An Interview with Robert Wistrich
Not since 1945 has there been such a level of concern, anxiety, or depression among Europe’s Jews as one witnesses today. The newly emerging Europe is turning out to be the worst of all possible worlds for its Jews.
Anti-Semitism is a primary symptom of Europe’s pathology. Every society that becomes seriously infected by it is receiving a wakeup call about its social, cultural, and political health.
Often the same Europeans who oppose the more obvious, uncontroversial manifestations of anti-Semitism encourage it – wittingly or unwittingly – through their overall posture on Israel.
Part of the slowly gestating European identity is being created through opposition to the United States, accompanied by hostility toward Israel. This negatively defined European identity is dangerous for the Jewish people.
Creating the Best of All Possible Worlds
“The growth of the European Union and the extension of a democratic consensus based on antifascism and antiracism should have created the best of all possible worlds for Jews. Europe has accepted the principles of multiculturalism. It is committed to a pluralistic ideal that is increasingly supranational, at least at the level of its elites and their discourse. Whether people actually support a federal Europe or not, the EU’s language is post national.”
Robert Wistrich, director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, remarks: “What more could Jews have asked for than a fully democratic Europe? – especially those Jews interested in integrating into a peaceful, prosperous, and cosmopolitan civilization with special concern for its minorities.”
Wistrich adds: “According to all traditional indicators of full and equal acceptance, Jews have never had it so good in Europe. There is no serious discrimination in jobs or housing or in access to high positions in the cultural or political domains. Jews, since World War II, have steadily risen in social status, their economic position is very solid, and European societies fully accept them in public life.”
“In such an environment, one could have thought that Jews were living in the best of all possible worlds. They could believe that anti-Semitism was a residue of the past, the preserve of right-wing fanatics or people who had failed to adapt to new trends.
“In the late 1990s, the focus of the internal European Jewish debate was on the subject of Jewish continuity. What should Jews do to remain Jewish in a world that so eagerly accepted them? The main issue on the agenda became how the Jewish people could survive in an open society, characterized by the dangers of growing intermarriage reaching the 50 percent mark. European Jews were drifting away and assimilating on a massive scale. They were barely reproducing themselves. They were a particularly weak link in a vanishing Diaspora.
“The reality in the first four years of the new millennium, however, turned out to be much more complex. Anti-Semitism, under the mask of anti-Zionism and in its own right, resurfaced with a vengeance in a supranational, multicultural, pluralistic, antiracist Europe. There is a general consensus among researchers that not since 1945 has there been such a level of concern, anxiety, even depression among Europe’s Jews and communities as we witness today. The dream-Europe of the new millennium is already beginning to look like a fading mirage.
“True, there is another side of the picture. There is considerable interest in Jewish culture in Europe and Christian-Jewish dialogue has many positive aspects. There are Jewish film festivals and book fairs that attract a lot of Gentile interest. Jews are quite popular in a cultural sense and in terms of their historical legacy. Europe has also institutionalized certain dates to commemorate the Shoah, particularly the 27th of January. At the same time there is a great deal of ambivalence, to put it mildly, in the way the Holocaust is now utilized against Israel.
“The equation of Zionism with Nazism and of Israel with the crimes of the Third Reich is not only an outrage to reason and common sense, but a grave offense to the memory of Europe’s martyred Jews. Current European anti-Semitism is particularly perverse when it twists this memory so as to turn Israelis and Jews into a new ‘master race’ and perpetrators of ‘crimes against humanity.’”
Europe’s Fragile Acceptance of the Jews
Wistrich believes that it is precisely in periods of apparent progress, prosperity, and calm that one must be aware of how fragile the apparent consensus about the Jews may turn out to be. He explains that deeper structural factors exist, which even experts do not always fully understand. “In four short years accepted wisdom has been turned on its head. In this case, Israel and the Middle East triggered it. They were, however, not the sole cause or always the primary factor.”
