HISTORY FEBRUARY 4, 2010
by Robert S. Wistrich
Random House, 1200 pp., $40
Robert Wistrich’s vast and important book is the most comprehensive account in print of the history of anti-Semitism since 1945 in Europe, the Middle East, and Iran. The reference to antiquity in the title is unfortunate: its treatment of its dark subject before 1945 is very brief; 810 of its 938 pages and twenty-three of its twenty-five chapters deal with the past seven decades. Wistrich is one of the world’s leading historians of the subject, particularly of the continuities and discontinuities in the history of this lethal prejudice, in Europe but also beyond it, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world.
A Lethal Obsession is an encyclopedic—and genuinely alarming—compendium of the new anti-Semitism. Wistrich gathers a massive amount of evidence to drive home the point that we are witnessing yet another significant chapter in the history of anti-Semitism, one that the conventional focus on the history of anti-Semitism before and during Nazism and the Holocaust does not address. Every historian must decide what the proper balance is between argument and evidence. No one can criticize Wistrich for paucity of evidence. The examples are plentiful, overwhelming, at times excessive. And the plenitude of scholarship here is more than is necessary to make Wistrich’s argument, which is that the history of radical and potentially genocidal anti-Semitism did not end with the defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945.
Hitlerism, understood as hatred of the Jews and of liberal modernity, persisted beyond the destruction of Hitler, in Wistrich’s account, and acquired new political, cultural, religious, ideological, and geographical coordinates. The terminology of the new post-1945 Jew-hatred was no longer predominantly Christian, fascist, or racist. Instead it draws on neo-Marxist, Islamic, or anti-globalist ideologies. Unreconstructed neo-Nazi groups persisted, to be sure, but largely on the margins of European politics, and they ceased to be the most important source of radical anti-Semitism. Instead, the anti-Semitism after Hitler consisted of a mixture of the “old anti-Semitism” with “the new anti-Zionism.” It was expressed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, by the radical left since the 1960s, and above all in the mix of secular and Islamist politics of the Middle East and Iran.While the rallying cry of the old anti-Semitism was the attack on “world Jewry,” the core of anti-Semitism has been the attack on “international Zionism” and on the state of Israel.
Wistrich is certainly aware that not all criticism of Israeli policy is inspired by hatred of the Jews and Judaism, but the “logic” and the structure of influential arguments attacking Israel have been ominously identical to the imputations of vast power and enormous evil attributed to “world Jewry” by European anti-Semites of old. The “lethal obsession” of the recent past, according to Wistrich, has been a melange of the old conspiracy theories of that infamous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,with Marxism-Leninism, secular third worldism, and Islamism. In this period, the center of gravity of anti-Semitism has shifted from Europe to the Middle East and Iran. Although the cultural sources of the anti-Semitism of recent decades differ from those in Europe, the publicly articulated policies of the government of Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, are no less “lethal.” Far from clearly recognizing the danger, too much of the political mainstream in Europe has failed to acknowledge the anti-Semitic resurgence. And in certain precincts of the Muslim diaspora in Europe, radical anti-Semitism has been re-exported back to Europe and on occasion enters the mainstream of political, journalistic, and intellectual life.
Wistrich presents evidence of a "culture of hatred" in the Middle East in recent years that permeates books, magazines, newspapers, sermons, videocassettes, the Internet, television, and radio on a scale unprecedented since the heyday of Nazi Germany. “Indeed, the demonic images of Jews presently circulating in much of the Islamic world are sufficiently radical in tone and content to constitute a new warrant for genocide. They combine to devastating effect the blood libel of medieval Christian Europe with Nazi conspiracy theories about the Jewish drive for world domination and dehumanizing Islamic quotations about Jews as the ‘sons of apes and donkeys.’” Like the Nazis, these anti-Semites see themselves at war with Western decadence, infused as they say it is with evil “Jewish influence.” “Islamofascism today builds on the same mythological figure of the satanic, ubiquitous, immoral and all-powerful Jew that once haunted the European anti-Semitic imagination from Richard Wagner to Adolf Hitler.” I find these claims entirely persuasive.
