|Volume 1, Issue 3 (October 2007 / Cheshvan 5768)
An Interview with Robert Wistrich: Antisemitism, the World's Obsession:
By Barry Rubin & Judith Roumani
Abstract: The Director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism met with Covenant recently. He tells us about his life story, and how he became drawn to his field of specialization. Professor Wistrich gives us a historical overview of the development of contemporary antisemitism, and also gives his views on some of the more egregious expressions of the phenomenon today. This interview was conducted at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on February 15, 2007.
C: Your family has a very interesting background in Poland, would you mind telling us about it?
W: My parents were both born in Imperial Austria, my mother in Krakow and my father in southern Poland, and I myself spoke Polish until the age of 10. My mother came from a Modern Orthodox family, studied horticulture at university, and moved in artistic circles. My father was a doctor. In September 1939 they took a vacation and, because of a sense of foreboding that they had, they went eastward. Well, this turned out to be an eight-year vacation in hell! They entered territory held by the Red Army in the western Ukraine and, by 1942, they had reached Khazakstan, where I was born a few years later…. After the Polish-Soviet repatriation agreement, they returned to Krakow in 1947 but soon found out that they were living in a Jewish graveyard. They acquired Costan Rican passports (on the black market) and in 1948, we reached Paris and eventually London, where we settled and I was brought up.
C: How did growing up in Britain influence your view of Jewish issues and antisemitism?
My first experience of antisemitism was in Britain. In the 1950s, this was a normal part of the landscape. Jews were “bloody foreigners,” but I wasn’t rattled by it. All the teachers at my grammar school were influenced by anti-Jewish prejudices. So, in order to achieve, you had to outperform. I earned my first two degrees at Cambridge, where jokey upper class humor against Jews was part of the scene. My fellow undergraduates knew almost nothing about the history of the Jewish people. At Cambridge I met George Steiner, who lambasted the insularity there. His wife, who was an American, became my supervisor.
In 1966-68 I studied at Stanford, then returned to Europe where I participated in the Paris student revolt, and then in 1969-70 I came to Israel for 16 months. Here I became the literary editor of New Outlook, which was founded by Martin Buber. I had a lot of contact at that time with people associated with MAPAM, which was the main component of the Marxist Zionist left. I was very critical of the euphoria and hubris at that time in Israel right after the Six-Day War.
C: And what did you do next?
I went back to the University of London for a doctorate in 1971, and chose to work on Socialism and the Jewish Question in Central Europe. I began to deal with documentation from Germany and Austria. I had studied with George Mosse, who influenced me at that time, and recommended that I examine the holdings of the Wiener Library in London for sources on the Third Reich. In 1974, I became the director of research and editor of the library’s journal for the next seven years! There I was in a German-speaking environment and in fact, I had spoken German from the age of seventeen or eighteen, having learned it from my grandmother. For her, and her generation, the German language represented high culture, the culture of Germany and Austria, the Viennese culture that they were attracted to.
C: You have done scholarly historical work on the situation of Jews in Vienna. What does that have to tell us about the history of antisemitism and the development of modern Jewish history? Wasn’t Vienna during the late nineteenth century and up to the 1930s a real laboratory for the effort at assimilation?
W: Yes, it was a fascinating laboratory for assimilation, but also for world destruction, in the 1930s. That, by the way, is the title of my most recent book, which examines the fateful dialectic of assimilation in Central Europe. The more intensely Jews sought to become integrated into that culture, the more extreme the antisemitic response, which ultimately assumed genocidal forms. But I’ve always had a special interest in late Habsburg Vienna, which was a cosmopolitan, polyglot environment, a multinational setting in which German was the lingua franca. I have been fascinated by that. It was a European Union in miniature, it was an empire which had to perform a difficult balancing act, and which unraveled due to the ethnic nationalisms which were constantly in conflict with one another. Within that unique framework, Jews were highly influential in science, culture and the economy (less so in politics).
C: How would you define the new wave of antisemitism? Are attitudes in Europe heavily influenced by Middle Eastern antisemitism, or are they more a continuation or revival of historical trends? Has the reaction against antisemitism after the shoah already worn off?
W: I think that awareness and sensitivity of the shoah have never been greater then they are today. Historically speaking, Europe in the 1950s and most of the 1960s was in denial and was repressing massively what had happened during the shoah. It wasn’t only in Europe, the same was true in the United States, and in other countries. It was also true of the Jews themselves. This was long before you had the emergence of the whole literature of Jewish survivors, and long before people were interested in hearing about the survivors and their experiences. Jews were very reluctant after what had happened to raise the issue at all. In Israel there wasn’t just massive denial of it, but really abominable treatment which was meted out to Holocaust survivors. The Israeli was the new Jew, who was building and constructing a new society in a world that was antithetical to the Galut. Holocaust survivors were even known in the Hebrew jargon as sabon, which means soap –a really dehumanizing epithet. I believe that among the various reasons why in the West, including Europe, there was more sympathy for Israel in those years up to 1967, as compared with today, is precisely that Israelis were perceived as building a new society. That diminished the guilt which many Europeans would have felt towards the Jews, whom they had mass murdered and obliterated.