When asked to identify possible deeper roots of anti-Semitism’s recent outburst, Wistrich answers: “We cannot ignore several global trends. One element often mentioned in passing, though little analyzed, is the impact of globalization and the rise of an anti-globalist Left that is viscerally anti-American, anti-capitalist, and hostile to world Jewry. The decade that preceded the current eruption of anti-Semitism was one of accelerated globalization of the world economy. The losers in this process, beginning with the Arab world and the wider Muslim constituency, have become major consumers of anti-Jewish poison and conspiracy theories that blame everyone except themselves. Israel is only one piece on this chessboard, but it has assumed such inflated importance because it serves a classic anti-Semitic function of being an ‘opium for the masses.’
“It has become a cliché to say that we live in a global village. News and the production of information and disinformation are instantaneous. Anti-Semitism is one manifestation of the speed with which the most insane propaganda can spread today unchecked and uncontrolled. Its mass proliferation is due to the infinite scale of cyberspace and the nature of contemporary communications. Every lie, half-truth, rumor, and stereotype can reach the entire world and travel several times back and forth before the victims have even awoken to the slander.
“This makes the struggle against anti-Semitism more difficult, though not impossible. There is always a way to fight it even if that requires more innovative organization. The new cyberspace anti-Semitism makes it easy for groups, proscribed by the law, to effectively circumvent the restrictions. Many European countries now have tougher laws against racism, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust denial. Yet the effectiveness of traditional ways of policing, monitoring, censoring, and controlling the poison is questionable.”
“In Germany the hate material arrives through servers from Denmark or the USA. The latter is a major provider. Anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi propaganda thus circumvents domestic restrictions and laws that severely punish the distribution of hate propaganda. In France, for several decades, a strong antiracist legislation has existed. It has been used at times quite effectively, particularly against Holocaust deniers.
“Roger Garaudy, a well-known Holocaust denier, was brought to court in Paris, found guilty, and received a fine. At his age he could not be sent to jail. Robert Faurisson, another well-known Holocaust denier, was also legally sanctioned.”
In 1991 Wistrich made the three-hour documentary The Longest Hatred, a term he coined. He observes: “We interviewed the editor of a Holocaust-denial journal in France who complained bitterly that he was being hounded and harassed by the law to the extent that he had to produce the paper semiclandestinely. Did it make any difference?”
France: Unable to Put the Anti-Semitic Demon Back
“Today we see that the Jews’ situation in many European countries has worsened. In France this has happened despite the legal apparatus, and more recently the government’s publicly stated ‘zero tolerance’ for anti-Semitic acts and its readiness to crack down on them. The authorities no longer deny the reality of anti-Semitism as they did two years ago. The first six months of 2004 show the situation has worsened substantially compared to 2003. Three-quarters of all racist acts in France are, in fact, directed against Jews.
“Thus even when state officials become more determined to be proactive in the fight against anti-Semitism, the results on the ground are questionable. In France the anti-Semitic demon is out of the bottle. It escaped some time ago, and the government cannot put it back again. Something similar is happening in Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and even in Britain the mood is ugly.”
When asked what the explosion of anti-Semitism tells us about contemporary Europe, Wistrich answers with a paraphrase of Hamlet: “‘Something is rotten in the state of Europe.’
“Anti-Semitism is a primary symptom of social pathology. Every society that becomes seriously infected by it is receiving a wakeup call about its social, cultural, and political health.”
The Daily Transmission of Anti-Israeli Stereotypes
“However, one of the problems is that in today’s Europe there is no agreement, neither among the political elites, the media, or the academy about what constitutes anti-Semitism. This makes it much harder, even for well-intentioned people, to come to grips with its root causes.
“The media, politicians, and society in general systematically castigate, reproach, heavily criticize, and even demonize Israel. They paint a negative and stereotypical picture of the Jewish state, especially on television and in the press. So, too, in academic institutions, the churches, the trade unions, and among the so-called chattering classes. All these sectors transmit anti-Israeli hostility on a daily basis.
