On Monday evening, Tali Farhadian Weinstein, who recently announced she’s running for Manhattan District Attorney, interviewed historian and award-winning author Deborah Lipstadt about her 2019 book Antisemitism: Here and Now, over Zoom as part of a virtual fundraiser.
During the event, Weinstein shared stories about anti-Semitism her family experienced in Iran. “My father lived in Isfahan,” she said. “As a kid, he couldn’t go to school on rainy days because they would say that something would wash off the Jewish students when they were wet and get on everybody else and contaminate them.”
Weinstein asked Lipstadt how she would define anti-Semitism. “There was one scholar who said an anti-Semite is someone who hates Jews more than is absolutely necessary,” Lipstadt replied. “But, on some level, it’s true. I can hate someone, but if I hate them one iota more because they are a Jew, or a woman, or they’re black – then I’ve gone from hate…into prejudice.”
Lipstadt also observed, “The Nazi’s didn’t come into office in January 1933 planning to kill Jews. It starts with words. Words count, words make a difference. And then you escalate and you see how far you can take it.”
After the event, Weinstein took a few moments to speak with The Jewish Press.
The Jewish Press: Your family escaped from Iran when you were four years old during the Iranian Revolution. After a period in Israel, your family immigrated to the U.S. in 1979. How has your life experiences shaped your worldview today?
Weinstein: My experience as an immigrant is the framework in which I see everything. I never took for granted the things my parents brought me to this country to experience: fairness, safety, security, justice.
I can always imagine…what my life would have been like if we had not left Iran. So, it was natural for me to build my career around wanting to deliver those things for other people. When I see barriers to opportunities, I want to tear them down. And I try to bring that sense of commitment to equality and to access to all of my work.
You served as a law clerk for both Judge Merrick B. Garland and later for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Name something you learned from Justice O’Connor that you cherish to this day.
She really modeled feminism in action. She was so committed to women not just being in positions of authority but really leading. She used to say, “I’m glad to be the first [woman on the Supreme Court] but I hope I’m not the last.”
This was a person who when she left law school couldn’t even get a job, went all the way to the pinnacle of the law. It was really important for me as a young woman lawyer in a very male profession to have her as a role model as well as a mentor.
Most recently, you served at the Brooklyn DA’s office as manager of the Conviction Review Unit and you led the design and creation of Brooklyn’s Post-Conviction Justice Bureau. What fuels your desire for conviction fairness?
Change begins with reckoning. That’s what I learned when compiling our first-of-its-kind report detailing the reasons for our first 25 exonerations, which added up to a staggering 426 years of wrongful imprisonment. We must do more to deliver justice even after conviction.
I want to bring both of these models – a Conviction Review Unit and a Post-Conviction Justice Bureau – to Manhattan and prioritize reviewing wrongful convictions, addressing parole and clemency proceedings, promoting conviction sealing, and addressing excessive sentencing.
New Yorkers are experiencing an increase in crime in 2020. Have our city leaders taken the best approach in dealing with this crisis?
We were hit particularly hard in New York just with unbelievable trauma of the pandemic…. We need to focus on rebuilding trust with every community while also working to ensure every New Yorker is safe and protected. I think that what we need is to insist that we have leaders that are ready to act and respond to this crisis and to hold them accountable to that.
Is the city doing enough to address the distinction between peaceful protesting and looting and rioting and to prosecute those who are wreaking havoc?
Peaceful protesting is one of the things that we cherish the most. We have to hold on to the idea that speech is not a crime. I don’t think that looting is free speech – you have to be able to make that distinction and hold accountable people who destroy property, wreck our city, are parasitic and sort of piggyback on peaceful protesters to be destructive.
Is the current system tough enough on hate crimes? How should the criminal justice system address hate crimes in order to fend off another rise in anti-Semitic violence in New York City like we saw in 2019?
We can’t abide by this in our midst. When hate crimes present, we need to investigate them and follow through and prosecute them. And then we have to make sure that our prosecution is connected to other strategies of prevention.
It’s not just about sending a message. It’s also about educating, understanding why people are developing the prejudices that lead them to commit these acts of hate and trying to rehabilitate them so we don’t get stuck in a cycle.