A lethal obsessionJeffrey Herf reviews Robert Wistrich's A Lethal Obsession, a massive, 1200-page tome about anti-Semitism, mostly the last seven decades' worth. Here are some highlights of the review and then I'll have some comments below.
Hitlerism, understood as hatred of the Jews and of liberal modernity, persisted beyond the destruction of Hitler, in Wistrich’s account, and acquired new political, cultural, religious, ideological, and geographical coordinates. The terminology of the new post-1945 Jew-hatred was no longer predominantly Christian, fascist, or racist. Instead it draws on neo-Marxist, Islamic, or anti-globalist ideologies. Unreconstructed neo-Nazi groups persisted, to be sure, but largely on the margins of European politics, and they ceased to be the most important source of radical anti-Semitism. Instead, the anti-Semitism after Hitler consisted of a mixture of the “old anti-Semitism” with “the new anti-Zionism.” It was expressed by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, by the radical left since the 1960s, and above all in the mix of secular and Islamist politics of the Middle East and Iran.While the rallying cry of the old anti-Semitism was the attack on “world Jewry,” the core of anti-Semitism has been the attack on “international Zionism” and on the state of Israel.Read the whole thing and read the book.
Wistrich is certainly aware that not all criticism of Israeli policy is inspired by hatred of the Jews and Judaism, but the “logic” and the structure of influential arguments attacking Israel have been ominously identical to the imputations of vast power and enormous evil attributed to “world Jewry” by European anti-Semites of old. The “lethal obsession” of the recent past, according to Wistrich, has been a melange of the old conspiracy theories of that infamous forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,with Marxism-Leninism, secular third worldism, and Islamism. In this period, the center of gravity of anti-Semitism has shifted from Europe to the Middle East and Iran. Although the cultural sources of the anti-Semitism of recent decades differ from those in Europe, the publicly articulated policies of the government of Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, are no less “lethal.” Far from clearly recognizing the danger, too much of the political mainstream in Europe has failed to acknowledge the anti-Semitic resurgence. And in certain precincts of the Muslim diaspora in Europe, radical anti-Semitism has been re-exported back to Europe and on occasion enters the mainstream of political, journalistic, and intellectual life.
The concluding chapters of this important book examine the Nazi-Arab collaboration during World War II; the persistence of anti-Semitism and the “culture of hatred” in the Palestine Liberation Organization during the era of Arafat and after; Hamas and Hezbollah; the articulation of anti-Semitism by Muslim ideologues in the Arab world generally; the anti-Semitism of the Ayatollah Khomeini; and finally the threats to wipe out Israel coming from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the full support of the Ayatollah Khamenei. This material will be familiar to readers who are following these trends in the press and in recent scholarship. Yet Wistrich’s synthesis of these many studies is the most concentrated and comprehensive one-volume work we have.
In addition to presenting the well-documented anti-Semitism of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who was an ally of Hitler, Wistrich offers a devastating portrait of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. He stresses the continued importance of distinctly Islamist themes in its comparatively secular outlook, the hate speech in its media and its schools, and its still unmodified National Covenant that calls for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. His discussion of Hamas and its covenant explores the ideological lineages that stem from the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, and Sayyid Qutb, so as to explain why it sees itself as “at war with the Jews and world Zionism, not just with Israel.” As for Hezbollah, its leaders in Lebanon teach that either Islam will destroy Israel or Israel will destroy Islam. With the relevant quotes from Hezbollah leaders and references to odious programs broadcast on its television station, Wistrich documents his argument that these organizations blend “traditional Islamic anti-Judaism with Western conspiracy myths, Third Worldist anti-Zionism” and in Hezbollah with “Iranian Shiite contempt for Jews as ‘ritually impure’ and corrupt infidels.” After citing speeches by Hassan Nasrallah that describe the Jews as evil conspirators against God and mankind, and possessed of characteristics that have been “unchanged since the time of Muhammed,” Wistrich sensibly concludes: “If this is not pure unadulterated anti-Semitism, then the term has no meaning at all.”
This brings us to Iran. Wistrich nicely defines Khomeini’s distinctive accomplishment as “mixing fragments of Third Worldist Marxism with Shiite messianism and hatred of Israel turned into an instrument” of Iran’s own “missionizing global ambitions.” Khomeini’s successors continued to view Jews as “impure.” They refer to Israel as a “rotten and dangerous tumor,” a “cancer,” a “festering sore.” Wistrich reminds us that it was Hashemi Rafsanjani, often described as a moderate, who said in 2001 that “one atomic bomb would wipe out Israel without a trace” while the Islamic world would only be damaged rather than destroyed by Israeli nuclear retaliation. With abundant references that illustrate the breadth of the sentiment, Wistrich concludes that “[f]or all of the [Iranian] ruling echelon, eradicating Israel has become a declared foreign policy aim, and acquiring nuclear weapons is central to its implementation.” A “suicidal outlook” intensified by “the Shia martyrdom syndrome differentiates the Iranian nuclear weapons program from that of all other countries and makes it uniquely threatening.”
The chapter on Ahmadinejad documents the religious eschatology that underscores his threats to destroy Israel. Wistrich argues that “the elimination of Israel is clearly a consensual goal for the regime, uniting radicals and moderates, ideologues and pragmatists, Persian imperial nationalists and Shia fanatics bent on domination of the Gulf and the Middle East as a whole.” Ahmadinejad’s assertions that an era of destruction, and a war between Muslims and the West, will trigger the long awaited return of the Mahdi “are not merely the ravings of an isolated, ‘saber-rattling lunatic,’ a political clown, or histrionic actor. They embody the core beliefs of fundamentalist Shiite theology translated into a modern revolutionary project.” The reality is that Iran has become “the first example of a modern state since Hitler’s Germany that has officially adopted an active policy of anti-Semitism as a means to promote its national interests.” And yet, Wistrich insists, “Iranian anti-Semitism...barely raises an eyebrow in the Western media.” He concludes his massive compilation with a warning and a plea. “The Jew-hatred of yesteryear has not only mutated but is actively fuelling [sic] the Middle East conflict and re-exporting its poisonous fruits to Europe and beyond. Unless it is checked in time, the lethal triad of anti-Semitism, terror and jihad is capable of unleashing [a] potentially universal conflagration. A deadly strain of genocidal anti-Semitism brings the nightmare of a nuclear Armageddon one step closer and with the need for more resolute preventive action.”
When Hitler made his famous threat to exterminate Europe’s Jews in 1939, many Western political observers did not believe he meant what he said. It was too incredible and without precedent. No political leader before had so bluntly and publicly announced his intention to engage in mass murder. And so the disgust that greeted Hitler was mixed with disbelief. But the leaders of our own time do not have the excuse of incredulity. As much as any historian can, Robert Wistrich has documented the fact that radical anti-Semitism is in earnest, that its geographic and cultural center of gravity has shifted, and that it has again become a factor in world politics. The advocates of this disgusting doctrine have the power from which to make good on their threats.
This is what all the do-gooders just can't understand. The dispute isn't about a 'Palestinian state.' The dispute is because the 'Palestinians' are the ideological (and genealogical) heirs of Hitlerism. They want to do the same thing that Hitler wanted to do. A 'Palestinian state' (God forbid) will not resolve our dispute with them. It will just whet their appetite to continue to push for more.