Dear Professor Lipstadt:
I write to you because I am worried and confused. I hope you don’t mind this intrusion, but after studying with you these past few years, I feel that you are the person to whom I should turn.
Over the last few months I’ve had a number of extended conversations about anti-Semitism with classmates, most of whom are not Jews. I have asked them to speak freely. And they have. One, somewhat hesitatingly, posited that given that anti-semitism has lasted so long, the Jews must, at least on some level, be responsible for it. Another picked up on this theme and, with great hesitancy, wondered if a people who has been so hated for so long might have done something to cause it. They both kept repeating that they consider me a good friend and meant nothing personal. And I don’t think they did. But I felt uncomfortable. The most distressing part of this entire encounter was that I didn’t know what to say to them without sounding defensive. I guess I am asking for your help in both understanding what is happening and figuring out how to respond.
They did listen soberly as I told them that Jews must take precautions in Brussels, Paris, and a myriad of other cities. I explained how on a trip to Europe some years ago, I visited Jewish sites without a second thought. In contrast, this summer I shall join a small group of Jewish students for a tour of major European sites. One member of our group wears a kippah and, without our even asking, he assured us that he would wear a baseball cap during the trip. The other guys, in a show of solidarity, agreed to wear caps as well. I promised not to take along my backpack that has the name of my Jewish youth group emblazoned on it. The fact that outward manifestations of Jewishness have become something one has to keep under wraps in many places in the Western world is both troubling and puzzling to me.
I have no reason to fear for my physical safety here on campus. I feel comfortable as a Jew, except maybe when Israel is the topic of discussion. But this encounter with my friends has left me feeling confused and, I admit, a bit insecure. I’m not sure exactly what I’m asking you to tell me, but I thought that after three years of classes and conversations with you, I would ask for your help in making sense of all this.
It was good to see you, however briefly, on campus. You were correct in your observation that I didn’t seem to be quite my usual self. Though my semester has been productive, I’ve been in a funk as I’ve continued to ponder the ever-increasing divisiveness in the United States and throughout so much of the world. While I’ve long been aware of inequities in our country, I believe that the level of contempt that various groups have for one another has become far more open and mainstream over the past few years. I trace much of it to the 2016 presidential campaign. The campaign and subsequent events didn’t create this animosity, but they certainly encouraged it. Expressions of racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and, of course, Antisemitism seems to be escalating on a daily basis.
I have a strange request. Antisemitism is something I’ve long abhorred, but also something that I fear I do not fully understand. I know there is much on your plate, but if you would be willing to help me try to comprehend it, I would be very grateful.
Dear Joe and Abigail:
Joe, meet Abigail Ross, a rising senior who has been one of my students for the past few years. She has taken a number of courses relating to different aspects of the Holocaust. Abigail, meet Joe Wilson, a professor at the law school who teaches about law and religion. Joe and I have been in frequent conversation about prejudice and hatred.
Both of you have written to me with questions about the seeming rise in antisemitism in the United States and beyond and have asked if we might engage in an exchange on the topic. I’m happy to do so, not just because two people about whom I care deeply are perplexed about it but also because I believe such an exchange will help all of us get a handle on this vexing situation. Since our schedules are so varied, let’s do it in writing. And, if you are both willing, let’s share all of our letters with one another. That way, we can all be part of this ongoing conversation.
And because I believe things should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, let’s set a time frame of a year for this exchange.