By Jerry Gordon, April 2011
Gordon: Professor Wistrich thank you for consenting to this timely interview.
Wistrich: Thank you for inviting me.
Gordon: Professor Wistrich, could you tell us about your family background and escape to the West from Soviet Russia following WWII.
Wistrich: My parents were born just before World War I in the Galician province of Austria-Hungary. They lived in Cracow until 1939. On the first day of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, they moved east and for the next 7 years they lived in the U.S.S.R. In 1946 they returned to Cracow as part of the Soviet-Polish repatriation agreement.
Gordon: What do you consider as the significant benchmarks in your distinguished academic and professional career – a career that culminated in your Neuberger Professorship of European and Jewish history and your assumption of the directorship in 2002 of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University?
Wistrich: There were several major landmarks. In 1980, I was invited to be a scholar-in-residence at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Advanced Studies and a year later I already had tenure; receiving the Austrian State Prize for History in 1991; writing the script and editing the three hour film The Longest Hatred on antisemitism for Thames Television; and, being given a lifetime achievement award in 2010 for my research on antisemitism.
Gordon: What prompted your interest in the study of antisemitism?
Wistrich: I think that from an early age I was aware of the seemingly ineradicable nature of antisemitism. Even in its relatively milder British variety it was always present –at school, university, in social life. As a student of history at Cambridge, I became more aware of its longevity and enigmatic character.
Gordon: Which of your published works do you consider of seminal importance?
Wistrich: The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph (O.U.P.)/1989); A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, 2010) and my forthcoming, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel (University of Nebraska, 2012) are the three I would pick out as truly seminal.
Gordon: Your books, Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia and the recent A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad establish a framework for historical analysis of the phenomenon of antisemitism. Why in your view has this phenomenon persisted through two millennia?
Wistrich: Ultimately, antisemitism exists because the Jews are considered a “chosen people,” an anomaly, and an exception that defies all the known “laws of history.” They should have disappeared but they did not; they are influential beyond their numbers; and they are God’s “special treasure.” That arouses envy, perplexity, anger, hatred and sometimes even exaggerated love. Whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with the label.
Gordon: Do you believe from your experience with the International Catholic Jewish Historical Commission, that the door has been closed on the Vatican’s role during WWII on the question of rescue of European Jews during the Holocaust?
Wistrich: The real question about the Vatican and World War II can only be resolved when all of the Holy See’s archives on Pius XII are open to independent researchers.
Gordon: In your essay, “Jewish Otherness in European History, Past and Present,” you cite evidence of persistent antisemitism in the EU. Why does this Meta myth continue? How much of this is a reflection of fundamental antisemitism among rising émigré and native born Muslim populations?
Wistrich: Antisemitism in Europe today is different from what it was 60-70 years ago. There is some continuity on the populist Right with the old-style racist/ultranationalist desire to exclude foreigners and Jews; but the hysteria about Israel has helped turn more liberals and leftists towards anti-Jewish ways of thinking; and Muslim resentments about the West as well as their own social alienation reinforce the long-standing anti-Jewishness in their religion and culture.
Gordon: You noted in an essay “Antisemitism: the European and Islamic Legacies” examples of European and Muslim Jew hatred. Could you provide us with your insights as to the persistent historical doctrinal hatred at the core of Qur’anic Islam?
Wistrich: I think the core problem is the way that the Islamists have succeeded in hijacking the Qur’an for anti-Jewish purposes. There are many hostile passages in the Qur’an, especially towards Jews, but also towards Christians and “polytheists.” But today we have an entire Muslim “culture of hatred” towards Jews and non-believers which is increasingly totalitarian.
Gordon: Jeffrey Herf in Antisemitism International discusses Nazi Broadcasts to the Arab World during the Holocaust from the “Kirk transcripts” of the US National Archives recorded by the US Ambassador in Cairo during WWII. Could you discuss the importance of Herf’s analysis of these wartime Nazi broadcasts to the Arab and Muslim world?
