Robert S. Wistrich, a professor at Hebrew University and a leading scholar on anti-Semitism, published his 24th book last month: A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, 1,200 pages).
Wistrich is the director of The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and, between 1999 and 2001, was one of six scholars who sat on a Catholic-Jewish historical commission that examined Pope Pius XII’s response to the Holocaust.
The Jewish Press spoke with Wistrich during his recent New York book tour.
The Jewish Press: Throughout history, anti-Semites have hated Jews for contradictory reasons. For example, Hitler famously dates the birth of his anti-Semitism to the day he saw a chassidic Jew, with his distinctive garb, walking the streets of Vienna. And yet, Hitler also detested German-Jewish newspaper editors, for instance, who had “infiltrated” and influenced German society. How do you explain this phenomenon?
Wistrich: Most accusations made by anti-Semites, and more recently by anti-Zionists, against the Jewish people are self-contradictory.
At one and the same time they will say that Jews are too tribalistic and particularistic, and that they’re universalists and cosmopolitans. They’ll accuse the Jews of inventing capitalism and at the same time they’ll claim they are the authors of communism or other forms of radical subversion. They’ll say that the Jews are all individualists and that they’re collectivists. They’ll accuse the Jews of being responsible for secularism and at the same time for religious fanaticism, and so on and so forth. The list of logical non-sequiturs and contradictions is truly amazing.
[These contradictions stem from a passionate hatred of Jews and] the rationalizations which are built upon that essentially emotional and psychic foundation are just that – rationalizations. And they have no more logic than that of the passion that drives the anti-Semitism in the first place.
So this passionate hatred is completely illogical in you view?
Well, there are some anti-Semitic themes that have a grain of truth in them – but no more than a grain.
For example, chosenness – the hatred of Jews that is linked to resentment at the idea of the Jews being the chosen people. Sometimes this resentment is religious, as in Christian and Islamic forms of competition with the Jews as being the chosen elect of God. And sometimes it’s purely secular and nationalist. There are even aspects of Nazism that can be interpreted as a kind of gross parody of the Judaic notion of chosenness transformed into a master race ideology.
I suppose from a psychoanalytic point of view – not that I necessarily invoke that – you can say there is an oedipal element in all of this. The Jews are seen as the model of chosenness, and in order to assert your own chosenness you have to overthrow that model or somehow negate it.
So anti-Semitism, then, is not completely pathological.
It’s not 100 percent pathological. There is, if you like, a rational kernel to anti-Semitism. When I say rational, I don’t mean that justifies it. I just mean there is a more banal logic to some moderate forms of anti-Semitism. For example, if you’re in competition for scarce resources with a group which is particularly successful in certain areas, it is not irrational that you might seek to gain an advantage at the expense of a group that you see as a dangerous competitor and use anti-Semitic arguments [to that end].
I regard that as a more banal kind of socioeconomic anti-Semitism of which there are many examples in history. It’s not necessarily life threatening, although I wouldn’t say it’s to be encouraged. The kind of anti-Semitism, however, that I devote more time to and focus on more intensely is reflected in the title of my book, A Lethal Obsession.
You have been writing and lecturing about anti-Semitism for over three decades. Did you discover anything new while writing this book?
There was one phenomenon I was aware of but only when I began to write this book did I realize its scale. That’s what I qualify as anti-racist anti-Semitism: people, generally on the left, who proclaim and genuinely believe they are opposed to all forms of racial discrimination, and yet make an exception for the Jews. In other words, in contrast to their self-proclaimed universalistic vision of things and their belief in human brotherhood and multiculturalism, they flirt with and sometimes even openly embrace ideas which I think I show to be fundamentally anti-Jewish.
In your book you write about the first recorded pogrom in Jewish history. When did that occur?
In Alexandria in the first century. Alexandria was a great city in the ancient world; it was more or less like New York today. Although situated in Egypt, it was under Roman rule at that time and the two dominant communities, which were rivals with one another, were the Greeks and the Jews. The Jews represented perhaps 30 percent of the population and were extremely prominent in many areas of commercial, cultural and intellectual life. The Greeks launched a pogrom against the Jews, and it was eventually suppressed by the Roman rulers.
Pope Pius XII is in the news again due to the current pope’s efforts to beatify him despite questions regarding his activities during the Holocaust. As one of only six members of a Catholic-Jewish historical commission set up by the Vatican and several American Jewish organizations 10 years ago to study the documents relating to this matter, what is your take on the controversy?
My take is that although it is entirely a matter for the Catholic Church and the Vatican to decide who qualifies as a saint in their own terms, I think the Jewish people has a right to express its concern at the fact that a leader of the Catholic faithful should be hailed for his heroic virtue while the available documentation at least casts grave doubt on his moral stance during his period.
But some people argue that Pope Pius XII helped save Jews during the Holocaust.
The evidence I have seen suggests that he may have helped some Jews but could have helped far more had he chosen to speak out a little more forthrightly about the mass murder that was taking place, of which he was very well informed.
My position is: Let historians examine the documents from his pontificate which have not yet been opened. The Vatican has said that in roughly four to six years, the available documentation – we are talking about several million documents – will become available to historians. So what’s the rush? Since it’s a controversial issue, since there are many people who have even accused Pope Pius XII of having been an accomplice of Nazi Germany or wishing for its success during World War II, why not wait?
And that’s my position. It’s not a dogmatic one. If evidence were to come to light that indeed he saved many Jewish lives, I’ll be the first to welcome that news.