A Lethal Obsession, By Robert S. Wistrich | Random House | 1,184 pages | $40
Early on in his sweeping, lucid study, Robert Wistrich observes that anti-Semitism can flourish in conditions where Jews are a minimal presence or entirely absent. This phenomenon, dubbed “anti-Semitism without Jews,” is one of the key reasons anti-Semitism is such a distinctive… what, exactly? Form of prejudice? Irrational belief? Method of scapegoating and stereotyping?
To be sure, it is all of these things, but above all, as Wistrich underlines, anti-Semitism is a worldview, a way of explaining why there is injustice and unfairness and conflict in our societies. Brobdingnagian in scale, A Lethal Obsession begins in antiquity but is mainly focused on modernity, when the figure of the Jew as an alien, toxic other “metamorphosised into an absolute,” beyond redemption even by religious conversion.
For Wistrich, arguably the leading scholar on this subject, that is why anti-Semitism cannot be regarded as just one more lazy, ill-thought-out bigotry. The anti-Semite, he continues, hates and fears Jews because he interprets the world through them. Wistrich quotes the French monarchist Charles Maurras’s candid admission that anti-Semitism “enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over and simplified.”
The principal effect of such simplification is persecution. Wistrich transports the reader through the awful crescendos of anti-Semitism, such as the Dreyfus Trial, the Russian pogroms and, ultimately, the Holocaust. What really occupies him, however, is the extraordinary persistence of anti-Semitism in our own time. A historian by profession, Wistrich is, in this book, more of a commentator on contemporary events whose meanings are interpreted through the prism of the historical parallels upon which he draws.
When it comes to teasing out the forerunners of today’s anti-Semitic discourses, Wistrich is masterful. He shows, for example, how the acts and utterances of al-Qaff al-Aswad, a jihadi group established by Sheikh Izz ad-Din al-Kassam in the 1930s, prefigure those of Islamist organizations in our own time, from the Muslim Brotherhood to al-Qaida. Similarly, contemporary appeasers of anti-Semitism – many of them Jews themselves, a fact that clearly pains Wistrich – have their antecedents. Long before Independent Jewish Voices depicted Israel as the prime source of Jewish woes, Wistrich explains, there was the League of British Jews, a body that earned the admiration of one British newspaper for laying bare “how much the Zionists have done to stir up anti-Semitic prejudices by their hysterical advocacy of the Palestine Administration.”
And speaking of the media, when Wistrich dissects the rhetorical invective around the Lebanon War, he could just as easily be examining the coverage of the conflict with Hamas in Gaza three decades later.
This ability to show how patterns and themes repeat themselves with depressing regularity is one of the key contributions of A Lethal Obsession. Another is Wistrich’s insistence, carefully documented, that anti-Semitism is not, as is conventionally believed, the sole preserve of the European nationalist Right. Actually, anti-Semitism is politically and theologically promiscuous, at home among Christians and Muslims as well as socialists, royalists, anarchists and fascists. In that regard, one of the book’s most compelling chapters concerns the anti-Semitism that prevailed in the Soviet Union, involving the domestic persecution of the Jewish community alongside a global campaign, at the UN and other forums, against what was euphemistically called “international Zionism.”
Many of today’s leftists would doubtless shrink away from the kinds of guttural anti-Jewish barbs so patiently documented in this book: Bakunin’s “bloodsuckers,” Marx’s “loan-mongers,” the “dirty Judases” of the Russian Narodnya Volya (People’s Will) movement, and so forth. Contemporary leftists would insist that their opposition to Zionism and Israel is based instead on anti-racism. But Wistrich debunks these semantic games. Whether they like it or not, what the advocates of an Israel boycott share with Holocaust-denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the belief that Israel is singularly, as Wistrich puts it, “an organic obstacle to peace and progress.”
Given its emphasis on the current climate, A Lethal Obsession is organized along thematic and geographical, rather than chronological, lines. There are chapters on Britain and France, on the dovetailing of anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism, and on the implications for European Jews of their continent’s various troubled models of multiculturalism. The dramatis personae of anti-Semitism’s history all make an appearance, from Wilhelm Marr in Germany (who coined the term as a positive means of political identification) to Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran.
The final sections of the book are devoted to the explosion of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, with a particular accent on both the Palestinians and post-revolutionary Iran. Building upon a fascinating discussion of the relationship between the Nazis and Palestinian wartime leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, Wistrich demolishes the notion that anti-Semitism is an alien import into the region, a mere byproduct of the conflict with Israel. Iran under Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, he says, “is a state with a totalitarian ideology, radically opposed to the Western democracies and inspired by hatred of the Jews.”
This assertion of a stark resemblance to Nazi Germany will be widely contested; even so, those who draw a less dramatic conclusion should give careful consideration to Wistrich’s treatment of the ideological fealties of Iran’s mullahs, particularly as the confrontation over their nuclear program intensifies.
As is inevitable in a book this ambitious, there are certain flaws. Terms with a slightly sensationalist ring – “Islamicization,” “Eurabia” – crop up with little explanation. From time to time, Wistrich’s analytical narrative is subsumed by a descriptive summary of anti-Semitic events, as though no incident can be left unmentioned in so thorough a study. Still, these are but minor complaints, given the enormous achievement this book represents.
Another reviewer suggested that Wistrich’s subject matter had overwhelmed him into the conclusion that the whole world was against the Jews. That is an unfair caricature. Wistrich’s signal contribution is to document the rehabilitation of anti-Semitism in our own time, and the disturbing acquiescence – whether through passivity, quiet approval, or its dismissal as a tiresome paranoia that prevents honest debate – that has accompanied its growth.
Wistrich’s critics would also point out that in the vast majority of
societies in which they now live, Jewish communities are prosperous and
unencumbered by legal discrimination. As a rejoinder, one might cite
Max Nordau’s discomfiting remark, made before the First Zionist
Congress in 1897, that Jewish emancipation “should first have been
completed in sentiment before it was declared by law.”
If Wistrich’s book can teach us anything, it is that sentiment – and
the opinions, ideas and actions it inspires – is something we dare not
The writer is the associate director
of communications for the American Jewish Committee and the editor of
its blog on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, Z Word.