C: So it wasn’t sympathy for the underdog?
W: There was that as well. Israel was a small country and was in potential danger of annihilation by its neighbors. There was some sympathy growing out of guilt and repression of what really had happened. The paradox today is that whilst Europeans have never been more acutely aware of what happened, never have they been more anti-Zionist and more anti-Israel. It’s not because the awareness of the shoah has fallen off, I would actually postulate the opposite. In a strange kind of way, the awareness of the shoah has boomeranged with a vengeance. It is Zionist Israel that is, in the eyes of so many on the left, but not only on the left, the reincarnation of the Third Reich, of ethnic cleansing and all kinds of other abominations. It is Zionist Israel that is the epitomy of racism, the original sin in the eyes of many post-national Europeans today. So what happens is the hyper-Holocaust consciousness leads to what I personally feel are completely false equations, analogies, and comparisons which also serve the purpose of cleansing Europe of its genocidal and colonial past, while projecting it now against the heirs of the Holocaust: these “new Jews” are deemed to be repeating almost compulsively their own trauma, acting it out again, but this time as perpetrators, not as victims.
C: Do you see European antisemitism as the continuation of a trend or as influenced by Middle Eastern antisemitism?
W: It’s a very complex interaction in which both these things and other factors are going on simultaneously. What needs to be done is to try to understand and unravel it, because obviously there are continuities on the level of the stereotypization of Jews and of Israelis as collective Jews. We see that being played out on a daily basis. The idea of the tricky Jew, scheming and conspiratorial Jews who are exercising their sinister power behind the scenes using other powers by proxy. There is the idea that America is dominated by Jews, that there is a Jewish “cabal” that operates today in favor of Israel, nevertheless it is still a “cabal.” These are classic stereotypes of the history of antisemitism which originated in Christian Europe. Then you have the well-entrenched stereotypes relating to the economic powerofJews, which since the Middle Ages have been associated with usury. Today Jews are seen to dominate the capitalist system, banking, the media, and to be prime movers in what is called globalization. Therefore, the anti-globalists veer towards anti-Zionism and antisemitism, often linked to anti-Americanism because, of course, America is seen to be the fountain-head of globalization.
C: Do you see differences among European countries?
W: Since 1989 (which I think is the turning point because of the fall of communism), what happened is that Western Europe, the core of the European Union which was traditionally considered to be more democratic, open and less antisemitic than the eastern part of the continent, is far more hostile to Israel especially at the level of the media, public opinion and its elites. Europeans are more suspicious of Jews because they are identified with Israel, which links obviously with the conflict in the Middle East. In Western Europe, in the last 20 years, and especially since 2000, anti-Zionism and anti-Israel opinion have been the main vehicle for the return of antisemitism. But, the distinction between the two has become very thin. It can be made in some cases, but the overlap and even the merging of hostility to Israel and to the Jews have grown greatly in Western Europe.
C: How do we define antisemitism as opposed to legitimate criticism?
W: I believe that we live in an era where we can take it as a given that Israel is the single most important defining characteristic for the identity of Jews. It’s not a total match, there have been and always will be Jews who do not identify in any way with Israel, whose sense of being Jewish derives from other things, be it religion, or universalist ideals, this or that ideological proclivity, or simply that they have completely merged their own identity with the country where they live. That is always true and will always be true. If we think about what it is that mobilizes Jews in any diaspora country, it is Israel more than any other issue. Even today, despite the erosion which has taken place within the younger generation, it is still true that Israel is the most important link that exists in terms of identification, except that it has weakened. One of the reasons for this is the sustained and relentless verbal assault on Israel [on the part of antisemites] not just on its governmental policies, but on its essence as a Jewish state. And the deliberate moral de-legitimization of Israel as a Jewish state does impact on Jews. What results from this is that those Jews who don’t want to be tarred with the anti-Israel brush are coming out more and more vocally to say we have nothing to do with Israel, in order to escape criticism. They want the separation because it makes them uncomfortable to be linked in any way with the Jewish State.
C: Do you see this trend growing abroad?