“There is an obstinate and willful European refusal to put the Israeli responses to acts of terrorism in proper context. If these attacks occurred systematically in Europe, they would produce far more draconian responses as a result of public pressure. But at the present time, Europe has barely had a glimpse of the kind of merciless terror against innocent civilians that Israel has had to face for years. Madrid was the exception and it produced a knee-jerk reaction of appeasing the terrorists. But that would not work in the long run. For now, Europe prefers to single out Israel, to pretend that if only the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved on Arab terms, terror would fade away. That is very naïve and foolish.
“Europe cannot fight anti-Semitism if it appeases terrorists or blackens Israel’s name. We need to insist that a linkage exists between blind Palestinophilia, being soft on terror and jihad, defaming Israel, and the current wave of anti-Semitic violence.”
Ken Livingstone as a Paradigm
“The European Left claims to be legitimately anti-Israeli and anti-anti-Semitic. One typical example among many concerns Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London, a well-known leftist. In mid-2004 he invited Sheikh Yusef al-Qaradawi as an honored guest. This is the Kuwait-based, Egyptian cleric considered to be an oracle in the Arab world, who has supported suicide bombing and men beating up their wives, as well as justifying homophobia and anti-Semitism. The City of London laid out a red carpet for this bigot, as a gesture to the Muslim community. Qaradawi gave a sermon at the Regents Park Mosque. This was a dreadful example of fawning left-wing sycophancy toward ‘clerical’ Islamofascism.
“Livingstone has been anti-Israeli for many years and a consistent advocate of putting Sharon on trial as a war criminal. He claims abhorrence of anti-Semitism if it comes from the far Right. This phenomenon is paralleled by countless other examples from almost all West European countries. Jews as Holocaust victims are fine, but flesh-and-blood Israelis who fight for their lives against genocidal Islamism are beyond the pale.
“This is not merely double standards, hypocrisy, or blindness to the real problems that face Europe in terms of its own declining population and creeping weakness. It is a deep pathology – a suicidal syndrome.”
“Part of the intense European hostility toward Israel is related to the EU’s difficult relationship with the U.S. in recent years. The antagonism had become increasingly clear since the beginning of the second intifada, followed by 9/11 and, above all, the war in Iraq.
“There is a growing gulf between Europe and America on major issues of international policy. Israel is very much at its center as an important bone of contention between the two major constituents of the West. Europe has been making a geopolitical strategic choice that its undeclared alliance with the Arab world necessitates an anti-American, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli position. This is accompanied by a general tendency, domestically, to favor Muslim over Jewish communities wherever electoral and political considerations are involved. The different American position is viewed as an obstacle to Europe’s ambitions and plans as a would-be Great Power. American support for Israel, deplored by so many Europeans, is often blamed on Zionist machinations.
“This leads to anti-Semitic claims that the Zionist/Jewish lobby has a fatal grip over American foreign policy that precludes a common Western position. In Europe, a softer version of the Muslim-Arab conspiracy theory that the Jews control America – also an old Nazi slogan – is now widespread.”
Jewish Intellectuals’ Isolation
“European policy toward the Arab world is de facto appeasement. In some respects it reminds one of the 1930s. European Jews find themselves again caught in a very sensitive and potentially dangerous situation. If they support Israel in this constellation of European appeasement of the Arab world – and Muslims in general – they are increasingly treated as ‘warmongers’ going against the political consensus. These are not only far-Left and far-Right accusations but also mainstream ones. They revive the old, seemingly unresolved question mark about the ‘dual loyalties’ of Jews.
“Some of the more articulate European Jewish intellectuals and journalists, who care about Israel, openly refer to their sense of isolation that they did not feel five years ago. It is transparently evident in many public debates that if one takes a position even mildly supportive of Israel’s right to exist as an independent state, one is seen – even by some mainstream European media – as morally beyond the pale. That is a rather shocking development.
