Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s first book, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” (1996), was a blockbuster despite (or because of) its blunt thesis: Inspired by a uniquely German “eliminationist Anti-Semitism” inherited from the Middle Ages, ordinary Germans killed millions of Jews during the Holocaust because they wanted to. The book was criticized by many historians as uninformed, simplistic, even “totally wrong.” But there was a virtue to the provocative way in which it posed its questions about individual and collective responsibility, about the power of prejudice, about the politics of hate. It called new attention to the questions themselves.
“Eliminationist Anti-Semitism” is also the subject of Goldhagen’s new book, “The Devil That Never Dies,” but now the stage is fearsomely enlarged and the entire world is in its grips, with the possible exception of the United States. Goldhagen’s case is twofold. On the one hand, he offers numerous examples of individuals — from human rights advocates and French ambassadors to any number of Muslim politicians — who openly advocate the elimination of the state of Israel and (often enough) of its people. Today it seems acceptable, even praiseworthy in many circles, to move from criticizing Israel to suggesting its disappearance.
That move seldom occurs in our thinking about other nations, no matter when they were founded or how loathsome we find them. Few Europeans yearn for North Korea to disappear, despite its recent foundation, its many aggressions, its nuclear weapons and its tyrannical regime. But many apparently express the wish that Israel would, although it is (by Goldhagen’s creative reckoning) the sixth-oldest continuous democracy in the world. From these plentiful anecdotes Goldhagen concludes that “eliminationism” flourishes.
The second leg of the book’s case comes from the Anti-Defamation League’s well-known surveys of worldwide attitudes toward Jews. Those surveys purport to show that many people still believe classical anti-Semitic tropes: that the Jews killed Jesus, that the Jews are too powerful in business, that the Jews are more loyal to Israel than to their home countries, etc. In Spain, for example, some 10 million people say they believe that the Jews killed Jesus; some 27 million, or 60 percent of the population, think that the Jews are too powerful in business; and 72 percent opine that Spanish Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Spain. This in a country where Jews barely amount to one-hundredth of 1 percent of the population. In places like Poland and Hungary, the poll numbers are even higher and the number of living Jews even lower.
Across Europe, some 190 million are agreed that “Jews in general do not care about anything or anyone but their own kind.” The situation is even worse in many parts of the Muslim world, where some surveys suggest that more than 95 percent of the population has a “very unfavorable” view of Jews. The one notable exception is among Muslims who are citizens of Israel, for whom the rate is 35 percent.
Goldhagen walks us through these various surveys in a chapter called “Millions Upon Millions of Antisemites.” Adding up the numbers in South Korea, Japan, China, India, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria, Tanzania and South Africa alone, he reaches “an astonishing total of 1.5 billion.” By this tally, global anti-Semitism could claim billions and billions served. And all these anti-Semites, we are meant to conclude, are potentially eliminationist.
Goldhagen’s view of the world is terrifying, but how compelling is his case?
Its strongest parts are those establishing that criticism of Israel is often couched in terms out of proportion to reality. According to Goldhagen’s data, well over 200 million Europeans are convinced that “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians,” yet the Palestinian population under Israeli occupation more than doubled from 1990 to 2008. There has been terrible violence: Over the past 10 years, roughly 6,500 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis have died in conflict. But to put those numbers in perspective, this is less than the number of expected traffic fatalities in a comparably sized U.S. population over the same period. (The comparison is mine, not Goldhagen’s.) So whatever we think of Israel’s actions in those conflicts, we can characterize those actions as genocidal only if we are willing to empty that word of much of its historical and moral meaning. Yet as Goldhagen demonstrates, many people are prepared to do precisely that, equating Zionism with Nazism and the occupation with the Holocaust in order to delegitimize Israel.
To hold on to fantastic beliefs about Jews despite the best evidence of reality: This is more or less Goldhagen’s definition of anti-Semitism. If we accept that definition and his view of reality, then there is certainly a great deal of anti-Semitism to be found in the world. But what if we have a different view of reality? Many people obviously do. For example, in numerous recent surveys Europeans have ranked Israel as the world’s biggest threat to peace. In their work on the power of the Jewish lobby in the United States, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt (two of Goldhagen’s villains) invoke these surveys to argue that Europeans — free of the distorting influence that the Jewish lobby wields here — have a more accurate sense of reality than Americans do. Goldhagen sees exactly the opposite in the same data: evidence of an anti-Semitic worldview resistant to reality checks.
I happen to think his interpretation is here the better one, but he gives us no way of understanding how there can be such disparate views or of learning to choose between them. Simply denouncing a widely held view of reality as fantastic and anti-Semitic will not help us to understand why that view is so compelling. Nor will it help us to change it.
It is also true that Goldhagen stacks the deck. Should we really apply the label “eliminationist anti-Semite” in the same way to members of a German extermination squad during World War II and people merely expressing opinions (such as a British woman wishing to a friend that Israel would disappear)? If wishes were murder, the world would not be populous. And Goldhagen ignores the many changes in attitudes toward Jews and toward Zionism over the past 100 years. He focuses on a period of marked deterioration in attitudes toward Israel, beginning around 1990, and sees in the grim numbers evidence of an eternal anti-Semitism. Hence the urgency of his concluding call to arms: “People of good conscience unite: Combat the devil that never dies, he who is named anti-semitism.”
Still, in a sense these criticisms are too academic. Goldhagen is writing as a prophet, offering the world an apocalyptic call to self-examination and repentance. We should all be grateful for the call and hope that he is not preaching only to the converted.
David Nirenberg is a professor of history and social thought at the University of Chicago and the author of “Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition.”