Holocaust Scholar to Testify at Charlottesville Trial

In a Charlottesville courtroom, Deborah E. Lipstadt will testify to the persistence of antisemitism, and its links to present-day politics.

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WASHINGTON — Deborah E. Lipstadt, a renowned Holocaust scholar, was not in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 when torch-bearing neo-Nazi marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and a young woman was killed in the violence. And yet Dr. Lipstadt is to take the stand in the continuing trial, where she will testify as a historian linking the antisemitism of the past to the politics of the present.

Dr. Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, is scheduled to appear in Charlottesville on Wednesday for the plaintiffs in Sines v. Kessler, a civil case brought against two dozen neo-Nazis and white nationalist groups who organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally in the college town. The nine plaintiffs include people who were injured when James Alex Fields Jr., a white supremacist, drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing Heather Heyer, 32, and injuring at least 19 others.

The Charlottesville plaintiffs are suing the white nationalist groups under Virginia laws and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which Congress passed to help protect formerly enslaved African Americans from mob violence. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the groups unlawfully conspired to deprive the plaintiffs of their rights as citizens. The groups and their lawyers say they were exercising their right to free speech, and their advance planning centered on self-defense.

The plaintiffs, who seek unspecified damages, say they want to show Americans how the chants of the marchers are connected to other forms of racism and have gained a renewed foothold in American politics. Dr. Lipstadt declined to comment for this article — attorneys for the plaintiffs barred her from interviews before her testimony — but in a 48-page report she prepared for the trial, she wrote that “this fear of active replacement by the Jew, derived directly from the historical underpinnings of antisemitism, is a central feature of contemporary antisemitism.”

“Two animuses — racism and antisemitism — come together in the concept of a ‘white genocide’ or ‘white replacement’ theory,” Dr. Lipstadt wrote in the report. “According to adherents of this theory, the Jews’ accomplices or lackeys in this effort are an array of people of color, among them Muslims and African Americans.”

Dr. Lipstadt, 74, has spent her career studying antisemitism, a 2,000 year-old prejudice “which has properly been described as the longest or oldest group-based hatred,” she wrote in her report. Her scholarship has been recognized by presidents in both parties. In July, President Biden announced he would nominate Dr. Lipstadt as a State Department special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. She awaits confirmation by the Senate for the position, which carries the rank of ambassador.

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U.S. Marshals restrict access to the federal courthouse in Charlottesville last month at the start of the trial. Dr. Lipstadt is scheduled to testify on Wednesday.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

‘The Crisis We’re Facing’

In 2017, many Americans were shocked to see hundreds of their fellow citizens marching against the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, wearing and displaying Nazi symbols, waving Confederate flags and chanting slogans associated with the Third Reich. But since then, their animating ideology, great replacement theory — the false idea that religious and racial minorities are bent on eradicating white Christians or replacing them in society — has moved from the fringes to the mainstream, Dr. Lipstadt and civil rights groups say.

“This trial can play a crucial role, opening people’s eyes to the crisis we’re facing, the ways in which the ideology we’re talking about here has become so normalized,” said Amy Spitalnick, the executive director of Integrity First for America, the nonprofit group that brought the Charlottesville lawsuit. “We want to make clear that there are consequences for that.”

Replacement theory is often expressed through conspiracy theories about voting fraud, Jewish or foreign-born “globalists,” “invasions” and the electoral dominance by nonwhite immigrants, and has been espoused by Fox News commentators, Republican members of Congress and former President Donald J. Trump. In 2017, Mr. Trump drew widespread criticism when he used the phrase “very fine people on both sides,” in addressing the neo-Nazi attack on counterprotesters in Charlottesville. Perpetrators of at least three mass shootings since 2017 expressed belief in replacement theory.

In April, Fox News host Tucker Carlson espoused replacement theory on air. “The left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term ‘replacement,’ if you suggest that the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the third world,” Mr. Carlson said on the broadcast. “That’s what’s happening actually. Let’s just say it: That’s true.”

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In April, Fox News host Tucker Carlson espoused replacement theory on air.Credit…Janos Kummer/Getty Images

White nationalists who organized the rally in Charlottesville praised Mr. Carlson’s comments, which were echoed by some Republicans in Congress. At a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee hearing on immigration that month, Representative Scott Perry, Republican of Pennsylvania, said that “many Americans” believed that “we’re replacing national-born American — native-born Americans to permanently transform the political landscape of this very nation.”

Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, sent a news release to his constituents in April, with his quotes from an interview on Fox Business in which he said the Biden administration wanted “complete open borders, and you have to ask yourself, why? Is it really that they want to remake the demographics of America to insure that they stay in power forever?”

