Spotlight on modern loathing

Robert Wistrich warns that anti-Semitism will grow as long as West ignores Islamists.

Robert S. Wistrich 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Robert S. Wistrich 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Robert S. Wistrich is, arguably, the world’s leading academic authority on anti-Semitism. He heads the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University.
The center employs a multidisciplinary approach to the study and research of Jew-hatred.
Intelligence in the field of a scholarly understanding of contemporary anti-Semitism demands that Wistrich’s books and articles be read. He has published prolifically on the topic of what fuels the loathing of Israel and Jews. His latest book – A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad – has been showered with accolades and is widely considered to be the definitive account of the long, vile history of hatred of Jews.
In an interview spanning many topics, Wistrich delves into the manifestations of modern anti- Semitism in Europe and across the Atlantic in the United States. He offers powerful explanatory models to help readers fathom the outbreaks of hate directed at Jews not only in the West but in the transformations unfolding in Muslim countries and in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The German translation of his famous and oftquoted book Muslim Anti-Semitism: An Actual Danger is now available in the Federal Republic with a new afterword from Wistrich. The book contains an important introduction by Dr. Clemens Heni, a Berlin-based expert on anti-Semitism, who splendidly and masterfully translated Wistrich’s book. Given the rising level of Islamic-inspired anti-Semitism, the book remains the sine qua non of knowledge about one of the world’s most lethal forms of loathing.
In connection with Iran you recently wrote “that the constant efforts to deny, relativize or invert the Holocaust – especially against Israel – are a conscious (or unconscious) invitation to repeat it.” Can you expand on what you mean?
In the Iranian case, around 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began to publicly proclaim his compulsive insistence that the Holocaust was a myth, and he has never let up since then. His consistent denial of the Holocaust went hand-inhand with brazen threats to wipe Israel off the map. He has called Israel a “rotting branch” and hammered away at the need for “a world without Zionism.” It is striking that while the world is finally paying close attention to Iran’s relentless drive for nuclear weapons, it is largely ignoring Iranian state-sponsored anti- Semitism and Holocaust denial. But the two issues are interrelated precisely because of Iran’s repeated calls to annihilate Israel.
It is amazing to note the degree to which this Iranian Shi’ite annihilationist ideology with its apocalyptic religious underpinning is being glossed over. My point is that this state-sanctioned determination to wipe Israel off the face of the earth means exactly what it says. The will to exterminate is the crucial point here.
This is what happened with Hitler from January 1939 onwards when he incessantly repeated his intention to destroy European Jewry exactly as Ahmadinejad does today regarding Israel.
What other parallels exist between the lethal anti-Semitism of the Hitler movement and Iranian genocidal anti- Semitism?
The most important parallel that accompanies the genocidal objective is the culture of hatred deliberately nourished by a totalitarian state apparatus.
When Iran’s president constantly states that Israel is close “to the endpoint of its existence” it is clear he actively envisages the demise of the Jewish nation-state. If Iran had a nuclear weapon and succeeded, God forbid, in using it against such a small country like Israel, that would amount to a second genocide of the Jewish people. We must also remember that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not alone. As in the case of Nazi Germany, there is a religious-driven leadership that shares these goals and aspirations. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the spiritual guide of Iran, has frequently referred to Israel as “a cancer” that has to be cut out. This is Nazi language.
So the Iranian regime both denies the original Holocaust and at the same time would like to ensure its repetition by fanatical Muslim believers.
As in the case of Hitler, Iran also has territorial and hegemonial ambitions. Step 1 is to control the Persian Gulf. Step 2 is to dominate the Middle East. And step 3 would be to establish a world-wide Islamic caliphate. If you look at Nazi Germany, the stages were not so different. Goal No.
1 was to unite the German-speaking peoples in central Europe. Goal No. 2 was to establish European hegemony and “living space” in the East. And goal No. 3 was world conquest.
There are, of course, some important differences. Nazi Germany developed the world’s best-trained and efficient army, which Iran obviously does not have. It fought in the name of Vaterland [fatherland], Volk [the people] and Führer. Iran is waging jihad in the name of Allah. But the Iranian leadership is even less of a “rational actor” than Hitler was. On this point I disagree with the recent assessment of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US, General Martin Dempsey. Neither the worldview of the ayatollahs nor their behavior can be termed rational, even from their own standpoint. Belief in the imminent coming of the “hidden Imam” to save the world does not easily translate into a cool cost-benefit analysis.
How do you assess the so-called “Arab Spring” or upheavals, particularly within the context of Islamic-animated anti-Semitism?
2011 was undoubtedly a triumphal year for Islamism and especially for the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brothers, who are on the verge of achieving state power in Egypt, have always been deeply anti-Western, viscerally hostile to Israel and openly anti-Semitic – points usually downplayed in Western commentary on the Arab Spring – a spring which has already been turning into a chilling and bloody winter.
