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BOOK REVIEW

'A Lethal Obsession' by Robert Wistrich

A history of anti-Semitism, tracing it from its sources in the ancient past to its uses in the present.

January 24, 2010|By Jonathan Kirsch
  • Swastikas and other Nazi signs were found painted on headstones at a Jewish cemetery in eastern France in 2004.
Swastikas and other Nazi signs were found painted on headstones at a Jewish… (Gil Michel / Associated…)

A Lethal Obsession

Anti-Semitism From Antiquity

to the Global Jihad

Robert S. Wistrich

Random House: 1,188 pp., $40

A heartbreaking irony suffuses "A Lethal Obsession" by Robert S. Wistrich, a history of anti-Semitism by a historian who has devoted his academic career to the study of what he calls "the longest hatred."

Anti-Semitism began in antiquity, and because the founders of the modern state of Israel saw it as an "ineradicable disease" in the diaspora, they embraced Zionism as the best and, perhaps, only way to cope with its threats. Yet the existence of a Jewish homeland has provided the world's Jew-haters with a new reason (or, as Wistrich insists, a thin pretext) to vilify and victimize the Jewish people.

"Hitlerism did not really die in April 1945," he writes, "nor, unfortunately, was Auschwitz truly 'liberated.' " Indeed, Wistrich chronicles how anti-Semitism survived the appalling carnage of the Holocaust and continues to stalk the world in which we live. He makes the case that a "culture of hatred" is alive and well in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, an "old-new anti-Semitism" that expresses itself in the same vocabulary and iconography that Hitler and Stalin borrowed from ancient and medieval anti-Semites and repurposed for their own hateful ends.

"The leadership of Iran does not even disguise its desire for a judenfrei (Jew-free) Middle East -- a 'world without Zionism,' to adopt more politically correct language," observes Wistrich, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. And he condemns "western European intellectuals" for what he regards as rank anti-Semitism when they insist that, as he puts it, "the only 'reasonable' solution to the Palestine conflict is the de-Zionization of Israel."

At more than 1,000 pages, "A Lethal Obsession" is a kind of catalogue raisonné of Jew-hatred over the last 20 centuries, from pagan Rome to the clash of civilizations in our own times. Indeed, Wistrich's book demands to be read and considered by anyone who seriously inquires into the reasons why the Jewish people, always so small in number, have attracted such hateful attention over the millenniums.

For all its scholarly apparatus and sheer heft, however, "A Lethal Obsession" is not an academic monograph. Many of the historical references are hot-wired to the headlines, and Wistrich takes on various contemporary figures: from former President Carter to onetime Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, from former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke to controversial public intellectual Noam Chomsky to Norman Finkelstein, author of a hateful piece of revisionism titled "The Holocaust Industry." The bulk of the book, in fact, is devoted to manifestations of anti-Semitism in the postwar era, and much of what Wistrich has to say must be called opinion rather than analysis, as when he dismisses such counterculture figures as Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman as " 'Jewish radicals' without any Jewish identity or commitment."

Wistrich is alert to the sometimes-surprising linkages that can be found in the history of anti-Semitism. "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," for example, is an anti-Semitic tract that was composed by agents of the czarist secret police, found an admiring reader in Adolf Hitler and remains a favorite text in translation among radicals in the Muslim world. Wistrich points out that there are fewer than a quarter-million "officially recognized Jews" in Russia, and yet "Russia has remained a leading producer of intellectual anti-Semitism in the postcommunist era." And he notes that the Holocaust curriculum as taught in the French schools can take an odd bounce. "Hitler would have made a good Muslim," concluded one student of North African extraction.

Odd bedfellows abound in Wistrich's survey of anti-Semitism in the contemporary world, and he notes a convergence of Western liberal secularists, neo-Nazi skinheads, conspiracy theorists, radical Islamists, Holocaust deniers, advocates of multiculturalism and countless other ideologues and activists of various shades who share only a common hostility toward Jews and the Jewish state. "[T]he western European Left and radical Muslims may be light-years apart when it comes to secularism, socialism, feminism, and homosexuality," writes Wistrich. But, he insists, "the 'new' anti-Semitism has been embraced by broad sectors of the anti-globalist movement, which, like the Islamists, fervently believe in the existence of an American-Zionist conspiracy to dominate the world."

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