In his recently released book, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House), Prof. Robert S. Wistrich provides one of the most comprehensive overviews to date of the “longest hatred,” which he has spent the better part of his life documenting and analyzing.
Though much of his mission involves the sounding of alarm bells about the historical significance of Jew hatred and the role it plays today in the spread of fundamentalist Islam, Wistrich — holder of the Neuberger chair for modern European and Jewish history and head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem — is oddly serene. While warning of imminent catastrophes, boded by the likes of Ahmadinejad on the one hand and left-wing promoters of anti-Israel and anti-Western narratives on the other, he also stresses the spiritual opportunity this provides the Jewish people to, well, get its act together.
This challenge, like the author’s nearly 1,200-page tome, is weighty indeed. But it is one that the 64-year-old Wistrich — who was born in Kazakhstan to Polish Jews, raised in Britain, educated in America, and who settled in Israel in 1981 — believes is worth confronting.
“It requires faith,” says Wistrich, in an interview on his return from a whirlwind book tour across the United States. “Our presence in the land of Israel is providential, and cannot be explained by purely rational arguments. Whether we live up to that depends on us.”
Q: Why do you call anti-Semitism an obsession, rather than a compulsion?
A: There is something in the history of anti-Semitism that better fits “obsession.”
“Compulsion” suggests being coerced; and I think of anti-Semitism as more inner-driven, though it can also be imposed from outside; it can even be both simultaneously. The word “lethal” was even more critical for the message I want to convey: that the commonplace notion of anti-Semitism — as a form of prejudice or a sub-category of racism — is both trivializing and inaccurate. In the book’s introduction, I quote French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre — not one of my heroes by any means, but who, in his classic 1946 essay, “Reflections on the Jewish Question,” said that anti-Semitism is not an opinion, but rather a crime of passion; and, in the final analysis, the anti-Semite wants, consciously or unconsciously, to kill the Jew.
Q: Would you say that anti-Semitism is religion-based at its core?
A: I certainly think that researchers have seriously underestimated the power of the religious driving force in anti-Semitism. I attribute that to something I remember vividly from my own student years in the mid-to-late 1960s, and then when I did my doctorate in the 1970s. There was a consensus, particularly in academia, that religion was a force of the past; that it was in the process of becoming extinguished in most parts of the world; that it was symptomatic of backwardness in those countries where it still played a role; and as a result of economic and technological progress, it would become a distant memory by the 21st century. Yet here we are, at the end of the first decade of this century, and a person would have to put blinkers on his eyes, seal up his ears, and be completely disconnected from the world to think that religion is not a powerful factor, both in general, and in relation to how Jews are perceived. Islamic fundamentalism is the most obvious and startling example. But Christian Jew hatred, though definitely diminished since WWII, is also prevalent.
Despite the real efforts to develop a Christian-Jewish dialogue, it is only among the educated and broad-minded elite in the Catholic and Protestant churches that there has been a significant shift in the perception of Judaism and the Jews. But this is much less true of the Orthodox Christians, who account for well over 300 million people.
Furthermore, we would have to qualify even the progress made with the Catholic Church by saying that it is in the theological realm, not manifested in attitudes towards Israel — though, yes, finally in the 1990s, the Vatican recognized the Jewish state.
In the Protestant world, it’s a slightly reversed trend. The Evangelical Christians are among Israel’s most passionate supporters. But they have not altogether cast overboard more traditional theological ideas about conversion of Jews being the indispensable prelude to the ultimate redemption.
Q: How much of all this can be attributed to the Islamic world — with some Christians joining Jews by virtue of a common enemy, and others becoming more distant as a result of sympathy with the Muslim cause?
A: There are important nuances here, both between countries in different parts of the world, and within the West itself. American and European Christendom, for example, are completely different.
In the U.S., many Christians see Jews as allies in the struggle to protect and preserve all the core values that are threatened directly by militant Islam; just as many Jews see those Christians who understand the moral, historical, and political legitimacy of Israel as indispensable allies. The common interest is glaringly obvious, although sometimes more to Christians than to Jews.
Here lies a paradox that has to be addressed: Christians of the more liberal persuasion, particularly liberal Protestants, are very often hyper-critical of Israel, and push for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions. They also support charity organizations like War on Want and Christian Aid, which utterly and uncritically embrace the Palestinian cause.
Then there’s the left wing of Christianity, which has roots in the Third World and Latin America. It espouses a kind of Marxist liberation theology.
The conservative Christians have a totally different perception of Israel from these groups. They, unlike their more liberal coreligionists, passionately support Israel as a front line of democracy, which they sincerely define as the Judeo-Christian basis of all the freedoms that we tend to take for granted in Western countries.