January 29, 2020

Panel Discussion on Anti-Semitism Provides Historical Perspective

By Anne Levin

Karina Urbach never thought she’d have to study anti-Semitism in her own time. But Urbach, a native of Germany, has become increasingly aware of the rise in violence against Jewish people and institutions during her time as a Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) School of Historical Studies, where she has been since 2015.

To help understand the troubling trend and put it in historical perspective, Urbach has organized a panel discussion of noted historians taking place at the IAS on Wednesday, February 5 at 5:30 p.m. As of this past Monday, there were already 280 people signed up to attend “The Impact of the Past: Anti-Semitism — Past and Present” in Wolfensohn Hall.

Serving on the panel are Deborah Lipstadt, author and Emory University professor; Julie Gottlieb, professor in modern history at Britain’s University of Sheffield; and Daniel Finkelstein, a member of Britain’s House of Lords and associate editor at The Times of London. Urbach will serve as facilitator.

“I’m so flabbergasted that I have to read about these violent events taking place in the U.S. and in Europe,” she said during an interview in her office in Fuld Hall at the IAS. “Look at this,” she said, pushing printouts about the reissue of Nazi propaganda books for children being offered by Amazon in the United States and the United Kingdom. “The people publishing these awful books should see we are serious and will fight against this horrible behavior.”

A scholar specializing in the Nazi period (1933-45), Urbach is the author of Go-Betweens for Hitler, published by Oxford University Press, and The Book of Alice, about a Jewish refugee’s journey to America, due to come out in Germany in September. Her husband, Jonathan Haslam, is the George F. Kennan professor at the IAS, specializing in the history of international relations and the Soviet Union.

Urbach is the daughter of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. Her father escaped Germany to the U.S. in the 1930s, and ended up fighting against Germany in World War II. Her grandmother fled to Britain, later joining Urbach’s father in the U.S. “That’s part of the reason why I feel emotional about the subject,” Urbach said. “I have a personal connection.”

In advance of the panel discussion, the film Denial was screened Tuesday, January 28 at Wolfensohn Hall. The film tells the story of the historic libel suit brought against Lipstadt in 2000, after she named a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Her latest book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, won the 2019 National Jewish Book Award.

“I have never met her, but she is a hero of mine,” said Urbach. “She understands anti-Semitism. She’s trying to answer questions in her book in an understandable way. She’s not too complicated to read, and I mean that in a positive way. I was thrilled when she immediately said yes to my invitation to join the panel.”

Gottlieb has interests in modern British political history, the history of political extremism, and women’s history and gender study. Her latest book is Guilty Women, Foreign Policy, and Appeasement in Inter-War Britain. “She is Jewish herself, but has always been interested in how fascist women think,” said Urbach.

Finkelstein was an adviser to Prime Minister John Major and is a political commentator and former chairman of the U.K.-based think tank Policy Exchange. He is also a vice president of the Jewish Leadership Council, U.K. He will provide commentary on the rise of anti-Semitism in the U.K. “Britain saved so many people, even my grandmother,” Urbach said. “Lord Finkelstein will be able to explain to us what has changed in Britain.”

Panelists will have 10 minutes each to speak, followed by questions from the audience. By providing historical context, Urbach is hoping the discussion will help explain the new surge of anti-Semitism in different parts of the world, and the widespread fear of revealing one’s faith to one’s neighbors.

“One has to see this in a global context, and make a joint effort to solve this problem together,” said Urbach. “We want to educate, and perhaps reach out. All of the witnesses to the Holocaust will die soon. We’re running out of time.”