The first two-thirds of Wistrich’s tome examines postwar Europe and the Soviet Union. He describes the “new breed of anti-Zionist publicists” in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s who combined Marxism-Leninism with attacks on the idea of the Jews as the chosen people and on Judaism as a religion that justified imperialism and a variety of sins committed against the Palestinians. In his study of the “anti-Zionist masquerade” which was, he argues, anti-Semitic in its essence, Wistrich reminds us that in September 1971, Yakov Malik, the Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations, replied to the Israeli representative’s remarks about Soviet anti-Semitism as follows: “Don’t stick your long nose into our Soviet garden.” Zionism, he said, was a racist theory, and was “the same that the Fascists advocated towards all peoples....The chosen people: is that not racism? What is the difference between Zionism and Fascism, if the essence of its ideology is racism, hatred towards other peoples?” It was the Soviet anti-Semites who introduced this equation of Zionism with Nazism, and also the idea that Zionism was similar to South African apartheid.
In his chapters on France, Wistrich discusses its role as an intellectual center of Holocaust denial, and draws on the excellent work of French critics of that trend. He offers a grim and disturbing account of the violence and threats directed at Jews in France in the past decade, the hesitant response of the French political establishment, “the acute malaise of French Jewry” and the consequent migration of a considerable number of French Jews to Israel. But many public figures in France do not share this concern. Faced with violence directed against Jews by Muslim youth, Jean Daniel, the editor of Le Nouvel Observateur dismissed concerns of French and American Jews about anti-Semitism as “a kind of allergic reaction.” Wistrich describes Le Monde as a paper that “for decades” has offered an “endless mix of half-truths and self-righteous falsehoods about Israel.”
Trends in Britain are equally, if not more, disturbing. British leftists have lent support to the idea that an “Israel lobby” has seized control of American foreign policy. Hostility to Israel and unfair reporting about Israel has appeared in leading newspapers such as The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, as well as in the broadcasts of the BBC. British academics in the Association of University Teachers have made a name for themselves by calling for boycotts of Israeli academia. In 2007, the British National Union of Journalists called on the British government to impose trade sanctions on Israel. A cartoon of “the Kosher conspiracy” that drew on the classic images of mid-twentieth century anti-Semitic caricatures disgraced the front pages of the British New Statesman. London’s mayor Ken Livingstone called Ariel Sharon “a war criminal who should be in prison, not in office.” Perhaps most bizarre was the emergence of “the Red-Green Axis,” that is, a rapprochement between the anti-globalist left and Islamic fundamentalists. Livingstone defended Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian born fundamentalist cleric who called for the destruction of “American and British aggressors” as well as Zionists.
More generally, Britain has emerged as “a major center of political Islam.” Arabic and Islamist newspapers, magazines, mosques, and community centers reap the benefits of London’s significance as a center of global finance, electronic media, and mass communications technology. Surveys indicated that as many as 200,000 British Muslims could see some justification for attacks against the West following the London subway bombings; four thousand British Muslims have received terrorist training in camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Wistrich regrets that the mainstream British media “virtually ignored” radical Islamist interpretations of theological texts as a source of terrorism or a threat to the West, and subordinated “the religious fanaticism that ultimately drives the holy war” to geopolitical and economic factors.
The concluding chapters of this important book examine the Nazi-Arab collaboration during World War II; the persistence of anti-Semitism and the “culture of hatred” in the Palestine Liberation Organization during the era of Arafat and after; Hamas and Hezbollah; the articulation of anti-Semitism by Muslim ideologues in the Arab world generally; the anti-Semitism of the Ayatollah Khomeini; and finally the threats to wipe out Israel coming from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the full support of the Ayatollah Khamenei. This material will be familiar to readers who are following these trends in the press and in recent scholarship. Yet Wistrich’s synthesis of these many studies is the most concentrated and comprehensive one-volume work we have.