Wistrich: Herf has helped us to better understand how in the wartime period, the Nazi antisemitic poison was transmitted to the Arab and Muslim world, sinking roots which affect the region to this day.
Gordon: Matthias Schuetz interviewed you for the German webzine prodomo. A recurring theme in the interview was the alleged export of 19th and 20th century European antisemitism to the Arab Muslim Middle East. Doesn’t Jew hatred in the core of Islamic doctrine antedate the alleged importation of European antisemitism into the Muslim ummah?
Wistrich: Undoubtedly Jew-hatred pre-existed the import of European-style antisemitism into the Arab world in the 19th and 20th centuries. Jews experienced pogroms; they suffered an inferior status, many disabilities and were an object of contempt. Nevertheless, only through fusion with modern European antisemitic theories, did a fully-fledged demonization of Jews (and Israel) emerge.
Gordon: Menahem Milson in his essay, “A European Plot on the Arab Stage” chronicles the adoption of the Czarist forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the Arab Muslim world, which he considers a reflection “deeply-ingrained stereotypes of Jews . . . rooted in Arab culture.” Isn’t that a reflection of the Jew Hatred conveyed in doctrinal Islam?
Wistrich: I agree with Milson on this point and expanded on the theme in A Lethal Obsession.
Gordon: Liberal Jews in the EU, and the US have aligned themselves with leftist advocates of Anti-Zionism supporting the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement directed at demonizing, delegitimizing the Jewish State of Israel. Doesn’t this amount to Jewish support of antisemitism?
Wistrich: The BDS movement is in my view exclusionary, discriminatory and antisemitic in its consequences –whatever the motivations of its advocates. So “liberal Jews” who support it are betraying their principles as well as aiding and abetting an insidious form of racism and double standards!
Gordon: Is Islamization in the EU and possibly in America a threat to fundamental Judeo-Christian values at the core of Western democratic traditions?
Wistrich: Islamization (as opposed to Islam) stands in flat contradiction to Western Civilization today. If it expands, it would be a death-warrant for individual liberties, free speech, and freedom of criticism, democracy and the rule of law –all of which owe much to the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Gordon: From your long association with American Jewish groups, do you believe the leadership has an adequate understanding of Islamic antisemitism?
Wistrich: The short answer is NO! But reality is a hard taskmaster. The question is how long it will take for their eyes to be opened.
Gordon: What do you view as the cause of the emergence of virulent antisemitism in international bodies like the UN Human Rights Council and the General Assembly of the United Nations?
Wistrich: The causes are mainly political. There are 22 Arab States and nearly 60 Islamic States, but only one Jewish State. Ganging up on Israel in the UN is an easy way of avoiding the real issues of Human Rights. Anti-Jewish bigotry at the UN carries no price and is a function of Israel’s isolation, the tyranny of the automatic majority and Third World resentments against the West.
Gordon: Do you consider the body of work of non-academic scholars such as Bat Ye’or, David Littman, and Dr. Andrew Bostom among others helpful in elucidating Islamic antisemitism?
Wistrich: The scholars you mention have made a contribution by pointing to the darker corners in Islamic attitudes to the Jews which others sought to avoid. There is too much conformism in Academia when it comes to treating the record of Muslim antisemitism.
Gordon: What do you see as the future of research into antisemitism and what advice can provide for policy makers in the West and elsewhere?
Wistrich: I am sure that we will be seeing in the next few years a long-overdue resurgence of interest in antisemitism. I believe that my own work and that of SICSA (our Centre in Jerusalem) has been a major catalyst. Policy-makers need to take very seriously the saying: “What begins with the Jews never ends with the Jews.” Above all, they should stop talking in euphemisms and call a spade a spade.
Gordon: Thank you Professor Wistrich for this comprehensive review of current research in antisemitism, a reflection of the important work of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism.
Wistrich: You’re welcome.