The frightening rebirth of anti-Semitism
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The frightening rebirth of anti-Semitism

An interview with a foremost authority on an ancient scourge that won't go away

The disease known as anti-Semitism has been dormant in Western culture for thousands of years; sometimes it becomes an epidemic. This seems to be such a time. Anti-Semitic incidents have been increasing throughout the world.

Meanwhile, at universities throughout the world scholars are intensively investigating the causes of anti-Semitism and seeking possible antidotes.

In this series of articles, we report on the latest thinking about anti-Semitism – and what good people can do to at least reduce it to being just endemic again and not epidemic.

People, including the Jewish people, are really in massive denial,” warns Robert S. Wistrich, a foremost authority on anti-Semitism.

First in a seriesIran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Wistrich points out, has repeatedly vowed to annihilate Israel. It follows that “it would be an act of suicide to permit Iran to have the bomb.”

Wistrich is the author of a magisterial new book, “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad” (Random House, 2010, $40). His book, which has 941 pages of text (and which he wrote in longhand), has won unstinting praise from reviewers. Jonathan Israel of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton has called it a “masterpiece.” It certainly is.

In person Wistrich is self-possessed and courteous, a marvelous conversationalist with a remarkable knowledge of history and a keen mind.

Since 1982 he has been Neuberger professor of modern European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he lives.

Below are excerpts from a recent interview, held in New York City.

Combatting anti-Semitism

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Robert Wistrich, author of “A Lethal Obsession,” argues that Holocaust education is not a magical antidote for
anti-Semitism. Douglas Guthrie

Jewish Standard: What can be done to reduce anti-Semitism? After World War II, when I was growing up in New Jersey, there were school programs to foster tolerance – including student essay contests. A notable book of the time was “Protestant-Catholic-Jew,” by Will Herberg, about our country as a healthy “triple melting pot.” Are educational programs one answer?

Wistrich: Before answering that, I think I have to issue a warning, a “health” warning. People always ask this and it’s natural: “OK, there’s a problem. How are we going to fix it?”

Americans in particular love this – it’s part of the national psyche. But this is not the kind of problem that lends itself to that approach – as has been proven in over 2,000 years of history. It hasn’t been fixed up to now, so surely it’s an act of almost hubristic naïveté to think that suddenly somebody is going to shout “Eureka! This is how we’ll fix it.” That’s not gonna happen. Plenty of people have had their minds focused on this, even if they haven’t had much success in seeking to find short- or medium-term solutions.

I’ve attended many conferences, spoken to government officials, been involved in the practical side of this, but I’ve never come out with a feeling that any of the measures taken are more than very short-term palliatives.

For instance, I’ve attended meetings of organizations in Europe, been a guest of and adviser to the State Department and the British Parliament, Canadian Parliament, French government officials, Polish government officials, and so on and so forth. They express good will, and have in some cases – such as Britain and Canada – instituted parliamentary inquiries of their own. They do seek to monitor the extent of the phenomenon more seriously than most other countries, which don’t monitor anti-Semitism properly or at all, and are not even prepared to put any resources into this.

These governments show good will, but what do we see, just looking at the statistics? The curve of anti-Semitism during the same period when they began to focus more on intensive countermeasures has risen. It’s not their fault, but it’s been unaffected.

Another example: Many people throw out a rather superficial and, as it turns out, quite unsound remedy. They say the answer is more Holocaust education.

In my chapter on France, I bring this out. For the last 20 years there’s been a tremendous advance in the scale and extent of Holocaust education in French schools. They came to it late, but once they began it became an integral part of the curriculum – and during this very period anti-Semitism intensified. And I can tell you that it is becoming extremely difficult to even teach the Holocaust there – mainly due to large Muslim influx. Those children do not want to hear about it, and they can become extremely abusive – and even take the Holocaust as an example of what they would like to implement.