“I have heard this from well-known commentators like Fiamma Nirenstein in Italy, Joel Kotek in Belgium, Melanie Phillips in Britain, or the French sociologist Shmuel Trigano and the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. They, and others like them, have to swim against a stream in which the odds are heavily weighted in favor of the Palestinians. To defend Israel is to be placed on the defensive and turned into a suspect. To stand up for Zionism is to be an accomplice in war crimes, crimes against humanity, fascism, Nazism, and other horrors. This was not true to the same degree in the past, though the seeds of this change were already sown twenty years ago during the Lebanon War.”
“In some specific cases, politicians have used outright anti-Semitic expressions under the cover of being anti-Israeli. The senior Labour MP Tam Dalyell spoke about a cabal of Jews close to Tony Blair, who had pulled Great Britain into the Iraq War. The public indifference was as striking as the comments. Real Jews were mixed up with ‘half-Jews’ like Peter Mandelson, ‘quarter-Jews’ such as British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw – no friend of Israel! Naturally, Dalyell was not sanctioned.
“One will not catch the Scottish left-wing MP George Galloway making an openly anti-Semitic remark. He was expelled from Labour for receiving millions of pounds from Saddam Hussein and acting as his mouthpiece. Galloway is a good example of those politicians who have actively sought an anti-American and anti-Israeli alliance of Muslims and leftists. This began with the antiwar coalition to stop the American invasion of Saddam’s Iraq.
“Sometimes these demonstrations of ‘pacifism’ descend into street-level anti-Semitism. In 2003 in London I got caught in the biggest protest march I have yet seen. Before the war in Iraq broke out, about a million people marched against it. Slogans such as ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Hands off Iraq’ were everywhere. Among the Muslim groups there were also calls for ‘killing the Jews’ and the Americans.”
“In most European countries, serious discussion of Islamic Judeophobia is rare and risks the instant countercharge of ‘Islamophobia.’ All researchers know that in several West European countries, young radicalized Muslims are the major perpetrators of anti-Semitic acts. This is the case not only in France but also in Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, and increasingly in Great Britain. In the UK there is open and often violently expressed anti-Semitism in parts of the Asian-Muslim community – mainly among those from Pakistan. The authorities monitor some of this activity and tolerate it to a certain degree, although they clamped down on Al-Qaeda militants.
“Muslim anger creates a climate of hostile anti-Israeli opinion that is backed by the very influential liberal mainstream and left-wing media. There is, moreover, much sympathy for the Palestinians who are presented as the ‘absolute victims’ of Israeli injustice. Irrespective of the facts, the liberal mainstream’s response to events in the Middle East will be in accordance with that a priori determination.”
Wistrich adds: “Europeans are not entirely blind to the dangers emanating from the radical Muslim world – for example, Iran’s feverish program for nuclear armament. After a lot of prompting and pressure, they have outlawed some terrorist organizations. They do crack down on terror cells linked to Al-Qaeda. There are limits to the convergence between Europe and the Arab world. Europe, however, still believes that a forceful policy toward Islamic radicalism is mistaken. Even the reassertion of its own cultural values has become problematic, as if Europeans had to renounce their own core identity out of some misplaced idea of political correctness.
“This does not mean that I am unsympathetic to the plight of those Muslim communities that are marginalized in some European countries and suffer from a degree of social discrimination. Most Muslim communities consist of decent, law-abiding citizens. The tragedy is that the Muslim majority does not speak up. It has been silenced or intimidated by the fundamentalists. We have to find a way to reach out to them.
“In the West, educated Arabs who live with all the accoutrements of freedom of expression are reluctant to call into question the flawed assumptions about Israel. They will privately acknowledge the grave faults of Arab regimes, for instance, the lack of freedom and democracy. But greater fairness and objectivity about Israel is lacking even among more sophisticated Arab and Muslim intellectuals in the West. There is a deadening conformity and lack of courage to break with the majority when it comes to Zionism and Israel.”
Germany’s New Nationalism
“The main sources of Islamist anti-Semitism in Germany are different from those in France. The majority of the Muslims in the Federal Republic are from Turkey. One Turkish fundamentalist organization, Mili Gürüs, is, however, becoming increasingly infected by anti-Westernism, fundamentalism, and anti-Semitism. Since far-Right radicalism in Germany is still quite a significant factor, the balance of anti-Semitism is different.”