I think we’ve had in the last few weeks some striking examples of this trend growing in the United States and European countries. In the UK for instance, we had an informal network of prominent Jews in the arts, sciences, public life coming together to form something they call “independent Jewish voices” whose definition is that they oppose Israel government policy, and they reject the communal representation of Jews in their own country. They are pro-Palestine, and quite a number of them think that Israel is an anachronism and should be replaced by a bi-national state. The same thing exists among “progressive” Jews in the United States. This is done in the name of dissent and machloket, and universal spiritual ideas. My view is that such opinions should not constitute a threat or be treated heavy-handedly. They fall within the realm (for the most part) of legitimate dissent. I don’t think many of these forces actually deserve the attention that they are given by the mainstream media, and the reason that so much attention is given to them disproportionately, is because that media love to set Jews against Jews, and to show that there is no consensus among Jews in support of Israel. It fits the mood, it fits the requirements. The progressive Jews play to that gallery and some Jewish organizations fall into the trap of issuing what might be seen as a kind of anathema on the progressive Jews which they don’t deserve one way or the other. We would be wiser to let them bark because for the most part intellectually I find their propositions completely shallow.
C: Do you feel that the lack of protest and criticism about antisemitism from non-Jews is itself symptomatic? Or perhaps we are overstating the problem, being too sensitive?
W: I see a paradox which is rather intriguing. On the one hand in recent years, European and Western governments have been quite eager to condemn antisemitism. The OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] has held three major conferences on it, which in the past would have been unheard of. The UN has “sanctified the Holocaust” and also condemned antisemitism for what that is worth. It reminds me of the maxim of La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” It is no secret that the UN has done more than any other international body to nurture antisemitism for the past 35 years. However, there really is a paradox. On the one hand, we have governments and establishments in different countries finding a need not just to denounce antisemitism, but even to monitor it closely. The visit I had this morning, from the personal representative of Chancellor Angela Merkel appointed only last year to deal at the highest level with the Jewish world and especially to combat antisemitism, is a sign of what I mean. And yet, at the same time, from below it’s surging up, and all the statistics from affected countries, including most statistics that I saw for 2006 from Britain, from France and a number of other places indicate the same pattern: a rise of 30% or 40% in the number of incidents of an antisemitic nature. We have unexpected developments such as the rise of a vicious form of antisemitism in a Latin American country like Venezuela, which is partly encouraged by the government. I pulled off the internet some blood-curdling things, really sinister stuff encouraged by the government press and in the parliament, not just by Señor Chávez.
C: Do you see this as an expression of Middle Eastern, Arab, Muslim or Iranian antisemitism that has become globalized?
No, but there is a connection, the example that I alluded to just now with Venezuela has indigenous roots in the sense that Chávez represents a classic Latin American form of authoritarianism: direct popular democracy of the Peronist kind mixed with radical Marxist populism of the Guevara-ist/Castroistvariety, rabid anti-Americanism, and a hatred of Israel as an American ally and agent. Added to that, the connection with Iran, which is seen as an ally on both fronts, the anti-American and anti-Israel, and as an oil producer of the first order, which also is a factor that permitted Chávez to pursue an independent foreign policy. There is also domestic hostility against Venezuelan Jewry, which is partly the animus towards the middle class and upper middle class [Covenant speaks] In other words, they view the Jews as the embodiment of capitalism and bourgeois values?... and the free market, who are seen as opponents of the people’s socialist revolution.
C: Why is the United States different then?
W: Levels of support for Israel are as high as ever in the mass of the American populace, and in the American government which is still Israel-friendly. The deeper reasons are connected with America being a society of immigrants based on the free market and equal opportunities. On the fact that there hasn’t been a single state religion, despite America being a Christian country. I might add that the sheer ethnic diversity and variety of North America, and of its population offers a wide choice of targets. Jews are only one of many ethnic groups and traditionally the most virulent form of white American prejudice has been directed against Afro-Americans, because of the legacy of slavery and other historical factors.
C: Also because Americans are basically content with their system of equal rights, diversity and democracy?
W: All this is true, to which I would add that America was fortunate that it did not have a feudal past. It’s a relatively recent creation, and although the long-rankling hatreds did not disappear in the New World, Jews were part of the settlement of America from the beginning. They did not have, formally speaking, to be emancipated because they arrived in most cases with equal rights. America also is a huge continent with seemingly unlimited opportunities. It permits more freedom and openness. However, bigotry has always existed in America, and antisemitism was quite virulent in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in the time of the Great Depression, which was a dangerous period for Jews. Real progress and the Golden Age of American Jewry only began in the early 1960s. It has continued but is not necessarily a permanent condition.
C: I saw your extremely alarming film Obsession a couple of weeks ago. I’m wondering what we as Jews can do to combat the new wave of antisemitism and the nuclear threat from Iran? Can you offer any words of hope for Jews based on any new developments in America, the Middle East or Europe?
