Reviews | Deborah Lipstadt tackles Putin’s distortions on Ukraine

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From the start, the misuse of history – the history of the Holocaust in particular – has been at the heart of Russia’s brutal assault on Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin tried to justify the invasion as a way to “denazify” Ukraine – despite its democratically elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, being Jewish and several members of his family having been murdered during the Holocaust – and the rhetoric from Russia descended into pure and simple anti-Semitism.

“What if Zelensky was Jewish? Sergei Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister, said last week on Italian television. Citing an old unsubstantiated theory, he declared that “Hitler also had Jewish blood”, then added: “the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews”.

For acclaimed historian Deborah Lipstadt, who began working this week as the Biden administration‘s special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism, Putin’s manipulation of the Holocaust narrative is an outrage worthy of scrutiny. strong American response.

Holocaust memory in public debates, Lipstadt told me Tuesday in his first interview in his new role, “Before, it was about speaking truth to power. And now we have the power to use the Holocaust to tell lies to justify war crimes.

“I don’t shock easily,” she said, referring to her famous legal battles with British Holocaust denier David Irving. “But that, I find breathtaking.”

Speaking from his new office at the State Department, Lipstadt said recent events — in Ukraine and elsewhere — have changed his perspective. which forms of denial are the most common and most dangerous. Decades ago, what seemed most threatening were outright deniers like Irving or his French counterpart, Robert Faurisson. But today, what she’s long called “hard-core denial” seems the most pressing problem: it doesn’t so much deny well-established facts as it blurs them, allowing for a number of bad faith comparisons. intended to shake the truth.

Another good example is Jean-Marie Le Pen, the nonagenarian patriarch of the French far right. He repeatedly called the Nazi gas chambers a “detail” in World War II history, a legacy that hasn’t stopped his daughter Marine from winning a growing vote share in her quest for the French presidency. . Lipstadt also accused the Trump administration of Holocaust denial for failing to mention Jews or anti-Semitism in the 2017 White House statement marking Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Outright denial is kind of considered outlandish now,” Lipstadt said. “What is becoming clear now is that hard-core denial is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous than hard-core, in part because – to use a high-flying academic term – it’s more squishy. “It’s kind of like hitting a mole. It masks the facts so people who don’t know are more easily confused.”

I asked Lipstadt about the larger issue of comparing the Holocaust to other events, a controversial issue for decades. Elie Wiesel, a survivor who has become a major voice for Holocaust remembrance in the United States, has spoken frequently about human rights abuses but notoriously discouraged direct comparisons, saying, “I don’t compare nothing about the Holocaust”.

In June 2019, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum — in response to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (DN.Y.) remarks about border facilities and concentration camps — released a direct statement that the museum “unequivocally rejects efforts to create analogies between the Holocaust and other events, whether historical or contemporary. Hundreds of scholars and writers – myself included – have signed an open letter to the museum, insisting on the fact that “responsible analysis, contextualization, comparison and argumentation” are essential academic tools.

Lipstadt did not sign this letter, but during our interview she said that responsible and respectful comparisons should be allowed. “We can say, it’s not the same, but we can make comparisons. If you can’t make comparisons, you’re frozen.

Asked about another controversial topic, she said that “criticism of Israel is not ipso facto anti-Semite”. And although, as a State Department official with the rank of ambassador, she focuses on anti-Semitism abroad, she said it was also essential to recognize the growing problem of anti-Semitism in the United States, whether in the form of offensive public statements or physical attacks.

“We have to recognize our own shortcomings – we can’t just talk about any country you have in Europe without saying it’s also here.” On a personal level, events at home over the past few years have led her to wear a Magen David, or Star of David, necklace. “I didn’t want to pass. I wanted to be clear about who I was,” she said.

I also asked him about the comparative dangers of right-wing and left-wing anti-Semitism in the United States — with a number of Republican officials openly recycling conspiracy theories about George Soros and the “great replacement,” while members of the so-called Squad of Congressional Democrats make comments. hostile to Israel or supporting a financial boycott of the Jewish state.

“Would you rather die of covid or cholera? said Lipstadt. “I hate the debate about which is worse. There are times when one is more prevalent, but they are all terrible.

She said a key priority in the coming months will be to use the Abraham Accords – agreements signed in 2020 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and between Israel and Bahrain – to foster education on both the anti-Semitism and Jewish life in countries that until recently did not even recognize the existence of Israel. “It’s a chance to break down barriers, to get people to consider what they thought was fact.”

“I won’t solve the problem, but if I can get people to understand it and recognize it, and recognize that it’s not just a Jewish problem,” Lipstadt said, “it will be worth it. If I can make a difference, then as they say, dailyit’s enough.

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