Wistrich remarks that he has followed the German mainstream press closely. “There has been a sharp anti-Israeli turn over the last few years. Of course, the German establishment and media will come together in a universal denunciation of classic anti-Semitism, about which the educated mainstream can usually agree. The CDU parliamentarian Martin Hohmann, who made anti-Semitic remarks last October, was expelled in mid-2004 from his party. Yet many Germans showed understanding for his statements calling Jews a Tätervolk, a nation of perpetrators, in the same way that the Germans were in World War II. Here, as in other cases, there is a gap between the ‘politically correct’ and prudent elites that do not support anti-Semitism and the feelings of many ‘ordinary Germans’ – about a third of whom are at least latently anti-Jewish.
“A new German nationalism and national consciousness have been emerging since reunification. This seems to involve playing down the concept of Germans as major perpetrators of genocide, and pushing away the constant reminder that Jews were prime victims of the Germans. We have seen a sharp shift in the last four years, toward the proposition that the Germans themselves were the victims of World War II. I believe that this concept has a great future before it. Its long-term implications extend far beyond the Jews. All of Europe should ponder this shift.”
Wistrich adds: “One serious problem for Jews and Israelis is that part of the slowly gestating European identity is being forged against the United States. This is accompanied by defamation of Israel, which is a convenient and relatively easy target for unanimous condemnation. It is also a cheap and cowardly way of gaining favor in the Arab world, which Europe sees, economically and politically, as a major strategic partner for the future. Such a Euroarabian identity is dangerous for the Jewish people. Here I agree with Bat Ye’or’s argument that Europe has been engaged in a self-inflicted capitulation to Islamist demands in the name of a misconceived multiculturalism.
“All this reflects the denial by Europe of the core values of its own civilization. Despite the problematic nature of the term, these are ‘Judeo-Christian’ values, based on the Ten Commandments, a Covenantal concept of democracy, the rule of law, human equality, and the central importance of freedom. These values, rooted in biblical morality, are being drowned in a morass of relativism, nihilistic trendiness, and self-abasing masochism when faced by Islamist totalitarianism.
“The potential perils have become real and are already palpable in the classrooms of Europe. Not by chance do we find Jewish teachers and pupils being harassed by young Muslims, in state schools. Will European governments from France to Sweden be able to check this violence that is getting out of hand? Failure to root out this plague would be yet another manifestation of European decadence and a betrayal of its moral obligations toward the Jewish minority.”
An Ugly Stain
Wistrich defines as the most basic question whether Europe can provide a safe and secure environment in which Jews can live in peace. “That also means with self-respect and dignity, able to fully express their identity, including the sense of a common destiny with Israel.
“If Europe is unable to provide such a haven, that would be a devastating indictment of its self-proclaimed values. Europe claims to represent a new and higher form of civilization, in which there is no need for war and military action or even self-defense. A civilization in which tolerance reigns supreme, racism has been abolished, and religious fanaticism is a thing of the past. For most of the world that is utopia and even in Europe, it would be a pipedream were it not for the American defense umbrella.
“Europe prides itself on having learned the lessons of fascism, Nazism, the Holocaust, totalitarian Communism, and white-settler colonialism, which were all products of its civilization. It also claims to have overcome the anti-Semitic virus, but unfortunately, this is not true. That ancient plague has come back to haunt all of us.
“In today’s Europe a Jew wearing any visible manifestation of his Jewish identity such as a caftan, a skullcap, or even a Star of David becomes a potential target for vilification or aggression in the street, in the metro, and in schools. Jews in Europe now face an unprecedented level of personal and communal insecurity. That represents an ugly stain on Europe’s record only sixty years after the greatest crime in human history was perpetrated on its soil by millions of willing Europeans.”
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
A slightly extended version of this interview will be part of Manfred Gerstenfeld’s forthcoming book, provisionally titled Israel & Europe: An Exposing Abyss?