A report to the French ministry of education recorded a North African Muslim teenager shouting to the teacher of one of these lessons, in French, “Hitler would have been a good Muslim!” Why? “He sought to wipe out all the Jews.”

So, let’s not be naïve. In some countries, handled sensitively, intelligently, Holocaust education may be useful. But it’s not an antidote. It can actually serve to inflame, as this example showed. So it’s not black and white.

Lethal & non”“lethal anti-Semitism

J.S.: Isn’t it depressing – the history of anti-Semitism? One realizes that, 50 or 100 years from now, a much lengthier history of anti-Semitism probably can be written.

Wistrich: One message of my book is that in just 15 years the size of the book might have to be doubled. Anti-Semitism is certainly not going to go away.

The question is, how do you ensure that anti-Semitism doesn’t become truly lethal? Through different phases of history, sometimes anti-Semitism has been dormant and sometimes it explodes. The scale of the catastrophe varies enormously.

And to some extent what will happen is in our hands. I don’t see this as decreed by some inscrutable fate. It may indeed have a purpose and a design beyond our comprehension. If you are a religious person, you may well believe that it is the hand of divine providence. I don’t exclude anything.

But I think that a deeper understanding can enable us to take measures to prevent anti-Semitism, even though it is part of the human condition, from becoming lethal.

And that would be achievement enough. Believe me, if we can neutralize it to the point where we can live with it, that is more than enough. Any other notion is pie in the sky – the historical record proves this beyond any doubt.

The terrible decade

J.S.: How does your new book differ from other books on anti-Semitism, including your own previous study?

Wistrich: There are a number of striking differences. The other books usually stop in 1945, while most of my book deals with post-Shoah. Books that do deal with post-1945 have tended to be, to a great extent, quickly written books responding to a particular trigger event – often written by journalists – without any sense of the history of the phenomenon – and they are as transient as the event that triggered it. I wrote a book in 1990 on the subject, and I think it was an important work, “The Longest Hatred,” a term I coined. But this new book describes the last 20 years, which witnessed explosions of anti-Semitism across the world. It outweighs the years between 1945 and 1989 in terms of intensity and global scope.

Countries without anti-Semitism

J.S.: Pre-Nazi Germany was a discontented country. Are countries whose people are relatively contented less likely to harbor anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: An interesting hypothesis, worth exploring.

I’m well aware that at least two major civilizations, Indian and Chinese, have not within their own culture produced any of the varieties of anti-Semitism I analyze in my book. To some degree you may find pockets of it, but it’s purely a result of tensions that existed during the Cold War between India and Israel, or China and Israel. During the Maoist period, there was unconditional Chinese support for the popular liberation struggle of Palestinians. But even that was without any notable anti-Semitic lining – unlike Soviet communism, which was quite different. The Russian culture produced anti-Semitism, but the Chinese culture did not.

So yes, India and China are exceptions, and those two exceptions account for 40 percent of humanity – so that’s an encouraging thought. But not a great consolation, because the other side of that coin is they don’t really understand anti-Semitism. They’re not wired to this problem at all.

Why the Chinese admire the Jews

Wistrich: Three years ago, I was invited to the University of Nanking to speak before an international conference. They wanted to compare the Holocaust with the Nanking massacre of 1937, when the Japanese army conquered large chunks of China and entered into Nanking, which was then the capital. And they massacred 300,000 Chinese civilians – very deliberately -the most horrific kind of slaughter.

One of the reasons I was invited to this conference was that the Chinese loathe the Japanese – who, by the way, never really apologized for that atrocity in any meaningful way.

At the lunchtime break I was sitting with a Chinese professor, and someone asked me to compare the Holocaust with that massacre. I said there’s no comparison, and secondly I wasn’t an expert on what happened in China. We had an interesting conversation, and they are really free, as far as I can see, of any suggestion of anti-Semitism and have difficulty understanding it.

