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.
Part one of my interview with Wistrich concerned the historical mindset of anti-Semitism. This is the second and concluding part of my interview, which begins with Professor Wistrich’s look at Iran.
Q: You refer to the Palestinian-Arab narrative and its negative influence on the West. Iran is not an Arab country, yet it is seen today as the greatest threat to Jews and the Jewish state. Can you address that?
A: Iran is a major part of the Middle East. It is a country of 70 million people, with a small Arab minority. It was conquered by the Arabs in the 7th century, as part of the expansion of Islam, and it was converted initially to Sunni Islam. At the beginning of the 16th century — a thousand years later, more or less — it became the largest and most powerful Shiite state in the world. Persians are the dominant people in Iran, but it is a multinational country, with many different ethnic groups. And there is a traditional hostility, going back centuries, between Persians and Arabs. Persians often have very deprecating attitudes towards Arabs, and Arabs regard Persians as a threat. More recently, let us not forget that the bloodiest war in modern times was fought in the 1980s between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Republic of Iran.
What needs to be understood — and it’s a case I make strongly in the book — is why the ayatollahs have invested such great efforts in their propaganda against Israel. The reason they have presented themselves as — and have carried out a policy of being — the avant garde of total opposition to Israel’s very existence is that they see this as their most powerful card in a much broader and more ambitious aim. This aim is first to establish hegemony throughout the Middle East, and then to be in a position where they can actually challenge the hegemony of the West.
Hatred of Israel and this very intense, religiously driven indoctrination on Iran’s part is designed primarily for the Arab street, and it has had some success. Its most important success was in underwriting and reinforcing the Hizbullah movement it created in Lebanon in 1982. Hizbullah (the Party of God) is a movement which operates in an Arab country and whose members are all Arabs. But they are Shiites — Arab Shiites who have become a proxy of Iran, and closely controlled by its regime. Their ideology is completely Iranian-oriented, and includes a visceral hatred of Jews.
Q: What about Hamas?
A: That Hamas, a Sunni Muslim organization, has increasingly become another Iranian proxy in the region has been one of the most striking developments in the last five or six years. The seeking of Israel’s destruction has become the most effective glue linking Iran to an Arab world that is naturally and rightfully suspicious of its intentions. Countries like Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, which are all Sunni, and often considered to be moderate or pro-Western in some way — though that would have to be seriously qualified in practice — do feel threatened by Iran. In their own ambiguous way, they are seeking means to diminish or neutralize the Iranian threat.
Then there are the smaller Gulf States, which are literally defenseless in the face of a nuclearized Iran. Presently, they may feel they have an American shield to protect them from future Iranian threats. But how much would such a shield be worth if there were a nuclear Iran nuclear? Not very much.
Q: You describe the current elites in the West as ignorant and even dismissive of the Bible and religion. How do you explain, then, the sympathy on the part of students on Western campuses for anti-Israel movements whose fervor is religious? And how do you account for the almost natural inclination of academia to side with them over Israel?
A: The bulk of them have completely bought in to the Palestinian version of the conflict: that the Jews came in and stole the land; that the state of Israel was an illegitimate creation with no historic justification; that its establishment was a colonialist and imperialist conspiracy. This is now a kind of lingua franca of a whole generation of students. Probably 90% of the books they are assigned in Middle East studies point in that direction.
Q: If that’s the case, then you could say that that their anti-Zionism — and even, perhaps, their anti-Semitism — is rational.
A: I wouldn’t use the word “rational.” I would say it is comprehensible, in light of certain ideological factors that have accumulated in the last two-three decades. It’s not merely a kind of herd-like mentality, although that plays a role, because students have to be both knowledgeable and courageous to go against the stream and risk unpopularity — harassment even — and all such unpleasantness that is now normal on many Western campuses.