In addition to presenting the well-documented anti-Semitism of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who was an ally of Hitler, Wistrich offers a devastating portrait of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. He stresses the continued importance of distinctly Islamist themes in its comparatively secular outlook, the hate speech in its media and its schools, and its still unmodified National Covenant that calls for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. His discussion of Hamas and its covenant explores the ideological lineages that stem from the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb, so as to explain why it sees itself as “at war with the Jews and world Zionism, not just with Israel.” As for Hezbollah, its leaders in Lebanon teach that either Islam will destroy Israel or Israel will destroy Islam. With the relevant quotes from Hezbollah leaders and references to odious programs broadcast on its television station, Wistrich documents his argument that these organizations blend “traditional Islamic anti-Judaism with Western conspiracy myths, Third Worldist anti-Zionism” and in Hezbollah with “Iranian Shiite contempt for Jews as ‘ritually impure’ and corrupt infidels.” After citing speeches by Hassan Nasrallah that describe the Jews as evil conspirators against God and mankind, and possessed of characteristics that have been “unchanged since the time of Muhammed,” Wistrich sensibly concludes: “If this is not pure unadulterated anti-Semitism, then the term has no meaning at all.”
This brings us to Iran. Wistrich nicely defines Khomeini’s distinctive accomplishment as “mixing fragments of Third Worldist Marxism with Shiite messianism and hatred of Israel turned into an instrument” of Iran’s own “missionizing global ambitions.” Khomeini’s successors continued to view Jews as “impure.” They refer to Israel as a “rotten and dangerous tumor,” a “cancer,” a “festering sore.” Wistrich reminds us that it was Hashemi Rafsanjani, often described as a moderate, who said in 2001 that “one atomic bomb would wipe out Israel without a trace” while the Islamic world would only be damaged rather than destroyed by Israeli nuclear retaliation. With abundant references that illustrate the breadth of the sentiment, Wistrich concludes that “[f]or all of the [Iranian] ruling echelon, eradicating Israel has become a declared foreign policy aim, and acquiring nuclear weapons is central to its implementation.” A “suicidal outlook” intensified by “the Shia martyrdom syndrome differentiates the Iranian nuclear weapons program from that of all other countries and makes it uniquely threatening.”
The chapter on Ahmadinejad documents the religious eschatology that underscores his threats to destroy Israel. Wistrich argues that “the elimination of Israel is clearly a consensual goal for the regime, uniting radicals and moderates, ideologues and pragmatists, Persian imperial nationalists and Shia fanatics bent on domination of the Gulf and the Middle East as a whole.” Ahmadinejad’s assertions that an era of destruction, and a war between Muslims and the West, will trigger the long awaited return of the Mahdi “are not merely the ravings of an isolated, ‘saber-rattling lunatic,’ a political clown, or histrionic actor. They embody the core beliefs of fundamentalist Shiite theology translated into a modern revolutionary project.” The reality is that Iran has become “the first example of a modern state since Hitler’s Germany that has officially adopted an active policy of anti-Semitism as a means to promote its national interests.” And yet, Wistrich insists, “Iranian anti-Semitism...barely raises an eyebrow in the Western media.” He concludes his massive compilation with a warning and a plea. “The Jew-hatred of yesteryear has not only mutated but is actively fuelling [sic] the Middle East conflict and re-exporting its poisonous fruits to Europe and beyond. Unless it is checked in time, the lethal triad of anti-Semitism, terror and jihad is capable of unleashing [a] potentially universal conflagration. A deadly strain of genocidal anti-Semitism brings the nightmare of a nuclear Armageddon one step closer and with the need for more resolute preventive action.”
When Hitler made his famous threat to exterminate Europe’s Jews in 1939, many Western political observers did not believe he meant what he said. It was too incredible and without precedent. No political leader before had so bluntly and publicly announced his intention to engage in mass murder. And so the disgust that greeted Hitler was mixed with disbelief. But the leaders of our own time do not have the excuse of incredulity. As much as any historian can, Robert Wistrich has documented the fact that radical anti-Semitism is in earnest, that its geographic and cultural center of gravity has shifted, and that it has again become a factor in world politics. The advocates of this disgusting doctrine have the power from which to make good on their threats.
Jeffrey Herf teaches Modern European History at the University of Maryland, College Park. His most recent book is Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World (Yale University Press, 2009).