that when they move into “our” neighborhoods and schools, when they cross “our” borders from the south, they will bring “us” white Christians down. This infestation, that's the racist word, of course, not mine, of Europe and the Americas they charge is part of a genocide of white Christians and their culture. So the racist punches down to prevent this assault from below.
The antisemite and the racists and the antisemite are 99.999% one and the same, punches up. He or she sees the Jews as the demonic-like group behind this white genocide. They are manipulating and directing it.
The antisemites, racists, look out into the world and see black people and brown people and people of color, Muslims and others taking their jobs. So they see them taking their jobs, or they assume they are taking their jobs, or even being elected to the highest office in this land, if not the world.
They assume that these people are not capable of that on their own. They are being manipulated and led from behind secretively by a global force far more powerful than they, and possibly even more powerful, the racist says, than us white people. Who is that force? The Jew. The antisemite punches up to prevent that assault from above.
This is what those racists and antisemites, who are marching in Charlottesville, across the campus of the University of Virginia, meant when they chanted, "Jews will not replace us." That is why the shooters in Pittsburgh and San Diego cried, quote, "You will not destroy the white race," as they killed Jews.
From this we see, there is yet another distinctive element to antisemitism, one that makes it different from other prejudices. At its heart is a conspiracy theory, this notion that Jews are all-controlling, working behind the scenes in the form of Rothschild, Soros, HIAS, the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society. They may appear to be doing good, but they are, in fact, doing evil.
Unlike like other prejudices, we also find anti-Semitism on both the political right and the political left. In fact, more properly put, the two find common grounds in their antisemitism. Case in point, David Irving, the Holocaust denier, who sued me for libel and dragged me through a six-year legal battle, I won, for calling him a Holocaust denier.
He helped Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke write his memoir. His visits to this country were sponsored by some of the most right-wing, racist, antisemitic groups. In Europe, he has made common cause with a bevy of neo-Nazis. Yet, two days ago, he announced that he was quote, "impressed" by Jeremy Corbyn's left-wing Labour Party, a political entity with which he has nothing in common except for overt and unrelenting antisemitism.
In the face of all these prejudices, what then can we do? Optimally, this should be a top down effort led by political leaders who will unequivocally demonstrate that they have no sympathy and give no succor to those who hate. But at this moment, such leaders seem to be few and far between.
Therefore, we cannot leave this fight in their hands alone. We must fight from the bottom up. We must become the unwelcome guests at the dinner party. It is not uncommon at a Thanksgiving dinner, Passover Seder, July 4th celebration, Christmas party, for our host to remind us that Uncle XYZ, or Aunt ABC, or some hotshot cousin who is a committed racist, homophobe, anti-Semite, or purveyor of any other prejudice, is coming. Our hosts may ask us to just keep quiet to ensure a peaceful gathering. We can't afford to do that any longer. Though, if you want to be invited back, I suggest you warn your host first that you cannot sit idly by.
You may not change, and you probably won't change the mind of your awful aunt or cousin or uncle, but you will telegraph a message to all the people there, especially, but not only, the young people, that such talk is not to be tolerated, that such ideas are beyond the pale.
Those on the right are quick to recognize it on the left, and those on the left have no trouble seeing it on the right. But they are often blind when it is happening right next to them. They have weaponized the fight against antisemitism and turned it to a fight against prejudice, into a political cudgel.
Fighting all kinds of prejudice, not just antisemitism, is not about scoring political points. And if we cannot call out our political compatriots on these issues, then how can we call out those on the other side of the political fence?
Above all, though I have spoken much today of antisemitism, we must, above all, this is so important, recognize that we cannot be against just one “ism” to the exclusion of all others. If we are going to fight prejudice we must fight it across the board.
You cannot be a fighter against antisemitism but be blind to racism, or even worse, engage in it yourself. And you cannot fight racism but be blind to antisemitism, or even engage in it yourself.
The Jew in the kippah, the Muslim woman in the hijab, the African American student walking across campus, the Latino kids gathered celebrating, or just enjoying themselves in a park, must feel as safe as anyone else. And if you see them harassed... And if you see them harassed or mistreated, you must feel outrage, even if it is not a member of your own group suffering the insults. In the fight against evil, there are no bystanders. Onlookers are not neutral, they are complicit.
Jews know that something that starts with the Jews never ends there. And today, those who hate people of color or people of the Muslim faith will, there is no doubt, eventually turn their ire, if they have not already done so, on Jews. We must be in this together, relentlessly, with all our soul and with all our might.
In the book of Genesis, Bereshit, when God singles out Abraham and Sarah, the matriarch and patriarch of the great monotheistic faiths, they are told they will be blessed by many things. And so, you graduates, you too have been blessed. You've been blessed with the bounty of an exemplary education. You have been privileged to be associated with this institution, one that has given you, as it gave me, so much, and equipped you to head out on your own journey.
But Abraham and Sarah are not just given a blessing. Something is demanded of them. They are challenged. The text says, "v’heyei bracha. Be a blessing." And so, too, graduates, we challenge you. Go forth, go out into the world equipped with the blessing of this exemplary education that you have received here at Brandeis. But go forth and use that gift that has been given to you to repair the world, to heal the divisions, to fight all kinds of hate and prejudice.
Let healing, let truth, let the fight against hate go viral and let you lead in that effort. As you go forth on your way, we hope you will do well, but we pray you will do good.
Go forth, Heyei Bracha, be a blessing, for never have we so desperately needed you to be so. Congratulations, thank you, and great good luck.