October 19, 2018

Q&A With Robert Wistrich

Robert S. Wistrich, author of “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad” (Random House: $40.00), has been called “the dean of historians of anti-Semitism.” Born the son of Jewish refugees from Poland in Soviet Central Asia on the day President Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, Wistrich was raised in Cracow, Paris and London and studied at Cambridge and University College in London. He arrived in Israel in 1980 to accept a position at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he now holds the Neuberger Chair for Modern European History. He is the author and editor of 24 books, including “Hitler’s Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy,” “Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred” and “The Shaping of Israeli Identity: Myth, Memory and Trauma.” His just-released book is a sweeping study of anti-Semitism from its origins in ancient Rome to its latest manifestations in the modern world.

Jewish Journal: Jewish scholarship on the Holocaust has produced a whole literature, but many fewer books address anti-Semitism across history. Is the Holocaust a kind of black hole that makes it difficult to see anti-Semitism as a historical phenomenon?

Robert S. Wistrich: There’s a problem here that I was very conscious of in the course of researching and writing “A Lethal Obsession.” I felt that it was very important to explain and demonstrate that anti-Semitism not only did not end in 1945, but that, in a larger sense, we could say that Auschwitz was never truly liberated. There are thousands of examples of the ways that anti-Semitism never really disappeared. In the last decade, it has reached an intensity and a resonance that we have not seen since 1945. We are literally living through the most turbulent period of the post-Shoah era, and it is sending signals to us that, in some alarming ways, another Holocaust, implemented in a different way and a different context, is entirely possible.

JJ: The goal of Zionism as it was expressed in the 19th century was to solve the problem of anti-Semitism by creating a Jewish homeland. Your book seems to suggest that the problem is still very much with us. What conclusions do you draw about the success or failure of the Zionist mission?

In retrospect, we could say that the goal that was expressed by Herzl and his contemporaries over 100 years ago — that Zionism was the solution to the modern Jewish question and the establishment of an independent and sovereign Jewish state would eliminate the causes of anti-Semitism — has proven to be an illusion from top to bottom. But it begs a number of questions. What was it that was flawed in the initial analysis? It certainly appears to have been extraordinarily naive to assume that the immigration of a large number of Jews to a land that was inhabited, albeit by a fairly small population of mainly Arabs, would simply pass without any opposition or resistance from the indigenous population. The subsequent history of the Arab-Israeli conflict has shown that all rational arguments that are made in terms of economic benefits that Israel and the West would provide for the Muslim word have fallen on barren ground. So far, Israel hasn’t been able to overcome the forces of nationalism or fundamentalist religion. But that doesn’t mean it will always and forever be the story. 

JJ: Are you willing to make any distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, or do you regard these as two aspects of the same phenomenon?

Before 1948, there was a very respectable and entirely legitimate form of Jewish anti-Zionism which had many varied manifestations — the Reform Jews, the liberal assimilated Jewry of the West, the Jewish socialists in eastern Europe, the strictly Orthodox Jews of Russia and Eastern Europe. Once the state of Israel is founded and finds itself having to fight to assert and maintain its existence, it is a very different matter. I try to approach it on a case-by-case basis. I would make a distinction between a Jewish intellectual who is anti-Zionist, like George Steiner, who could not be painted as an anti-Semite, and Norman Finkelstein, whom we could say is an idol and pin-up for a motley crowd of anti-Semites.

JJ: The sad fact is that such relics of European anti-Semitic literature as “Mein Kampf” and the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are still read in some circles in the Muslim world today. What links do you see between the Christian and Muslim traditions of anti-Semitism?

RW: I do not agree with those who argue that anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, and particularly the Arab Muslim world, is primarily or solely an import from Europe. When one reads the Quran and looks at some of the early Muslim sources, there are plenty of elements of hostility toward Jews. But the anti-Semitic tradition is different in the Muslim world. The Jews were not demonized as they were in medieval Europe, and until the beginning of the 20th century, you could say that anti-Semitism was less entrenched in the Muslim world. The first turning point occurs in the 1930s and escalates in World War II, when the Muslim world becomes deeply infected with some of the worst forms of European anti-Semitism, including the Nazi variety. Undoubtedly I would say that Ahmadinejad and virtually the entire Iranian leadership are not only deeply anti-Semitic in the radical anti-Zionist sense of the word, completely committed to the annihilation of Israel, but I would also say that they are, by virtue of the widespread use of Holocaust denial, extreme anti-Semites. Holocaust denial is one of the most extreme forms of anti-Semitism in the modern world.

JJ: I think that most Jews in America feel that they live in a safe and secure place. Do you agree or disagree with this perception?

RW: I feel that I am being asked to don the cap, however reluctantly, of a prophet. At first glance, there seems to be a good case for American exceptionalism on the Jewish question — America is somehow different from Europe and most of the Galut, the most prosperous, the most successful, the best integrated, the most powerful and affluent Diasporic Jewish community in history. At the same time, I have always tended to be skeptical about the argument of exceptionalism. While recognizing that America is indeed different and more favorable to the Jews, it’s not immune to anti-Semitism. After all, the historical record shows that anti-Semitism was quite severe in the 1930s and reached high levels even during the war against Nazi Germany. What is true is that roughly since the 1960s, there has been a decline in traditional forms of anti-Jewish prejudice that existed in America. America so far has seemed to have sufficient antibodies, if you like, and alert and strong Jewish defense organizations. But this could change, and there are some troubling signs on American campuses when it comes to Israel. It’s an open question.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of 13 books, blogs at