Robert Wistrich has built a long and distinguished career studying the history of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe and the rise of antisemitism in the modern period. With the publication of his book, Antisemitism: the Longest Hatred in 1991, he established himself as one of the leading historians of this subject. In his present opus, the accumulated wisdom of Wistrich’s decades-long investigations come together to produce a volume that is overwhelming in its breadth and depth. This volume contains 938 pages of densely packed narrative (there are also 174 pages of notes and a 63-page index) and gives a comprehensive look at every aspect of antisemitism in the history and literature of Western civilization. One would be hard pressed to point to anything that is left unaddressed. In a certain sense, this book has an encyclopedic quality.
The ultimate focus and generative concern of this work is the present toxic confluence of three movements that Wistrich in his “Introduction” calls “political religions”, namely Nazism, Stalinism and Islamism. He notes that “in all three cases, a remarkably similar anti-American and anti-Jewish demonology has been manipulated in the cause of destroying Judeo-Christian values, individual freedom, and liberal democracy.” Where this all comes together, Wistrich documents, is the current rabid Jew-hatred that has now become the standard and unquestioned worldview the Arab Middle East and in the Muslim world in general. Through a variety of paths, the traditional religious and political antisemitism of the Christian west have been transformed into a Manichaean and apocalyptic Islamicism which proclaims that “the annihilation of America and the Jews will liberate the rest of the world, enabling non-Muslims to freely convert to Islam and inaugurate a new age of universal peace” (p. 828). The book ends, maybe not surprisingly, with a consideration of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his denial of the Holocaust, and thereby the specter of a deadly combination of genocidal antisemitism, jihad and a nuclear Middle East.
The message of this massive study is both troubling and illuminating. To give one example of the troubling side, on just two pages in the Introduction (32-33) we are told there was a “marked propensity” in eastern Europe of the 1990’s to promote books like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the rise of popular anti-Semitic demagogues like Corneliu Vadim Tudor in Romania, the turning of wartime collaborators like the Slovakian cleric, Monsignor Josef Tito into national heroes, a resurgent antisemitism in Austria, the expression of attitudes similar to those behind the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, references to the blood libel, the Holocaust, and the words of Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis about the Jews being “the root of all evil”. None of these references is in and of itself inaccurate nor should any of them be lightly dismissed, but their rapid-fire and unproblematic juxtaposition leaves an emotional impression rather than a scholarly conclusion. Wistrich is of course enough of a scholar to sense this (and to be fair, this is in the introduction, not the body of the book). He in essence highlights this tension later in the introduction, where he ends one paragraph by saying, “The themes of a Jewish conspiracy remains omnipresent and universal” and begins the next paragraph by saying, “The full extent of anti-Semitic activity is notoriously difficult to quantify, especially across national boundaries.” (p. 38). So we have an attitude that professes to be both ubiquitous and yet hard to define. Another striking example may be found on page 488, where Wistrich notes, “In the United Nations and in much of Europe today, the so-called occupation is responsible for Arab poverty, lack of democracy, denial of equal rights for women, and acts of gratuitous terrorism around the world.” To be sure there are Europeans who hold this simplistic view, but to say “much of Europe” is to give an overly blunt characterization of a very complex set of attitudes in a very complicated and variegated continent. There are, after all, many Europeans who blame the dysfunction of the Arab world on the Arabs themselves, or their governments, or even more broadly on Islam. It is also true that many European are sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, but as many Europeans will attest, this does not translate invariably into rabid genocidal and apocalyptic antisemitism. In fact, Wistrich in many places narrows his focus, noting that what he says is especially true of “the radical left”, of those espousing “left-wing ‘anti-racist’ causes”, of “left-liberals” and so on. These voices are indeed present in Europe, and dangerous, but they are hardly the only voices.
This general concern aside, the book is a cornucopia of information about seemingly every antisemitic event (speech, book, act) from Antiquity to the very present (the epilogue mentions reactions to the Israeli operation in Gaza in January 2009). The second half of the book is focused largely on the Muslim world and presents us with an impressive account of the anti-Jewish and then anti-Semitic history of the North African and Middle Eastern regions. Wistrich documents in detail the confluence in the current Arab world of nineteenth century racial antisemitism, Christian anti-Judaism (in the form of blood libels, claims that Jews are given to “Old Testament” vengeance, and pronouncements about the perniciousness of the Jewish “doctrine of the Chosen People”) and Soviet/neo-leftist rhetoric about anti-racism, anti-colonialism and anti-Western hegemony. Wistrich shows how decades ago these strains of thought, united with a certain interpretation of Islam, have been woven together in the Arab world to form a tight tapestry in which all evil in the world is “Jewish”. So pervasive is this mythological construct that it is simply taken for granted and goes on to shape much of the discourse of the Muslim world without question or demurral. This leads to what Wistrich at one point calls a “compulsive annihilationist dimension” in the Arab and Muslim declarations, including, and perhaps especially in the case of those emanating from Iran.
In a way that no one else could do, Wistrich has mastered a vast and amorphous topic – antisemitism — and shaped a narrative around its roots, growth, and contemporary diffusion in the Islamicist world. The book ends with a call to action. The last sentence of the last chapter tells us that “Sixty-four years after Auschwitz, the politics of genocidal anti-Semitism and the indifference that made it possible are still with us.” The author has done a prodigious job of laying out the rhetoric and politics of this genocidal antisemitism. It is, however, clearly the world’s indifference that bothers him the most and which this book intends to address. The concluding words of the “Epilogue” are a call to “more resolute preventive action” to avert a nuclear Armageddon. A Lethal Obsession provides a detailed and well-documented initiative which advocates such a program of action.
Peter J. Haas
Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies
Chair, Department of Religious Studies
Case Western Reserve University