Winston Pickett on A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, by Robert S. Wistrich

, April 18, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:1-2 (Spring 2010)

Anti-Semitism has become such a pervasive and dominant feature in the mainstream discourse that it poses a particular challenge when addressing it in the public space. Calling something anti-Semitic, while it may be “objectively” accurate, can be counterproductive simply because the vast majority of the public, including writers, opinion-formers, and journalists, badly misunderstand this particular form of group hatred.

The reader of this volume will understand that there are many varieties and strains of anti-Semitism, some superficial, some popular, and some very lethal. By virtue of its breadth alone, this book puts the discipline of anti-Semitism firmly on the map and makes it an object worthy of – and demanding – further study. Thus it comes at a time when the UK, for example, will be opening a degree-awarding institute for the study of anti-Semitism (at Birkbeck, University of London, incorporating the Wiener Library), while Indiana University is opening an institute of its own. The study of anti-Semitism in its own right, as a subject and discipline, has been eclipsed by the study of the Holocaust and even the study of racism. This book helps scholars and educational institutions fill that gap.

“Each new stage in the history of anti-Semitism has been able to build on a prior legacy of negative stereotypes, adapting them to a novel domestic and international context,” Wistrich notes, thus explaining its singular status as “probably the most adaptable of all group hatreds” (600). A sampling of chapter headings explains this approach: “From Deicide to Genocide,” “The Soviet War against Zion,” ” The Postcommunist Trauma,” “German Guilt, Jewish Angst,” “Liberté, Egalité, Antiśemitisme,” “The Anti-Zionist Masquerade,” “Shylock Meets Uncle Sam,” “Welcome to Eurabia,” “Multiculturalism and Its Discontents,” “Toward the Muslim Apocalypse,” and “Ahmadinejad: The Last Jihad.”

More important, the book provides a broader palate of terms and concepts that make it possible to confront and “expose” anti-Semitism in the public space. Knowing that Ahmadinejad’s worldview is predicated on his belief in the Second Imam – that is, steeped in messianism and saturated with and anchored in an apocalyptic vision of a Jew/Israel-free world – provides journalists and essayists, as well as strategic analysts, with some much-needed ammunition.

The Author and His Approach

Robert S. Wistrich is the Neuberger Professor of Modern European History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and director of the university’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. For decades he has been researching and advancing the cause of a serious, objective, and academic study of anti-Semitism and is the preeminent authority on the subject. He recognizes the need for a comprehensive treatment of anti-Semitism, which, as a form of group hatred, has its own peculiarities, idiosyncrasies, logic, utility, and hard-to-pin-down quality of morphing from setting to setting and generation to generation.

This approach allows Wistrich to differentiate between various types and recensions of anti-Semitism, deconstruct their origins, and lay bare their compelling, if contradictory logic. The outcome is a far-reaching intellectual history that effectively “connects the dots” – between such phenomena as anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism, biblical concepts of chosenness and exclusiveness and world-domination, dual loyalties and double standards, right-wing and left-wing anti-Semitism, Islamist and Nazi anti-Semitism, fringe and mainstream anti-Semitism, multiculturalism and its totalitarian response.

Indeed, the book’s subtitle could easily be “the varieties of anti-Semitism,” making it resistant to attempts to construct a unified field theory of the phenomenon. With each tightly worded paragraph Wistrich inductively and conclusively drives home the message that it is the conceptual frameworks of anti-Semitism that must be grappled with and comprehended, even more than its outward manifestations. Nowhere is this clearer than in Wistrich’s evaluation of the Islamist threat, when he notes that “western Europe has barely begun to deal seriously at the level of ideas with the existential threat that Islamism now poses to human rights, to its democratic values, to its own cultural identity, and to the future of its minorities” (464, emphasis added).

If there is a message here, it is this: only when we understand the coherence, attraction, and sociopolitical usefulness of recurring anti-Semitic components at work and in different milieus, languages, cultures, and historical circumstances can we begin to decode its DNA and ultimately devise effective antidotes to it.

As erudite and scholarly as A Lethal Obsession may be, it is refreshingly free of didacticism and polemic, even when it draws conclusions or breaks new ground. The chapter “Multiculturalism and Its Discontents” is a case in point. Wistrich’s initial exploration of the subject appeared as a lecture published by the Vidal Sassoon Center in which he drew disquieting parallels between reactionary forces at work in fin-de-siècle, post-Hapsburg Europe and the eviscerated national identities that currently plague Western democracies. With Wistrich’s insights now buttressed by the latest research in multiple languages and original sources, the reader is given the intellectual tools to appreciate the paradox of an anti-Semitism that forges Red-Green alliances and is so malevolently at play in today’s Europe.

Strategic Importance

Finally, the book’s greatest utility could be its potential use as a resource for building a much-needed strategic assessment of the threat of anti-Semitism and its capacity for undermining the structures of civil society. A Lethal Obsession both expands our knowledge of the deepest and most complex of hatreds while potentially serving as a resource for devising new ways to bring it under control. As such, the book is must reading for policymakers, think tanks, advocacy organizations, and communal leaders alike.

The cumulative impression this book imparts is that by virtue of its detail and its comprehensive nature, it could serve as an indispensable tool for analysis and strategic planning. Once we know – really know – the basis for Islamic fascism and comprehend the utilitarian nature of anti-Semitism as an engine that drives it – how it serves as an indispensable tool for Hamas, Hizballah, the Iranian Revolution, and Ahmadinejad’s Iran, and acts as a unifier for the Left and Third World fellow travelers – then we can really start planning intelligible strategic countermeasures to address it.

Overall, then, Wistrich’s sober, careful, nonhysterical treatment of the subject enables readers to examine and understand the various types of anti-Semitism – together with their histories, origins, and the milieus out of which they grew – and to draw the obvious parallels that come to mind. A Lethal Obsession is an indispensable guide for decoding every conceivable form of anti-Semitic discourse across political, historical, and linguistic landscapes. Lucidly written and capaciously referenced, Wistrich’s work also lays the foundation on which a thorough, objective, systematic treatment of anti-Semitism as an academic subject – one meriting the highest standards of scientific scrutiny – can ultimately be built.

Over the past half-century, despite the emergence of university-based centers engaged with anti-Semitism, the subject has taken a back seat to the fields of racism and even Holocaust studies as a separate academic discipline. The resources contained in A Lethal Obsession should help fill this gap, together with aiding the establishment of new academic centers for the study of anti-Semitism in the United States and Europe presently underway.

But perhaps the book’s most immediate value for those seeking to grasp fully the phenomenon of anti-Semitism is the way Wistrich does the reader a service and honors one’s own ability to detect these patterns and what he calls “thought structures,” without being confronted with them in an overly didactic fashion. Consequently, again for the reader – and particularly for someone who is willing to invest the time and energy to fully engage with this text, all thousand pages of it – this yields a richly rewarding experience and many flashes of recognition and insight.

This is the first time the student, layperson, or scholar has had available in one volume such a sweeping engagement with – for lack of a better term – the intellectual history of anti-Semitism. The author’s depth of research, the up-to-date quality of the sources that he cites – in addition to his own long-term involvement with the subject – illuminates the overarching Gestalt and anti-Semitic Weltanschauung in a manner that is breathtaking.

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DR. WINSTON PICKETT is a UK-based writer and analyst. He is a former director of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and previously served as communications director at the Board of Deputies of British Jews and external relations director at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

About Dr. Winston Pickett

Dr. Winston Pickett is a UK-based writer and analyst. He is a former director of the European Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and previously served as communications director at the Board of Deputies of British Jews and external relations director at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.