Robert S. Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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: A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad Robert S. Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession (New York: Random House 2010) 1,184 pages.

Like many other developments in the post-modern world, anti-Semitism has become globalized and greatly fragmented. Expressions of this hatred continuously mutate. All this makes it difficult to get an adequate intellectual grasp on the subject at any given time.

Robert Wistrich’s latest book, A Lethal Obsession, gives a masterful overview of how in the past decades anti-Semitism has gone global. The volume has as its sub-title Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad. This correctly indicates that at present, the single greatest threat by far to the Jewish people and Israel emanates from the Muslim world. Some parts of this menace are potentially genocidal.

While anti-Semitism — not only in its anti-Israel form – has expanded greatly in the last decade, the scholarly literature on this subject has fallen behind. There are very few academic centers for anti-Semitism studies and much of the scholarly effort is devoted to the history of anti-Semitism. Some researchers of anti-Semitism have appropriated the discussion of this subject for their own purposes and now advocate the fight against Islamophobia. Committing their reputation as established scholars on the subject, they preach the false proposition that Islamophobia is more dangerous than anti-Semitism. Conveniently for them, it also enables them to overlook the ugly problem of the anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism in Muslim societies.

The author of many learned books, Robert Wistrich holds the Neuberger Chair for Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University, and since 2002 he also heads the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. Wistrich is the leading scholar in this field. He has an encyclopedic knowledge and knows several languages. This also gives him very good insight into the cultures of the respective nations. Furthermore, Wistrich is an excellent analyst and writes with great style.

The book offers a skillful overview of the field. Its individual chapters can often be read as essays in their own right. The book should however, not be considered a substitute for a much needed continuously updated encyclopedia of anti-Semitism, as the area is so broad and the number of aspects within it so major.

Due to the rapid development and morphing of anti-Semitism, there are already many new events and incidents which would have to be included in an updated edition. For instance, there would be a need to mention how the Swedish town of Malmö under its part-time anti-Semitic and full-time Social Democrat Mayor Ilmar Reepalu, gained the image of Europe’s capital of anti-Semitism. It addition, it would have to give attention to the largest anti-Semitic riots in Norwegian history in Oslo in the beginning of 2009 and many other recent developments.

An updated version would also have to analyze the further legitimization of anti-Semitic and other criminal worldviews in the European Union. This is for instance expressed by the entrance of the Laos (The Popular Orthodox Rally) Party in the Greek government in November 2011. Its leader Giorgios Karatzaferis and other senior party members have promoted many anti-Semitic stereotypes. There would as well have to be mention of the 2011 report from the same year by a government-approved commission of experts which found that about 20% of the German population holds strongly anti-Semitic views. A few weeks earlier an Italian parliamentary commission uncovered that “some 44% of the Italian population harbor some prejudice or have a hostile attitude toward Jews.”

A 2011 study conducted by the University of Bielefeld on behalf of the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation confirmed that the ancient anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jewish lust for blood have influenced European perceptions of Israel. It found that 63% of Poles think that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians. The lowest figures in the study are from the Italians and the Dutch respectively, with 38% and 39%. In Hungary, Great Britain, Germany and Portugal, between 40% and 50% have such views.

Much additional attention would have to be devoted to the issue of Muslims who falsely promote the idea that they are the main victims of racial hatred. Presently, one could not limit the remarks on Islamophobia by stating that “European political elites have mostly left the imams free to incite to violence and hatred. They have also encouraged the myths of Islamophobia, of an anti-Muslim racism that supposedly resembles yesterday’s anti-Semitism and might even produce the new Holocaust.” (579) There are several sentences explaining this problem in Wistrich’s book. Today, this topic would require much more attention.

Due to the nature of this book, it is nitpicking to indicate secondary issues where one would have put the nuances somewhat differently than the author. The same goes for minor omissions such as that when mentioning the fanatic Belgian anti-Israeli academic Nathan Weinstock (523) it should also be pointed out that he later repudiated his anti-Zionism.

One of the strengths of this book is the fact that Robert Wistrich has demonstrated great courage as a scholar. Without apology has confronted the main contemporary problem: Islamic-anti-Semitism, a subject which has been too long overlooked because of the demands of political correctness. Early on (71), Wistrich approvingly quotes Samuel Huntington’s statement that Muslims have been “far more involved in inter-group violence than the people of any other civilization.” Wistrich adds his observation that “Wars between Muslims and non-Muslims as well as conflicts within the Islamic world during the past decades, have been far more numerous than those in any other civilization.”

He devotes the book’s last six chapters to issues mainly concerning Muslims. These are titled respectively “Hitler and the Mufti,” “The ‘Liberation’ of Palestine,” “Hamas, Hezbollah, Holy War,” “Toward the Muslim Apocalypse,” “The Wrath of Khomeini,” and “Ahmadinejad: The Last Jihad.” These chapters alone account for about 250 out the 938 pages without notes.

Yet Muslim anti-Semitism also receives significant attention in many earlier chapters such as in the Introduction, “Frenchmen, Arabs and Jews,” “Britain’s Old-New Judeophobes,” “The Red-Green Axis,” “Welcome to Eurabia” as well as others.

Wistrich devotes a chapter to Germany’s guilt and Jewish angst and another very insightful chapter to Austria. He is particularly familiar with these countries due to his specialization in their histories. Some of Wistrich’s earlier books are: Socialism and the Jews: The Dilemmas of Assimilation in Germany and Austria-Hungary, Who’s Who in Nazi Germany and The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph.

Wistrich has also written a monograph on Austria’s post-war Jewish Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and he devotes substantial attention to him in this book. Wistrich sets out to expose the ambivalence of this Social Democrat on the “Jewish Question” (221). Kreisky appointed four ex-Nazis out of eleven ministers to his first cabinet. Not only did he vilify Simon Wiesenthal, but he even called him a “Jewish Fascist” in a Dutch socialist weekly. (221-223)

Wistrich also devotes an entire chapter to “Jews against Zion.” He summarizes the history of Jewish self-haters starting with the apostates in Christian Spain after the massacres of the Jews in 1391. He refers to a statement already quoted by the turn of the 19th century Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler, “Anti-Semitism did not succeed until the Jews began to sponsor it.” Wistrich mentions the best-known Jewish self-haters of the 20th Century – Otto Weininger, Karl Kraus and many Jewish Socialist leaders in Austria. From there he moves onto Germany, the Canaanites in pre-Israel Palestine, the Jewish Trotskyites and Maxime Rodenson. He points out that George Steiner, while not a self-hater, had a vision of the Jews which reflects “some long-standing Christian archetypes of exiled Jews (deprived of land and sovereignty – doomed by their obduracy to restlessly wander the earth).” Further examples of Jews he mentions in some of the self-hating, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli categories include: Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Canadian academic Michal Neumann and the Israelis Avraham Burg and Ilan Pappe. Wistrich correctly concludes that “Self-hating Jews, whatever their motives for betraying their own people and negating its history, have throughout the ages provided invaluable ammunition for the anti-Semites. That still remains the bottom line.” (515-542)

One can go on and on referring to other important subjects the author treats equally well. If there is one critique which might be made though, it is that the French scholar Leon Poliakov – who laid major foundations for the academic field of anti-Semitism studies – is not given attention by the author.

To summarize: this book is the most updated and important overview of global anti-Semitism available. For the person who wishes to study this field, as well as for the interested layman, A Lethal Obsession is a must read.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is the Chairman of the Board of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Robert S. Wistrich, A Lethal Obsession Reviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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