The most obvious example of this descent into hell is Syria. Iran is doing everything possible to prop up its strategic ally, the Assad regime. It is deeply distressing to observe the tepid reaction of the [US President Barack] Obama administration regarding Syria and the unspeakable cynicism of Russia and China. Israel’s own government has also said virtually nothing. I understand the caution, but I am not happy about this posture. I do not see why the Israeli government could not say publicly that it supports the aspirations of the Syrian people for freedom and democracy, even if the real prospects of that happening in Syria are remote. True, the Muslim Brotherhood might one day come to power within a broad coalition, but it will never achieve the same kind of dominance in Syria as in Egypt. Moreover, the Syrian opposition will not be tied to Iran, which is surely good for us.
In coverage of the Arab Spring, the Western media has paid very little attention to manifestations of anti-Semitism.
Yet it struck me that the three rulers who were overthrown in North Africa – [former president Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt, [former ruler Muammar] Gaddafi in Libya and [former president Zine El Abidine] Ben-Ali in Tunisia – were all branded as “Jews” once they became hate symbols. It is worth noting that Ben-Ali before his overthrow had encouraged French Jews to visit and invest in Tunisia. Mubarak, of course, cooperated with Israel on security matters when it suited him, though he allowed a repulsive anti-Semitism to flourish in Egypt as a kind of safety valve.
Under Mubarak, demonization of Jews existed just as it had under [presidents Gamal Abdel] Nasser and [Anwar] Sadat.
We could say that anti-Semitism is still the daily bread of the media in Egypt, along with anti-Western conspiracy theories.
Mubarak claimed that he could not control it. That was nonsense, but as in other Arab countries, hatred of Israel and the Jews was a very convenient outlet for allowing the frustrated Muslim masses to let off steam. That has not yet disappeared.
The branding of Gaddafi as a “Jew” came to the forefront once he began his all-out assault on his own people.
While it is true that the issue of Israel was marginalized at the beginning of the Arab revolutions, we are now back where we started. Anti-Semitism is still a common currency in the Arab world and it needs to be highlighted more than it is.
What explains the general reluctance to draw attention to virulent anti- Semitism in Iran or the Arab countries?
This is obviously a less sexy story than the nuclearization of Iran or the brave struggle of the Arab peoples for their freedom.
But I would also argue that there is a deep mental, psychological and cultural block in public reluctance to address the issue. People generally understand security threats, the price of oil and terrorism but they do not want to – or are unable to – relate to the demonization of Israel. This is a subject that arouses political passions, guilt feelings, resentment, grievances, painful memories and unconscious fears. This is a point which I make in my most recent book, Muslim Antisemitism: An Actual Danger, which has just been published in Berlin.
There is also another explanation for the resistance of the liberal-leftist media and the intelligentsia (as in Israel) to the discussion of anti-Semitism in a Western or Middle Eastern context. There is always the fear that if you tell the truth about the fanatical Muslim hatred of Israel and the Jews which exists “out there,” there will never be peace. Indeed, you are likely to be accused of being a “racist Zionist,” deviously trying to divert attention from Israel’s alleged “crimes.” This is the kind of reaction one often encounters on the Left in Britain, in Western Europe or in the American Academy. Whenever the subject of Arab and Muslim anti-Semitism is raised these days, it will seldom be discussed on its merits. Instead it is treated as a political ploy. You may well be accused of playing “the anti-Semitic card.” I find that to straitjacket the study of anti-Semitism in this absurd fashion is in the best case utterly juvenile and in the worst case it is itself a symptom of latent anti-Jewishness.
How then does the left-liberal spectrum actually address anti-Semitism?
The first thing to notice is that liberals and leftists usually try and reduce anti- Semitism to a purely right-wing anachronism or neo-Nazi phenomenon. In other words, they invariably ignore latent or overt racism in their own camp. Another method [they use] is to hold Israel responsible for any apparent increase in anti-Semitism, whether in the West or the Middle East. In other words, Israel is to blame, not the anti-Semites themselves.
There is a bitter irony here. Both liberals and leftists like to proclaim their commitment to universal human rights.
Indeed, they use this terminology as a battering ram to try and delegitimize the Jewish state. They seem to have forgotten that anti-Semitism is in itself a fundamental issue of human rights and that Israelis also have a right to live freely in their own nation-state.
For the anti-Zionist Left, it appears that human and political rights are only for the Palestinians. This trend was very strong at the first UN “anti-racism” conference in Durban in 2001, which turned into an anti-Jewish hate-fest. The Goldstone Report on the Gaza war in 2009 was a logical continuation of this type of “anti-racist” delegitimization of Israel endlessly accusing it of war crimes. The “new anti-Semitism” is indeed all about depicting the Jewish state as a criminal entity which has no moral right to exist.
