By Wilfred M. McClay
A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad
by Robert S. Wistrich, Random House, 1,200 pp
Following the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath from the safety of a Southern college campus, far removed from the scenes of devastation unfolding in New York and Washington, I noticed something interesting in the public responses of some of my colleagues. On the electronic bulletin board set up for the use of faculty and staff, there were the expected messages of shock, horror, grief, and the like, along with a powerful sense of solidarity with suffering New Yorkers and a generous desire to help. But there seemed to be a tacit prohibition against directing anger at the perpetrators of this massacre, even when their identity and motives had been ascertained. On the contrary, one heard the plaintive cry “Why do they hate us?” and one saw an inordinate anxiety about the incident possibly causing a violent backlash among the American people, leading to harassment and hate crimes directed at individual Muslims.
Such a reaction suggested a very peculiar set of priorities, the unhealthy reflexes of a politically correct academic culture. How could such a barbarous attack on civilian targets and defenceless civilians not give rise to unbridled rage? How could it so quickly become an occasion for self-absorbed soul-searching and moral preening? Such questions become more troubling when one considers that Muslims were not, and are not, targets of hate crimes in America, not in anything like the numbers and proportions of Jews – the group that happened to be one of the ultimate targets of the 9/11 jihadists. Indeed, recent FBI hate-crime statistics indicate that Jews outstrip Muslims as victims by a factor of as much as nine to one in the US and exceed in all other such categories combined.
I relate this small story because it exemplifies one of the large patterns illuminated by A Lethal Obsession, Robert S. Wistrich’s massive and utterly compelling study of antisemitism: the recurrent historical tendency toward inversion, in which transgressions by sworn enemies of the Jews are minimised or explained away, while the Jews (and their friends, the Americans) are accused of inflicting upon others the very offenses they have themselves suffered, and doing so disproportionately. Hence the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion, itself a product of an antisemitic conspiracy, comes to be seen as the grounding document for a worldwide Jewish conspiracy of world domination. Hence the perversion of Holocaust rhetoric, in which Jews are seen as Nazis and racists, and Palestinians become the genuine victims of genocide and apartheid. Hence the refusal to condemn the violently antisemitic discourse sweeping across the Muslim world, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s unvarnished Holocaust denial and eliminationist boasting, none of which leaves room for ambiguity – and all of which is presented in thorough and numbing detail in this book. And as my story suggests, this way of thinking can insinuate itself even into the imaginations of good and decent people, who come to internalise notions of propriety in a way that causes them to misperceive even obvious things.
Monumental, encyclopedic, definitive, comprehensive, deeply researched, cogently argued: A Lethal Obsession is all these things. Impressively broad in scope and yet painstakingly detailed throughout, it will almost certainly be the standard historical account of the subject for years to come. Starting with the earliest stirrings of antisemitism in antiquity, Wistrich traces its development from its entrenched status in early Christian civilisation, particularly in the Judeophobic charge of “deicide”, through its secularisation in the 19th century in the racial doctrines of Richard Wagner and the anti-capitalist ones of Karl Marx, which mythologised “the Jew” as a demonic external source of evil. This newly ideological antisemitism reached its logical apex in Nazism and Stalinism and then moved on without interruption into the postwar era, when the creation of the State of Israel supplied a new target for old passions and the locus of antisemitism passed to the Muslim world.
Despite the book’s historical detail, it also is remarkably current, bringing us up to the moment and concluding with a detailed examination of the existential struggle with Islamic jihadism and the messianic and apocalyptic worldview of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. There is no doubt that Wistrich means his book not only as a scholarly account of the past but also as a clarion call to the present, at a time of potentially cataclysmic peril. It is hard to see how it could be otherwise with such a subject. “The lethal triad of antisemitism, terror, and jihad,” he writes, “is capable of unleashing potentially universal conflagration,” and so there is a “need for more resolute preventive action.”
Although the relentlessly irrational quality of antisemitism makes it an irresistible target for elaborate psychological theories, Wistrich largely and wisely steers clear of that quagmire, preferring to rest his arguments as much as possible on harder data, namely the verifiable words and behaviour of persons and movements. The chief burden of his account, aside from its desire to be comprehensive and informative, is to demonstrate the remarkable persistence and essential continuity of antisemitism, from earliest times to the present.