But they admire the Jewish people, they think Jews are very smart and that they have a great deal to learn from them. They admire Israel, too – even though politically they are careful about what they say.

And I asked the Chinese professor, what do you think really lies behind this conference? Why have you chosen this theme? He said that “some Chinese experts are tremendously impressed by the fact that you Israelis and Jews only amount to100 million people, and we are 1.5 billion, and yet the whole world knows about the Holocaust and nobody knows about the Nanking massacre! We want to learn from you how to do it.”

I had to correct him. “We’re not 100 million people, we are more like 13.5 million.” And he was totally flabbergasted.

It’s interesting as an exercise in perception because, in Europe, even though publicly the Holocaust is memorialized and political leaders will say it was a most awful event, do their mea culpas, and say a few words of mourning for the dead Jews of Europe, then they will launch their very own one-sided criticism of the State of Israel, sometimes amounting to outright vilification.

Jews in Israel, who actually defend themselves against attack, are another matter entirely, and Europe has not come to terms with that. Unlike the United States, though under the Obama administration this is becoming a little blurred.

The disappearing anti-Semite

J.S.: It has dawned on me that nobody admits being anti-Semitic anymore. But by an amazing coincidence, the number of anti-Semites who have disappeared is just about equal to the number of people existing today who are thoroughly and implacably anti-Israel.

Wistrich: I think that’s probably fairly accurate, even though we don’t have to take it literally, in statistical form. The way we formulate it is this: People always ask, what is the relationship between antagonism to Israel and anti-Semitism? Can’t there just be criticism of Israel?

In the last 40 years, people have discovered a socially acceptable, polite way of expressing sentiments that are no longer politically correct. Anti-Zionism in practice has become a legitimate substitute for anti-Semitism.

Anybody who has any resentment, any grudge, any issue with the Jews will tend to express it in an anti-Israel form. That is almost an iron rule today.

J.S.: But aren’t some people innocent dupes? Taken in by the propaganda?

Wistrich: There always are dupes in every time and place. Lenin, who had an astute nose for this, even though he was at the end of the day a mass murderer though not an anti-Semite – Lenin said he believed that the capitalist world would ultimately go down to defeat for two reasons:

1. The Soviet Union would give the capitalists enough rope to hang themselves. America in particular extended aid to the Soviet Union during its early years, to save the Soviets from starvation! That did not prevent the Cold War later on.

2. Lenin counted on all the fellow travelers of communism around the world – the “useful idiots,” he called them – and there are millions of useful idiots around the world, especially today.

These idiots, on the issue of radical Islam, do not understand the nature of the threat, even when it is coming closer and closer to their doorstep. And that is not just a Jewish matter, even though Jews happen to be on the front line of that struggle. But Jews – or even Israel – are by no means the primary target or victim of Islamists.

Prejudice vs. anti-Semitism

J.S.: I overheard a couple of women talking recently, and one said of someone else, “She doesn’t like Jews.” Isn’t one key cause of anti-Semitism the fact that people are too prone to generalize? This woman has met one or two Jews she didn’t like, and decided that Jews are all the same.

Wistrich: It’s absolutely fundamental to draw a line, but not an absolute dividing line, between prejudice – ethnic, national, social, racial, religious, whatever – and anti-Semitism.

Prejudice is usually a component of anti-Semitism, but at the lowest rung of the ladder. Prejudice is universal. I have never yet met a person, and I include myself, without prejudice. If you think about the world, you will pre-judge. Sometimes you have no choice. We have to pre-judge to presume things that may or may not be true – because we don’t have the time or the resources to investigate everything in all its aspects. So we jump to conclusions, we make snap judgments, we generalize – and we discriminate when we do it. That is unfortunate at times but inevitable.

But discrimination has several meanings, and not all of them are negative. In the negative sense, to discriminate is to unjustly or arbitrarily exercise a judgment that is unfavorable to certain groups. But discrimination also has a positive sense. “He’s very discriminating” means he can distinguish between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, good taste and bad taste. There’s nothing wrong with that. People make judgments and that is a necessary part of the mental process.

