Contemporary anti-Semitism largely turns on delegitimizing Israel, says the author of an encyclopedic work on the history of this ageless phenomenon.
“Anti-Semitism in 2010 is focused primarily around the delegitimization of the state of Israel, blaming it for all the turmoil in the Middle East and beyond,” Hebrew University historian Robert Wistrich said in an interview last week.
Widely known as the dean of historians of anti-Semitism, he was on a tour of the United States to publicize his latest book, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, published by Random House earlier this month.
Wistrich, the director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, said that anti-Semites prey on Israel.
“Israel’s existence and the desire to annihilate it is the main trigger, pretext and rationalization for anti-Semites today – whether from the right or the left, or from religious or secular.”
Asked if Israeli policies fan anti-Semitism, he replied, “Obviously any action by Israel in its own self-defence or self-interest will provoke more hostility. This is a deadly trap, a harsh cycle that must be broken.”
Describing anti-Semitism as a “deadly cocktail” of racist conspiracy themes, hostility to the West, demonization of Israel and “a spineless appeasement of Islamic extremism,” Wistrich claimed it is wrapped in “a truly mendacious facade of caring about human rights.”
He expressed concern regarding the growing respectability of “anti-Semitic discourse” on university campuses .
“I am particularly concerned by the hostility to Israel – and to Jews who defend Israel – on some Canadian college campuses. It comes mainly from the pro-Palestinian left and Muslim students – what I call the Red-Green axis.”
In his book, he writes: “There is a return to the advocacy of economic and academic boycotts, as well as to the more subtle forms of social ostracism directed against Jews who support Israel.”
Asked at what point anti-Zionism morphs into anti-Semitism, he said, “Most anti-Zionism no longer needs to become anti-Semitic – it crossed that line some time ago.”
Criticism of Israel’s policies is one thing, he noted. “It is a normal part of democratic life. The most severe critics of Israel live in Israel, but except for some pathological cases in academia, they are ready to defend their country.”
But demonization is totally different, Wistrich added. “It seeks the death of the individual Jew, the demise of Israeli society and the end of Jewish national existence.”
Charging that anti-Semitism is “deeply ingrained” in the body politics of Islam and the culture of the Arab world and Iran, he said that Holocaust denial is “a kind of state doctrine” in Iran’s Islamic republic today and is very popular in Arab countries.
Calling Holocaust denial an integral component of modern anti-Semitism, Wistrich warned it is “a highly toxic phenomenon with genocidal implications.”
Compared to the anti-Semitism of the Muslim world, anti-Semitism in such European countries as Germany and Poland is much weaker than it was before World War II. “But the far right there is still viciously anti-Jewish,” he said.
Wistrich pointed out that “a strong guilt complex” about the Holocaust in Germany and eastern Europe sometimes produces “defensive anti-Semitic reactions.”
In his opinion, anti-Semitism seems to be on the upswing in most western nations, including Canada.
“The United States is probably the least anti-Jewish of the leading western democracies, but it is by no means immune to infection.”
Wistrich is critical of the Vatican’s current effort to beatify Pope Pius XII, whom critics say was virtually silent during the Holocaust.
“He was certainly no hero, nor a great friend of the Jews. We should, however, wait till the Vatican archives are open before passing a more conclusive judgment.”
The author of such works as Socialism and the Jews (1982), Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (1992) and Islamic Judeophobia (2004), Wistrich said his current book, A Lethal Obsession, is “the most comprehensive study yet made by any scholar on global anti-Semitism, especially as it has existed since 1945.”
He said he wrote it as “a guide for the perplexed in our generation, not as a definitive solution to the eternal riddle of anti-Semitism.”
Wistrich, who will turn 65 in April, was born in Kazakhstan, the son of Polish Jews who fled Poland after Germany’s invasion in 1939.
Upon earning a PhD from the University of London, he was chosen director of research at the Institute of Contemporary Research and the Weiner Library in London. After joining the staff at Hebrew U, he was appointed director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism.
The centre publishes Antisemitism International, an annual research journal, and oversees the activities of the Felix Posen Bibliographic Project, the world’s most comprehensive bibliography of materials on anti-Semitism.