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Thursday, March 01, 2007

The 'new' anti-Semitism is a lot like the old one

There's a lengthy and fascinating interview in today's JPost by Ruthie Blum with Professor Robert S. Wistrich of Hebrew University. Wistrich, the author of a 1992 book on anti-Semitism called The Longest Hatred, and of dozens of other books, is Neuberger professor for modern European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he heads the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism and edits its journal, Anti-Semitism International. Wistrich was born and spent his early childhood in Kazakhstan (where his Polish-Jewish family fled in 1940, before immigrating to England). He made aliya (immigrated) to Israel in 1982.

I urge you all to read the entire interview - it's fascinating - but I want to highlight a few points for you:
Do you really think that the rational refutation of irrational discourse makes a dent? Would it have mattered during the Third Reich had Jews argued their case better?

This is a complicated question. But one of the the things that enabled the Nazis to succeed was the abundance of "fellow travelers." [Any emphasis in Wistrich's answers is mine. CiJ]

Hitler's rise to power was not self-evident, particularly in such a highly civilized and educated society as Germany. Yet there were many circles that, in moments of crisis, were ready and willing to contemplate collaboration with the Nazi party once they became convinced either that they could use the Nazis to achieve certain ends, or that Nazism was indeed the salvation of Germany. These circles included intellectuals, members of the upper-middle class, industrialists, church leaders and academics. Anti-Semitism was particularly attractive in academia. [Sounds like today, doesn't it? CiJ]


It's not very fashionable to say this now, but it had to do with competition. Jews were shaping the national and international culture of the time. It was a source of tremendous resentment that these "outsiders" were actually changing the societal agenda and modern culture as a whole. They were, as the anti-Semites said, "Judaizing" it.

But European Jews didn't see themselves as outsiders.

This is one of the most intriguing features of the anti-Semitism that became so rampant in Europe before the Holocaust, and which was a main cause of it. What turned the anti-Semitism that had its profane banal explanations, such as economics and social rivalry, into something lethal was precisely the fact that Jews had "assimilated" so intensely. They were like super-Germans, super-French, super-Englishmen, etc. Because of this, the traditional anti-Semitism that was based on religion no longer had the same effect or resonance. Recourse was made, then, to an argument against which there is no defense, namely race. You cannot change your race; even conversion can't help you. A Jew remains a Jew under all circumstances, whether he is baptized, becomes totally assimilated or rejects any residual Jewish identity.

Ironically, the argument Jews always used in their apologies was that they were great contributors to their societies. They produced whole volumes about "the Jewish contribution to German culture." But, of course, this further fed the very anti-Semitism they were trying to counter, because it completely confirmed the feeling that yes, indeed, they were contributing to society - they were totally Judaizing it.

The fact that they were willing to sacrifice their identity made things even worse. [Perhaps that too is the lesson of the Purim story to tie this in with the holiday that begins on Saturday night. CiJ] It confirmed in the minds of the anti-Semites that there was nothing to be valued in Judaism or Jewishness. After all, if these Jews are so eager to abandon it, what value can it have?

Freud spoke about the "narcissism of small differences" - about how, in ethnic conflicts, it is often the small differences that make antagonism greater. Indeed, the more that Jews became similar to their neighbors - the more their differences were dissolving - the more the problems that had been bubbling beneath the surface became acute.

The anti-Semites began to claim that the Jews were fusing with their societies in order to dominate their cultures and identities, and ultimately obtain political control. Communism was invoked as an example of this in the 1920s and '30s, because Jews were quite prominent in the communist leadership. And if the Jews were in the forefront of a universalist ideology that was perceived as sapping the whole basis of national identities, it was confirmation that the Jews were playing a diabolical role.

This is the thesis of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, according to which any force that saps the cohesion and established order is diabolical. This sapping force could be liberalism, freemasonry, the emancipation of women, doctrines like psychoanalysis or Marxism or even Darwinism - all of which were attributed to Jews. This is also what fired Hitler and the Nazis up on an ideological level. People often miss the point when they say that Nazism was anti-intellectual rubbish. To be sure, there was a gangster element in Nazism - the brute force - which was fundamental. But it could not have won over a people like the Germans, or gained so many fellow travelers, if that's all it had to sell. We shouldn't make that mistake again today.

Let's talk about today. If what you describe is true, wouldn't Europeans now fear Muslim domination? Why do Jews and the Jewish state still appear to constitute a threat?

Some people claim that Islamophobia is the greatest problem of European society today. But an objective look at the current situation, through statistics carefully compiled by European government agencies and police, shows that Islamophobia is much less acute than anti-Semitism.

Europeans are reluctant to accept and admit that, despite all the Holocaust education and commemoration that's taking place - and all the solemn declarations about having thoroughly learned the lessons of the past - anti-Semitism has returned in such strength. There's the beginning of an attempt to come to grips with this. In the UK, for instance, there was an inter-parliamentary committee that issued a report on this. I was one of the experts asked to testify. I met the members of the committee, non-Jewish parliamentarians who took their job seriously. They knew very little to begin with. One of them even said to me: "I don't recognize the country you're talking about." By the time they ended, they were aghast at what they'd discovered.


[Regarding anti-Semitism in the United States - which is not as bad as in Europe: CiJ]

Was that connected to the Six Day War in some way?

Well, the Six Day War certainly improved the image of Jews vis-a-vis Israel. And herein lies a major difference between America and Europe: To put it simply, Americans love winners. And they were immensely impressed by what was probably the most spectacular military success of the 20th century. Americans didn't and don't have the same kind of hang-ups as Europeans do with that.

In terms of American opinion, the most dangerous point for Israel, and possibly for Jews in general in the US, is that at which they are perceived to be losers. [If I were doing this interview, I would ask whether in light of this comment, this past summer's war is likely to lead to an increase in anti-Semitism in the United States. CiJ] Which is why Israel has to be particularly careful about policies that not only go against its political and military interests, but about those that give the impression of weakness. This doesn't mean being insensitive to human rights, which are very important - no less in the US than anywhere else. But it requires being intelligent about how they are applied in a given situation - taking this neighborhood into account.

Regarding "this neighborhood," is it more appropriate to examine Muslim or Arab anti-Semitism?


Islam is much more than a religion in the Western sense. We can't even begin to grasp what it means to ordinary Arabs in terms of their culture. It's an entire way of life. [This is something that many in the West have a difficult time understanding. L'havdil (not to compare them openly) it's true of Judaism too by the way - Judaism is also an entire way of life, albeit a much saner one. CiJ] And it has the popular resonance that no alternative can have, which is what accounts for its popular force. And which is why the Iranian revolution of 1979 is such a crucial event.

Iran is not Arab, but it has become an inspiration to radical Muslims, including Arabs. The Ayatollah Khomeini introduced a form of anti-Semitism into the Arab world which I call "apocalyptic." It is more visible than ever because of [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, but it was implicit in the Khomeini revolution from the beginning. They are actually waiting for the coming of the Islamic messiah - the 12th imam - and the annihilation of Israel is a necessary prologue to his return and to the redemption of all of humanity through Islam. And they believe - like the Marxists used to - that "history is on their side."
There's much more and it's fascinating. Read it all.


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