Prejudice will never be eradicated but it can be contained. We can palliate it through education, greater knowledge – all these things are valuable and important. We don’t want to encourage prejudice in the negative sense. But anti-Semitism – and that’s really at the heart of my book – is several stages beyond that. Anti-Semitism is already a crystallization of all kinds of antipathies, fears, hostilities, resentments – which may indeed be based on prejudicial positions, but could even have some kind of rational kernel to them. They crystallize into a view of the world, into an ideology, into political or social action – which may have very unpleasant consequences. They permeate institutions, may be reflected in laws, or boycotts, all kinds of actions that are damaging to Jews. That is anti-Semitism. Mere prejudice, Jews have lived with throughout history and will continue to live with, and we shouldn’t be too scared of that. In actuality, some other groups suffer even more. In American society, we all know black people suffered greater levels of prejudice – and outright racism. It’s been partially corrected, but it took a long time and it is not yet a thing of the past.

Responding to anti-Semitism

J.S.: I’ve been the victim of overt anti-Semitism several times in my life, and never knew how to respond. A drunk once sat next to me on a bus when I was a kid, and nonstop disparaged Jews – while I remained embarrassed and silent. Today I would respond. Why aren’t Jews in general more assertive in responding to instances of anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: The social reality that existed through centuries of Jewish exile was that Jews were a particularly vulnerable minority and suffered from discriminatory laws. They were ghettoized. They didn’t have much choice but to be extremely careful in the way that they would respond to avoid provocation and hope that the storm would pass.

Once Jews became citizens of democratic countries, where they were granted equal rights, this behavior pattern slowly began to change. It’s only in the 20th century, I think, that Jews became more assertive, as indeed they had every right to be – to defend their interests, their rights as citizens, just like any other citizens – and not to tolerate insult, damage, and threats. I think that this is one of the more striking characteristics of American Jewry taken as a whole when you compare it to most other Jewish communities in the diaspora. I know of other Jewish communities that are also assertive, and often they’re English-speaking democracies like Canada, Australia, and so on. And in France, too, the behavior pattern has changed. And I think that this is a healthy sign – and that one of the reasons why post-1945 in the United States anti-Semitism gradually diminished, without ever disappearing. American Jewish organizations began to be more active in the steps that they took to counteract manifestations of hostility or discrimination in the wider society, both toward them and others. So that the organizations like the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Wiesenthal Center, and so on – made an important contribution. They’ve acted politically – make no mistake about it, politics is important – and in America we see that the results have been beneficial because Jews have created for themselves some modicum of countervailing power – a sort of shield – just as Israel acts as a shield for the Jewish people since the creation of the State of Israel. This undoubtedly contributed to a greater feeling of self-confidence of Jews being able to stand up for themselves – to give back as good as they get – to defend themselves when attacked or when threatened. It’s come with serious problems, which I explain in my book.

Israel itself has become the major target of anti-Semitism around the world, and its legitimacy is contested. A vast enterprise of delegitimization is taking place on so many fronts. But it’s extremely important to the Jewish world and for all people who wish Israel well and understand its vital importance in the international community and what it stands for – it’s vitally important that a strong right hand is preserved to fight off these efforts. Because if, God forbid, these efforts were to succeed, the consequences for Jews in the diaspora as well as for what would happen in Israel itself would be felt very quickly.

It’s one thing we should disabuse ourselves of. We live in a predatory world – every day in our newspapers we see further confirmation of that. So you have to have deterrence – one of the hardest lessons that the Jewish people learned in the 20th century. Believe in God, trust in the Almighty, but keep your powder dry – this is what Oliver Cromwell so rightly said in the 17th century when he led the Puritan revolution to overthrow the English monarchy. Both are equally necessary – belief in providence, and arms for self-defense.

