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.
Q: How do you explain the attraction on the part of many Westerners to the Third World-ism represented by radical Islam? Is it genuine — a la Lawrence of Arabia — or rather a piggy-back ride on an anti-Semitic movement?
A: There are a number of strands of this phenomenon. One is this Arabophile picture of the romantic and “unspoiled” East and the “glamour” of the Orient. That goes back to the days of colonial rule. Another — intertwined — element was the Lawrencian myth of the Arabs found among the British and French upper classes. I think this was a form of escape from their own societies and unresolved personal problems, among them sexual ones. There was undoubtedly an element of homosexual attraction involved. You find this with writers like Andre Gide, who wouldn’t be suspected of any political motives. But then you also find it in colonial officials. Take Sir Ronald Storrs, the first governor of Jerusalem during the British Mandate in Palestine. He was well-known for his homosexual tendencies, as were many of his advisers and other high officials in the Mandate. And they tended to be militantly anti-Zionist, considering the Jewish national home in Palestine to be a huge historic injustice to the Arabs.
Then there were great Orientalist scholars, like Louis Massignon in France, who adopted the view that turning Palestine over to the Jews was part of the really nefarious, decadent, Western influence that was spoiling the authentic and uniquely spiritual culture of Islam. Today, one reads such views with astonishment, because history has developed in such a contrary direction. But they influenced policy.
Take the case of Sir John Bagot Glubb who commanded the Jordanian-Arab Legion in the 1948 war. A conservative Englishman, he was called “Glubb Pasha” in the new Kingdom of Transjordan. He was a fully-fledged anti-Semite, not merely an anti-Zionist, as you would expect, given his mobilization for the Arab cause.
Still, there is something curious about the British case, because this Arabophile trend in the upper classes for a long time went hand-in-hand with an opposite sentiment held by pro-Zionists such as Lloyd George, Balfour, Churchill and others, who were great figures in British politics in the early 20th century. What distinguished them was that they were schooled in the Bible. So they understood the geography and the history of the Holy Land; the biblical associations meant a great deal to them; and they felt they were performing a great act of historic justice in restoring the Jews to the land from which they came. This was self-evidently true to them in a way that it is self-evidently incomprehensible to people brought up today who do not know the Bible, or dismiss it out of hand; who know nothing about Jewish history, other than the Palestinian version of it.
This narrative basically says that the Zionist movement and the people who came to settle in the Land of Israel are all alien invaders. This is an outright lie, of course, but it’s one that is widely believed by people today who have no interest in history and no respect for truth. It’s astonishing how often one reads complete dismissals of the historical connection of the Jews with Palestine. The Palestinians even deny that there was a First or a Second Temple. And they go even further in falsifying history, by claiming, for instance, that the Arabs of Palestine are descendants of the Canaanites, and therefore preceded the children of Israel in the conquest of Canaan as described in the Bible. Obviously, there’s no shred of evidence for any link whatsoever between the Canaanites and the Arabs of Palestine.
Today, people from Western countries often have not even the vaguest idea of the Jews’ link to this land. They tend to believe the kind of things that were given some credence even by President Obama in his Cairo speech, where he suggested that it was only the history of persecution, and particularly the Holocaust, that provided the source of Israel’s justification.
But anyone really familiar with Judaism and the history of the Jews would know that the tripod that makes up the core of the Jewish people — Judaism, the land of Israel and the laws of the Torah — cannot be disconnected. This is why anti-Zionists, and often anti-Semites, try so hard to separate them.
Part Two follows tomorrow.