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.
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.
Q: The Zionists established Israel as a safe haven for Jews, yet it has become one of the most physically dangerous places for Jews in the world. Can you address that irony?
A: In the Bible, Israel is the name given to Jacob, one of the three patriarchs of the nation, after he struggles with the angel — this mysterious figure, half-God, half-man, God, man, something else, the stranger, a phantom of his unconscious imagination, a real person, who knows?
All name changes in the Bible have great significance. And the literal meaning of Israel is “he who struggles and prevails.”
Delving into the broader meaning of Israel, both historically and today — and asking what its purpose is, for itself as a people and for the nations — you could say that it represents a struggle for truth.
Q: Is this your interpretation of Israel’s serving as “a light unto the nations?”
A: I can already hear the cynics saying, “Oh, some light unto the nations.”
My point is not that we are, but that we struggle to be.
It is a struggle to transcend ourselves, to find our better part, to aspire to the light. Contrary to the stereotype branding Jews as the incarnation of materialism, anybody really familiar with the annals of Jewish history knows this is ludicrous. This is not to say there aren’t materialists among us, of course. On one level, we are no different from anybody else. But there’s another level on which we operate, which, for a lack of a better word, I would call metaphysical. And it is this level, which Israel represents, that is one of the deepest reasons for anti-Semitism.
I’m often asked, “Don’t you get depressed by studying anti-Semitism?”
The answer is that, among the many other intrinsically fascinating and horrendous features it has, anti-Semitism is also a continuous challenge to the Jewish people. It is a kind of barometer to us and to the nations, both of what is wrong — because it is often a symptom of major pathologies in a given society — and a warning signal of catastrophes to come. Indeed, it is clear that its current rise is a herald of a catastrophe already in the making. Rather than deluding ourselves that it is a passing storm, if we could only see it as a galvanizer, we could put our energies to more constructive use, and understand that fighting it, too, is part of a wider struggle for continual self-betterment.
As with all forms of persecution and oppression, running away doesn’t work. You have to stand up and fight your adversary and — as in the case of Jacob, who becomes worthy to be called Israel — to overcome him, even if this means sustaining a limp, as he apparently did.