On Jews against Israel

J.S.: Reading your chapter on anti-Israel Jews, I reached one incontestable conclusion: A lot of people are crazy. Absolute nutcases.

Wistrich: Well, many anti-Zionist Jews are intellectuals and academics.

You know, when I think of the more pathological examples of anti-Israel Jews, one could write an entire book just on that theme – and I have enough material to do it. But this may be a golden opportunity for psychoanalysis to finally produce something useful!

I’m reminded of something that was said by an English journalist in the 1930s, George Orwell. He was reacting to that section of the English intelligentsia that was unconditionally pro-Soviet – and although he was a socialist, Orwell could not abide the hypocrisy and the doubletalk of these intellectuals. He then made a remark that I would apply to some of the anti-Zionist Jewish intellectuals. He said that there are some things in this world that only intellectuals would be stupid enough to believe!

And this is how I feel about some of the vilifications and lies about Israel and the Palestinians or the “Jewish question” in general. How can one be stupid enough to believe this propaganda?

Thinking the unthinkable

J.S.: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the situation in the Mideast? Do you think Iran might attack Israel with nuclear weapons?

Wistrich: Think about Haman the Wicked, grand vizier of the Persian empire. I know it’s a legend, but it’s remarkably prescient. It is there for a purpose even if we cannot fully decode it. This Purim story is about what? A man rises to power in Persia and embarks upon a project to exterminate all the Jewish people in one day – all the Jewish men, women, and children of the Persian empire. And he plots and conspires and convinces the emperor to do that, to strip the Jews of everything they have and then wipe them out.

That is also Ahmadinejad’s goal. Of course the bomb is the key to that; that is the only way Iran could carry out such a project, and Iran is feverishly working in that direction.

Come what may, irrespective of what the international community may say, what the United States might claim, Obama stretched out his hand and it was symbolically chopped off by the Iranian leader. I don’t know whether Obama even noticed. But he is still holding it out while manufacturing crises with Israel over minor settlement issues that are like tiny pebbles in the mighty ocean.

I believe that Ahmadinejad’s fate will be like that of Haman. In other words, the tree that he has prepared, metaphorically, to hang the Jews of Persia, to wipe out the State of Israel in our time, is the one on which he himself will be hanged. How that will come about I don’t know. I am not a prophet, and neither the Israeli government nor the intelligence service has told me what their plans are. Realistically, Iran is a great danger, as is radical Islam in general. How do you frustrate such an evil design? It’s not a simple matter. We all know that there are dispersed nuclear sites, but we don’t know where all of them are. I certainly hope that Israel knows where they are, because it will be left largely alone to fight this battle.

Anybody who says that Israelis can live with an Iranian bomb under the regime of the ayatollahs doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s the nature of this regime – its fanatical, messianic, apocalyptic ideology, its vicious anti-Semitism, its declared intention, brazenly repeated, to wipe out the Jewish state – that is at issue. In these conditions, it would be an act of suicide to permit Iran to have the bomb. The rest is just commentary.

J.S.: You were born in Russia in 1945 and grew up in England, attending schools there. As a child, did you experience any anti-Semitism?

Wistrich: I was subjected to less abuse than others. If you were athletic, as I was, you became half a gentile. Another reason was, I was the best pupil in the class, and teachers do like to have a few pupils who can actually answer their questions. Anti-Semitism was part of my social experience. It seemed normal; we lived with it, we dealt with it. It was certainly long before such things as the race relations act.

The p.c. of today makes that impossible – which is almost the only good thing about political correctness. It has put an end to that kind of open, blatant racism.

But on the other hand, modern anti-Semitism may be character-building – making you want to prove yourself. I felt the way many of my school friends felt. You know, this is the way they look at us; OK, we’re going to prove them wrong just by being better than anybody else.

And maybe that’s one of the reasons why Jews have been overachievers.

J.S.: That’s a good thought to end this interview. Thank you.

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