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The Longest Hatred, Part Two

The conclusion of a two-part interview with Prof. Robert S. Wistrich, author of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. (Don't miss Part One.)

by
Ruthie Blum Leibowitz

Bio

March 18, 2010 - 11:13 pm

Q: How would a student be equipped with the psychological and educational tools upon his arrival at a university to withstand the bombardment? How would he even know that doing so was an option?

A: He wouldn’t — unless there was a comparable effort being made on the Jewish and Israeli side. This has come very belatedly, and thus is an uphill — even Sisyphean — struggle. There still hasn’t been engagement, except among a handful of people, with the prevailing ideas in the political culture in the West about Israel.

Q: What difference can such “engagement” make? Would an effort to deal with “the prevailing ideas in the political culture” have made any difference in pre-Holocaust Europe?

A: We have far more possibilities than the Jews of the pre-Holocaust period had. We have an independent state, with a very advanced and flourishing society. Admittedly, our adversaries today have much more extensive resources with which to circulate and amplify the cycle of lies. This doesn’t mean, however, that we are fated to be passive recipients of vilifying accusations on the part of forces intent on Israel’s demise. One of the reasons I wrote this book was to identify those forces and the impetus behind them. Their build-up is something that only seems to have hit home to many Israelis after the Goldstone report. But that report is only the last straw in a long indictment that has been mounting with very little response, other than from a handful of people.

Q: That “handful of people” would and are often accused by Israeli academics and members of the media of being fanatically right-wing. In fact, a large percentage of Israelis think the government and the military should have cooperated with Goldstone. How can the things you speak about be counteracted if Israeli society and the Jewish people are themselves divided on the issues — and the narrative?

A: Here we are touching on one of the core problems of dealing with this escalating process of undermining the moral foundations and legitimacy of Israel.

It’s difficult for me to be cool, calm and collected when, as part of my everyday work, I have to read so many self-accusatory statements and indictments either by Israelis who have left Israel, or by those who remain and teach in Israeli universities, or by Diaspora Jews who have jumped on this bandwagon and seem so keen to produce their “divorce certificates” from the Jewish state. And they do this in order to give themselves the appearance of a clean bill of health. It is their way of saying: “We are good Jews; we have nothing in common with those bad ones.”

Q: Didn’t many German Jews have that very attitude on the eve of the Holocaust?

A: Indeed, I think there is an analogy to be drawn between the highly assimilated, well-off, middle- and upper-middle-class Jews of Weimar Germany, who believed that if only they could demonstrate to non-Jewish Germans that it was the east European Jewish immigrants at the root of all the problems, they themselves would be spared anti-Semitism. This, of course, was all blown away after 1933, because it wasn’t of the slightest interest to Hitler and his supporters what kind of Jew you were. As a matter of fact, it was the well-established Jewish professionals and intellectuals who the Nazis were determined to “cleanse” Germany from first.

Today, those left-wing and liberal Jews who feel that if only they can show they fully share the anti-Zionist zeitgeist, they will be spared the indictment that is being handed out, are victims of the same delusion.

Q: Is this not typical of Jewish responses to anti-Semitism since time immemorial?

A: We recently celebrated the festival of Purim. And though nobody believes in the literal historicity of the events in the Book of Esther, it is a document of great importance, because of what it tells us about anti-Semitism and Jewish responses to it. It is astonishing to find such continuities from more than 2,000 years ago to today. And it is ironic that the great Jew-hater of the story, Haman, hails from the same country — what was then Persia — as Ahmadinejad today.

In the story, the Jews are already in the Diaspora — so presumably it was written in the Hellenistic period — and they are described as being a dispersed people, and divided among themselves, although they have their own laws and customs, which are distinct from those of the other habitants of the kingdom. And the bait that Haman offers to the king to carry out the extermination of the Jews is that it will bring great economic benefits to the treasury, and that it will introduce an element of uniformity in the kingdom that is actually a multicultural, multinational, perhaps quite shaky empire. And how do the Jews react? Well, Mordechai and Esther engage in a political action; there are court intrigues; a complex plot unravels. But ultimately, in the Diaspora, Jews are dependent on fate, on the powers-that-be, and on persuading at least some of those powers-that-be to allow them to defend themselves. This was less and less true in the history of the Diaspora, and Jews were less and less able to organize and defend themselves — which is one of the primary reasons why modern Zionism came into existence.

So, clearly, anti-Semitism is an ancient phenomenon. That’s why the subtitle of my book begins with “from antiquity.” And many Jewish responses are traditional ones. We can almost say that nothing new has ever been invented in the history of Jewish self-defense. Some techniques are more refined than others. Jews have achieved greater amounts of power in a number of diasporic societies. But the scenarios don’t change that much.

What has changed is the existence of Jewish sovereignty. Of a state. Of an army. Of a cohesive society which is willing and able to defend itself with all the means at the disposal of a modern society, to make sure there is no repetition of the Holocaust or of lower-scale massacres. This is a crucial development, even though it has not diminished anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it has simply given it new pretexts and sources on which it can feed.

Still, we Jews are privileged in comparison to all the generations that went before us. For the first time, with our own hands, and using all the creativity, talent, determination and tenacity that we have shown over the centuries in adversity, we can frustrate the evil designs of our enemies.

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