By Scott Johnson
Robert S. Wistrich was the Neuburger Professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the director of the university’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. He may also have been the leading academic authority on anti-Semitism. Witness his histories A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad(2010) and From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel (2012). Professor Wistrich died in 2015 at the age of 70. The New York Times obituary by Sam Roberts is here. Would that he were alive in this hour.
I interviewed Professor Wistrich by email in connection with his 2012 book. It occurred to me that it might be a good time to revisit the interview. Here it is.
PL: You begin your new book with an autobiographical account dating back to your time on the Left. How did you get from there to here, so to speak?
RSW: I belonged, at one point, to the radical 1968 generation in the West who were intoxicated (in my case, briefly) with the secular utopianism of radical Marxism and the mirage of “cultural revolution.” I was physically present in Paris when the French students shouted “We are all German Jews” in support of their leader “Dany the Red,” who had just been prevented by De Gaulle from returning from Germany to France. Today, their equivalents in Europe might well be shouting “Death to Israel” or “Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas!” That is one strand of the journey that led me to retrospectively subject the contemporary Left to intense critical scrutiny.
PL: Would you talk a little bit about your scholarly interest in the subject of anti-Semitism?
RSW: Ever since I was a student at Cambridge University in the late 1960s (and probably much earlier), I have been both intrigued and repulsed by the sheer persistence of anti-Semitism in its many forms. Living as I did in Great Britain for the first thirty years of my life, I always felt an outsider and my Jewish identity was clearly part of that. The more that I subsequently studied the history of Jew-hatred, the more I began to see it as an embedded part of the cultural DNA of the West (especially of European history). The return of anti-Semitism in our time – much of it under the guise of loathing Israel – has confirmed for me its near-ubiquity and perennial nature. But already in 1991, I had invented the term “the longest hatred” to describe its extraordinary tenacity.
PL: What would you like prospective readers to know about your book?
RSW: I believe that my most recent book does expose for the first time in such a systematic fashion the enduring Judeophobic passions prevalent in so many left-wing revolutionary movements; the emptiness of the dream of “proletarian solidarity”; and the political fantasy-world of Communist egalitarianism, some of it ardently espoused by Jewish intellectuals. Moreover, my book unmistakably shows that conspiracy theories are as much a proclivity of the Left as of the Right. I see it as a much-needed demystification of all the standard leftist stereotypes and delusions about the Jews and Israel, whose exposure is long overdue.
PL: Would you briefly summarize your findings for us?
RSW: One of the key points in my study is that anti-Semitism has been an important feature of left-wing thought ever since its beginnings in the 1840s with Karl Marx and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. This animosity derives in part from a distorted post-Christian Enlightenment perception of Judaism as a fundamentally reactionary tribalist religion and an obstacle to “human emancipation”; from a grossly simplistic identification of Jews with banks, money, financial speculation and capitalist injustices; as well as a stubborn refusal in our own time to recognize the indubitably national character of the Jewish people and the overwhelming historic legitimacy of the Jewish State in the Land of Israel.
PL: What role did the Soviet Union play in creating the current anti-Semitism and its tropes?
RSW: The Soviet Union may have collapsed in 1991 but twenty years later, we can still see in the West, the Middle East and in the Third World the truly poisonous legacy of its vile demonology concerning the Jews and Israel. All the more malevolent and mendacious amalgams of our own day, equating Zionism with racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, fascism, Nazism and the totally imaginary “genocide” of the Palestinians were originally concoctions of the Soviet propaganda apparatus. That is rarely understood and mostly forgotten.
PL: What has been the response of the Left to your book? Silence or disagreement?
RSW: Not surprisingly, there are few on the Left willing or able to accept the challenge that I’ve thrown down to them or to revise their tired and worn-out dogmas. The last thing that one can accuse the leftists I write about (and their heirs) of being is open-minded or self-critical.
PL: How does left-wing anti-Semitism fit into the history of anti-Semitism?
RSW: Left-wing anti-Semitism is a consistently underrated feature of the history of Jew-hatred since the mid-19th century. One aspect that makes it rather unusual is that it usually adopts a secular, rationalist and “universalist” standpoint; that it purports to be humanistic and in its “anti-Zionist” mutation usually clothes itself in the banner of human rights and preaches defense of the “oppressed” – especially the Palestinians. This world-view sounds nice on paper but in practice it does not immunize leftists from falling into a morass of self-delusion, bias and prejudice against Jews or Israelis, even though this is often vehemently contested. This is an anti-Semitism which denies its name.
PL: Do you see an alliance between the Left and Islamists based on their shared hatreds? If so, would you elaborate on that?
RSW: The radical Left and the Islamists do share a common hatred of the West (especially America) and of Israel as symbols of successful modernity, entrepreneurial capitalism and secular freedoms. They increasingly align with one another over “solidarity” with Palestine, rejection of any American involvement in the Middle East, and in their efforts to subvert the moral foundations of Western culture. Such is the potency of these irrational hatreds that they even trump the Left’s traditional support for causes like women’s emancipation and gay rights – which are total anathema to Islamists.
PL: What is at stake for those of us outside Israel in the Islamist war against Israel?
RSW: The Islamist onslaught against Israel is to a considerable extent a war by proxy against the West – in which defense of the Jewish State becomes the litmus-test for Islamic probing whether the Western world is really serious about commitment to its core-values of individual freedom and liberal democracy. The Islamic radicals are today not only the spearhead of an annihilationist anti-Jewish ideology but also of a fanatical jihadist war against civilization as it has hitherto been understood in the West.
PL: Anything else you’d like to add?
RSW: In conclusion, I would simply add that the contemporary Left can no longer claim any kind of moral high ground. It has never truly come to terms with the abominable crimes of the Stalinist regimes, with the Soviet Gulag and Communist totalitarianism. Its uncritical and selective solidarity with “victims” like the Palestinians is highly suspect; its relentless efforts to blacken the good name of America and Israel at all costs are often grotesque; its frequent whitewashing of Islamic extremism and naked terrorism are morally reprehensible; and its Judeophobic legacy requires urgent detoxification. Anti-Semitism, I would maintain, has always been a remarkably accurate barometer for measuring bigoted, prejudiced and dogmatic attitudes, not to mention blatant double standards. Much of the contemporary Left, when it comes to the Jews and especially to Israel, has miserably failed the test of elementary honesty and intellectual integrity.