W: Obsession was really intended to be a wake-up call for the West. The first and most important thing we need to do is to be clear about the nature of the threat, if we are to have any chance of successfully dealing with it. In other words, we cannot afford to be in denial. I believe the danger posed by Iran and radical Islam in general is an existential one to Israel, to Europe, and to the United States alike, and to civilization as such. That’s why I think it’s legitimate to compare the threat with the 1930s even though no analogies are ever perfect. Once we’ve understood that, I think we have a better chance to see what needs to be done. The first thing is to realize that the antisemitism of the Iranian regime is an apocalyptic one.
C: Some commentators have said that despite his anti-Israel statements Ahmadinejad himself has been careful not to make antisemitic pronouncements, and that Jews in Iran are being well treated and some are even happy. How can this paradox exist?
W: First of all, the president of Iran is on record as an out-and-out fully-fledged Holocaust denier. To my way of thinking, Holocaust denial is one of the most extreme forms of antisemitism. Secondly, the openly-proclaimed goal of annihilating Israel, allied with the growing possibility that this might be done with nuclear weapons, means the instant genocide of 5.3 million Jews, potentially. So whether this is formally antisemitic or not, its practical consequence is a world in which 50% of today’s Jewry would be physically eliminated. Iranian Jews are not subjected to outright persecution, that is true, but I regard their position as being essentially that of hostages who would be at the mercy of the regime should they be required as a bargaining chip. It is true that they are not being excessively harmed.
C: I’m sorry I interrupted you, you were going to give us some words of hope…
W: Before we come to that, I do think it is desirable, given the critical nature of the hour, that Jews do not repeat the tragic mistake that they made in the 1930s. They need to organize now, and mobilize all their combined energies through demonstrations, through relentless harassment of Iranian diplomats along the lines of the Soviet Jewry campaign of the 1970s. It is desirable that they spare no effort to shake international opinion, and governments, out of their complacency about Iran. We need a massive mobilization. Let us remember that Iran is a threat to the Sunni Arab world, and many “moderate” Muslim states have ample reasons to be alarmed. That doesn’t mean that an alliance between Israel and these countries is imminent but it does create potentially a common interest. It is also vital that we communicate a message that we are dealing here with a potentially genocidal regime whose leaders can and should be prosecuted under the Convention for Genocide. Whether or not that succeeds it is already an important step to work towards an indictment along these lines. In general Israel should be doing much more to turn the human rights philosophy of our time against its enemies rather than always being on the defensive and having to justify its existence as a supposedly serial violator of human rights. This is one of the missing links in our method of combating antisemitism.
C: As a postscript I’d like to ask you about recent events in Italy and Israel concerning the publication in Italy of the blood libel book by a professor at Bar-Ilan University? Do you see it as more of an Italian issue or an Israeli issue?
W: Obviously this was a serious blow to the Italian Jewish community since this book is written in Italian, but its significance goes way beyond that issue. I see it in the context of a widespread Jewish pathology in times of rising antisemitism, which is to indulge either consciously or unconsciously in self-accusation, attributing the blame for antisemitism to Jewish behavior. This is an extreme case because it is clear for anyone including the author of this book that Judaism itself proscribes the use of human blood in any context. But we are being led to believe that an extreme sect of Jews disregarded such prohibitions, and may have conducted ritual murders on Christian children, without there being any convincing evidence to support this beyond confessions extracted by the most cruel tortures. Ahad Ha’am once wrote, over a hundred years ago, that the existence of the blood libel was the one sure sign that antisemitism was completely irrational and contrary to any known logic or reason. Yet this incident shows us that an Israeli professor, and son of the former Italian chief rabbi, believes we can demonstrate the truth of such myths in a “scientific” manner. I believe this is absurd. We need to remember that the blood libel is still potent today especially in parts of the Muslim world.
C: Has this had repercussions in the Muslim world?
W: I can imagine that one gentleman who would be rejoicing will be the former Syrian defense minister, Mustafa Tlas, who authored in 1983 a bestselling book called The Matzah of Zion, based on the alleged veracity of the Damascus blood libel of 1840. For those who think like him, this will be the confirmation they’ve been waiting for.
C: I would like to thank you Professor Wistrich for a fascinating interview, I feel I could go on much longer but I know you are very busy and I think I need to draw this to a close, but I thank you for allowing Covenant to interview you.
W: Thank you very much.
This interview was conducted by Judith Roumani, based on questions by Barry Rubin and Judith Roumani, and was transcribed by Elisa Roumani.
Robert Wistrich, born as a refugee in Khazakstan, educated in Britain, is a professor of European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he heads the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. He is the editor of the journal Antisemitism, the originator of a film, Obsession, and the author of many books on the subject. His most recent book is Laboratory for World Destruction: Germans and Jews in Central Europe (University of Nebraska Press, 2007). From 1999 to 2001, he was one of six scholars who sat on an international Catholic-Jewish commission to examine the wartime record of Pope Pius XII.
- Global Jewish Magazine 2007