This so-called “anti-Zionist” discourse not only encourages those who seek to totally isolate Israel but by its support for the more obviously annihilationist ambitions of radical Islamists it becomes potentially complicit in genocide. However, I believe that these more pathological manifestations of contemporary anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism are ultimately doomed to implode through the sheer weight of their irrationality and intellectual nullity. But of course it remains our obligation to relentlessly expose such political insanity and fight it with all our resources.
What is your next project? I have a new book coming out at the beginning of June 2012 entitled From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel. It deals extensively with leftwing attitudes towards Israel and anti- Semitism from the origins of socialism until the present. The Left initially favored equality for Jews and did not officially support anti-Semitism, especially when it was advocated by its political enemies. But from the beginning the Left was also contaminated by some vicious stereotypes, which linked Jews to a rapacious and predatory capitalism.
Today, Israel has become for all too many on the Left the collective embodiment of all the evil attributes that anti- Semites traditionally projected onto the Jews. In short, the contemporary anti- Zionist Left has become no less racist and discriminatory than its adversaries on the far Right. My book also casts a new light on the growing convergence between leftist and Islamist forms of anti-Semitism. This axis has instrumentalized the Palestinian cause against Israel into a bottomless pit of vengeance and hatred.
How do you contrast Europe and the US in terms of combating anti- Semitism?
America is different because there is a political culture that is much more resistant to public expressions of anti- Semitism than in Europe. The two-party system makes it difficult for a third party to break through on a national level even if it has some local grassroots support. Social anti-Semitism was very strong in the US, especially in the 1930s and ’40s. But even during the Great Depression political anti-Semitism did not achieve real resonance, although it certainly affected US immigration policy and unwillingness to rescue European Jewry during the Holocaust.
Since World War II. American Jewish organizations have been much more effective than their European counterparts in combating anti-Semitism. They are more integrated into the American political system, where lobbying of ethnic groups is considered normal. There is also a crucial difference with Europe regarding the influence of the powerful Evangelical constituency, which is extremely supportive of Israel. So, too, is conservative, small-town America for historical, religious and political reasons.
On the other hand, elite opinion in the US in recent years has begun to resemble Western European attitudes more than in the past. In other words, it tends to see Israel as an “obstacle to peace.” In the academy there is a growing hostility towards Israel and the Jewish lobby, as one can see from the Walt- Mearsheimer best-selling book on the subject. Of course, on the Left there is a widespread trend to embrace the Palestinian narrative despite the growing power of Hamas and Islamist anti-Semitism among the Palestinians.
In the US, a left-liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, is engulfed in an anti- Semitic scandal because some of their bloggers are accusing Jewish and non-Jewish Americans of being “Israel-Firsters.” What is your view of this outbreak of anti-Jewish thinking?
The term “Israel-Firsters” has some very nasty connotations.
It raises the ghost of American-Jewish dual loyalties. Many anti-Semites indulged in that claim back in the 1930s. For example, Charles Lindbergh, who was pro-Nazi and the spearhead of the America First movement, argued that Jews were trying to draw America into the Second World War in order to protect the persecuted Jews of Europe. The charge of dual loyalties revived again during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Both on the Right and on the Left it was claimed that a neocon cabal existed around [US president George W.] Bush and pushed him into a war to defend Israel’s security rather than American national interests. No doubt similar claims will be made if the United States decides to attack Iran.
Looking at the present and future prospects for anti-Semitism in America, we need to also consider the current calling into question of capitalism.
There is a great and understandable anger against Wall Street and the excesses of corporate capitalism.
Some of this may already be spilling over into anti- Semitic channels, but it is unlikely to have a long term impact since the capitalist ethos is still so much stronger in America than in Europe. Finally, there is the question of religious and ethnically driven anti-Semitism in America. All the surveys show that blacks tend to be more anti-Jewish than white Americans. There are similar indications regarding Hispanic-Catholic voters who were not born in the US. There is also a problem with a militant minority of Jihadists in America among the Muslim population.
That is a serious concern in the present and for the future.
What is the interplay between Islamic-fueled anti-Semitism and the West?
Anti-Semitism in the Islamic world is tied up with anti-Westernism. There is also the self-hatred factor among some Western intellectuals and journalists who buy in to the theory of Western decadence. Political correctness is another factor which paralyzes many Western academics when it comes to criticism of Islam or Islamic anti-Semitism. This reluctance to even criticize atrocities committed by Muslims against Christians or Jews extends to many Western governments.
When Major Nidal Malik Hasan committed a massacre [in 2009] against his fellow American soldiers at Fort Hood military base in Texas, for a long time no mention was made of his Islamist convictions. In that respect, America is becoming more like Europe. That does not necessarily bode well for the future.
The writer is European correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and a fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.