“There’s this kind of hate laundering that takes place, where fringe ideas move from the margins into the mainstream laundered by pundits, political candidates or even elected officials as if they are some kind of legitimate discourse,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview.

Mr. Greenblatt called for Mr. Carlson’s resignation after his remarks in April. The A.D.L. and the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned Mr. Carlson when he again invoked replacement theory in September, and after he announced that he was working on a series wrongly casting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol as fomented by political enemies of Mr. Trump.

Mr. Carlson’s claims in September were echoed by Representative Matt Gaetz, Republican of Florida, who wrote on Twitter, “@TuckerCarlson is CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America. The ADL is a racist organization.”

“You can draw a straight line from Charlottesville to the Capitol to Tucker Carlson’s new propaganda piece, which perpetuates this myth that there’s some ‘cabal’ perpetrating this,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “Nativist sentiment has been an ugly aspect of American history for centuries, but what we need to acknowledge and understand today is that these myths aren’t just damaging, they are deadly.”

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At the 2017 Unite the Right rally, torch-bearing neo-Nazi marchers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and a young woman was killed in the violence.Credit…Edu Bayer for The New York Times

History’s Most Persistent Prejudice

In the paper she prepared for the trial, Dr. Lipstadt writes that neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville united “under a specific theme, particularly emphasized in the chant used during the Aug. 11 nighttime tiki-torch march: ‘Jews will not replace us.'”

“This fear of active replacement by the Jew, derived directly from the historical underpinnings of antisemitism, is a central feature of contemporary antisemitism.”

Understand the Charlottesville Rally Trial

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What happened in Charlottesville? On Aug. 12, 2017, there was a white supremacist rally, called “Unite the Right,” in Charlottesville, Va., in protest against the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, The event saw participants clash with counterprotesters and culminated with the death of one woman.

Were there any criminal cases? Four white nationalists were sentenced to jail for beating a Black man. Several protesters and counterprotesters were convicted on various charges, including assault. James Fields Jr., a neo-Nazi, was sentenced to multiple life sentences in federal prison for killing Heather Heyer when he drove his car into a crowd.

What is this civil case? This trial takes aim at the organizers of the rally with plaintiffs seeking damages for the injuries they sustained. Lawyers are relying on a federal law from 1871 designed to protect the rights of free slaves against the Ku Klux Klan.

Who are the plaintiffs? The nine plaintiffs include an ordained minister, a landscaper and several students. They are seeking damages for injuries, lost income and severe emotional distress.

Who is being sued? The defendants in the Charlottesville rally civil case are drawn from a range of white nationalist or neo-Nazi organizations, and include far-right figures like Richard B. Spencer, Jason Kessler and Christopher Cantwell. They do not have a uniform defense.

Why does this case matter? The trial will revisit one of the most searing manifestations of how hatred and intolerance that festers online can spread onto the streets. The plaintiffs say they decided to act after there was no broader federal or state effort to hold the organizers accountable.

Dr. Lipstadt cites multiple examples of Unite the Right organizers extending great replacement theory to members of other races, including an online appeal by the white nationalist Richard Spencer, a defendant in the Charlottesville case, who is representing himself. “Will you let them replace you?” Mr. Spencer wrote on his online publication. “Will you just roll over and let them run roughshod over white culture and white people? Or will you join us?”

Dr. Lipstadt received her undergraduate degree from City College of New York and her master’s degree and Ph.D. from Brandeis University. She has written six books on antisemitism, the Holocaust and Holocaust denial.

In 1993, Dr. Lipstadt published “Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.” The English writer David Irving, who Dr. Lipstadt described in the book as the most dangerous Holocaust denier, responded by suing her and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in Britain, whose system differs from the American in that it reverses the burden of proof, putting the onus on Dr. Lipstadt to prove that the statements at issue were true.

In 2000, Mr. Irving lost the case, his defeat accompanied by a 349-page verdict that was a condemnation of his false beliefs and denialism writ large. The 10-week trial is documented in Dr. Lipstadt’s book “History on Trial,” which became the basis of a 2016 film, “Denial.”

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Mr. Carlson’s claims were echoed by Representative Matt Gaetz, who tweeted that Mr. Carlson was “CORRECT about Replacement Theory as he explains what is happening to America.”Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

But Holocaust denial and antisemitism has persisted on the political right and left, fueled and spread by the internet, often disguised as concerns about immigration or Zionism.

“When expressions of contempt for one group become normative, it is virtually inevitable that similar hatred will be directed at other groups,” Dr. Lipstadt wrote in “Antisemitism: Here and Now,” her 2019 book about the resurgence of antisemitism in different guises. “Even if anti-Semites were to confine their venom to Jews, the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss.”

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