In particular, he offers a persuasive argument for the use of terms like “Islamofascism” to describe present-day jihadist ideology and political practice as more than just a shorthand way of pointing to surface similarities. Far from being a fanciful term of vague disparagement linking incongruous things, Islamofascism points to effective lines of historical transmission and influence, real points of political contact and intellectual affinity, such as in Hitler’s extensive exchanges with Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem – in short, a living tradition. “Hitlerism,” Wistrich writes, “did not really die in April 1945, nor, unfortunately, was Auschwitz truly “liberated.’” The Holocaust did not end antisemitism; worse yet, it did not even discredit antisemitism in the eyes of much of the world. In the eyes of many in the jihadist archipelago, it is seen as a torch passed, a task to be completed. An influential essay by Sayyid Qutb, the intellectual father of today’s jihadism, is called Our Struggle with the Jews, a direct echo of Hitler’s Mein Kampf (in English, “My Struggle”).
The thousand pages of A Lethal Obsession present variations on a single theme, an extended testimony to the seemingly endless parade of delusions and hallucinations about the demonic and corrupting omnipresence of Jews – assertions that would be comical if they did not have such a murderous history associated with them, and if they did not promise consequences still worse in the years ahead. Still, Wistrich knows better than to seek an overly schematic and unified theory of antisemitism or to make a mechanical Luther-to-Hitler-style argument about its origins and trajectory. The historian is acutely sensitive to the variable effects of particular contexts, and antisemitism, like an ever-mutating strain of a powerful infectious disease, is opportunistic and can adapt itself easily and go in many different guises while remaining recognisably the same thing.
The Zionist dream, that antisemitism would disappear once Jews gathered in their own land, was futile. For antisemitism’s “practitioners,” writes Wistrich, “have usually known how to link “the Jewish question’” with other causes, such as capitalism, Communism, globalisation, and the like – really, any unsettling or threatening development on the political or social horizon, since “the Jew” can so easily be made to stand for “all the disorienting transformations of modernity.” (Or even, if need be, for irrational and hidebound resistance to modernity.)
A key example of this mutability is the ever tighter linkage of antisemitism to anti-Americanism in the postwar era. This is not, Wistrich insists, merely a post-1967 development, stemming from American support of Israel in the Six Day War and its aftermath. The two anti-ideologies have a clear affinity. In the Weimar years, German writers connected them, portraying the United States as a thinly concealed Judenstaat whose policies, such as those behind the punitive Versailles Treaty, were believed to be driven by Jewish advisers such as Bernard Baruch and Henry Morgenthau. Hitler despised the “mongrel” culture of the United States, and Martin Heidegger saw America as “a demonic invasive force appropriating the soul of Europe and sapping it of strength, spirit, and creativity.” The “rapacity” of Wall Street came to stand for the peril of Amerikanismus, pushed forward by Jewish speculators bent on world domination.
So the stage was well set. But there can be little doubt that with the establishment of Israel, and the growing convergence of interests between the two states, the yoking and even equation of the two “anti” ideologies, in Europe as well as the Middle East, have become ever more pervasive. Both the United States and Israel are disparaged as rogue states, heedless of international law and multilateral organisations (the same organisations that disparage Zionism as racism, in another classic example of inversion). Both symbolise a multitude of threats, ranging from globalisation to Judeo-Christian religious fundamentalism to neoliberal economic exploitation and cultural arrogance. As one European writer puts it, America is “an antisemitic fantasy come true, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in living colour,” where all the organs of power are in Jewish hands. From this view, it seems plausible that, having captured the American superpower, “Jews qua Israelis finally do rule the world.” Contrariwise, Israel serves as a pawn of the United States, or in the words of the British newspaper columnist Polly Toynbee, “Ugly Israel is the Middle East representative of ugly America.”
What this analysis suggests is that the two peoples and two nations have come to be inextricably bonded, not only in their own eyes but also in the eyes of their enemies. There is no effective way now for either party to distance itself from the other for long, and as President Obama is finding out, nothing good is likely to come of the effort, since the minds of Israel’s enemies are never changed by adjustments in the margins or unrequited capitulations. A distancing is not only profoundly undesirable, not to say profoundly dishonourable; it is simply impossible now that antisemitism and anti-Americanism are seen in so many circles as two names for the same thing.
Wistrich’s book leaves us, then, with a sense of keen and immediate peril and without any false hopes that honeyed words or extended hands on the part of would-be magical leaders will make much difference in the short run, except in causing us to let down our guard in ways we will regret. History is a better guide, and hope must be grounded in the bitter truth. Antisemitism’s extraordinarily long history and extraordinary tenacity, which is in part a function of its extreme irrationality, demands that it be viewed not as a problem to be solved, let alone a mystery to be decoded and understood, but as a condition to be fought. And fought as if it were as permanent and as impervious as a force of nature, with no final victories against it to be had, only the hope of driving it back into mere latency. Given antisemitism’s frightening ubiquity and rising influence in the world we inhabit, including its increasingly mainstream status in much of the Middle East, the warning comes not a moment too soon. Perhaps it can find its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and quickly.
Wilfred M. McClay is the Simon Distinguished Visiting Professor in the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. © Commentary magazine, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.