From Multiculturalism to Antisemitism
Interviewer: Hodaya Karish-Hazoni
When Prof. Robert Wistrich hears the word "multiculturalism," in the context of the "Jewish Question" and antisemitism, he is well aware of its nuances, for good and for bad.
Today, it is no longer politically correct to be antisemitic. It is unsophisticated, improper, and in certain countries it is even illegal. Self-righteous criticism of Israel's policy in the territories is another matter entirely. Prof. Robert Wistrich knows that the distinction is not merely academic and is careful in applying the antisemitic label. As a historian and head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Prof. Wistrich systematically follows contemporary anti-Jewish currents in the Western and Arab world. He believes that the current spearhead of global antisemitism (which is potentially genocidal) derives from radical Islam and often masks its true intent by as sanctimonious talk about human rights for the Palestinians.
When we met for the interview in Prof. Wistrich's office on the Hebrew University Mt. Scopus campus, the world media was still engrossed with the tragedy of the Ghalia family members who had been killed on the Gaza beach. In spite of the IDF protest of innocence, most of the media concluded that Israel was to blame. Robert Wistrich is not someone who rushes automatically to label such condemnation of Israel as 'antisemitism.' "There is a wider issue which constantly recurs in such debates," he explains. "First, is contemporary criticism of Israel's policy antisemitic or not, and second – whether anti-Zionism is in effect antisemitism. Put this way, as a historian, as a researcher, I cannot subscribe to sweeping generalizations. Of course, it is historically untrue to claim that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are always synonymous. And yet, there are a growing number of cases, where the distinction between the two becomes fuzzy and even meaningless. Indeed, they are almost impossible to differentiate in much of the Arab world today.
"In the wider Arab world and the Palestinian Authority in particular, numerous statements are made that are seemingly criticism of the State of Israel, but are not essentially different from well-known antisemitic expressions that we know from history," he says. "If Israel is portrayed as a "rogue state" by definition, as a state that almost daily commits genocide, a state that seeks the "ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinian people – not only is that a wicked falsehood, but it is propaganda meant to demonize an entire state, and its people. According to my definition, saying that Israel is the source of all evil in the Middle East or in the world as a whole is pure antisemitism. Singling it out for unique and obsessive attention also tends to be anti-Jewish.
We must distinguish, he adds, between what is reasonably defined as criticism, and antisemitism that is intended to destroy the State of Israel. "Everyone has his own criticism of the state," he explains, "myself included. So what?" Such criticism is an integral part of the democratic way of life. It must not be confused with mendacious slogans claiming that Israel is committing "crimes against humanity". That is indeed defamation. Equally grotesque is the claim that antisemitism is a fiction invented by the Israeli establishment: "When radical Muslims invoke anti-Jewish conspiracy theories that is not a Zionist ploy to silence criticism! Antisemitism is not merely a slogan, a casual prejudice, a political game, or a 'card' that Zionists or anyone else invents. It is a solid reality with tangible consequences."
As for automatically blaming Israel for the killing of the Palestinian family on the Gaza Beach, Professor Wistrich says that it is not really an antisemitic attack: "There is, of course, a familiar anti-Israel bias in the media that we have known for decades, which undoubtedly creates a negative image. B it is not antisemitic per se unless there is a statement about the criminal essence of the Jews who cruelly and deliberately murder Palestinians. Talk about cruel, wicked, bloodthirsty Jews is antisemitic!
"War propaganda which exists in every conflict around the world is nothing new. The Palestinians, the Hizbollah and other Arab enemies of Israel do everything in their power to slander and defame Israel. Sometimes the motifs are unmistakably anti-Jewish but not in all cases.
How would you judge something like what Suha Arafat once said to Hillary Clinton, that Israel was polluting the air and poisoning the wells of the Palestinians?
"That is different. Because accusations of poisoning, or the fable that Israel is using diluted uranium against Palestinians is reminiscent of medieval blood libels about well-poisoning Jews. That medieval lie draws a picture of Jewish people as having no morality, no limits, no humanity or decency. In a word they are monsters
"The death of the 12 year old Palestinian boy, Muhammad Al-Dura, on the second day of the second Intifada, and the representation of the IDF as a military machine of child-killers, responsible for his death, is definitely charged with antisemitism, whether intended or not. It is sobering and indeed shocking to see Muslims repeating blood libels derived from the Christian Middle Ages with such enthusiasm. But it has been going on for several decades and it is a terrible stain on their culture."
So on the religious aspect too, Islam has adopted the Christian motif of antisemitism?
"Unfortunately, many Arabs, but also Muslims in general, have swallowed an absolute lie. The supposed ritual murder of Gentile children by Jews is a grotesque fantasy. You find this intellectual garbage all over the Arab world – in the press and in religious sermons. It is an antisemitic stigmatization par excellence to portray Jews as ritual murderers and as a bloodthirsty people. Especially horrible were the caricatures of Ariel Sharon drinking Arab blood. We have seen it in various Arab TV series broadcast to the millions, in the Gulf States, in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. Think of Rider without a Horse or Al-Shaffat (the Diaspora). What disgusting opium for the masses!"
As part of his sustained effort during the past four years to bring antisemitism into the public arena, Professor Wistrich organized a major international conference on "Antisemitism, Multiculturalism, and Ethnic Identity," held two weeks ago at the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Conference participants also included three Arab speakers, exceptional in their strong opposition to antisemitism and anti-Zionism. "I invited Prof. Bassam Tibi, an authority on Islamic fundamentalism," says Wistrich, "an Arab of Syrian origin residing in Germany, a long-standing expert on the subject. He has written a number of critical books on Islamism and the danger it represents to Western values and enlightened thought. He is a moderate Arab intellectual. He draws a sharp distinction (which caused some controversy at our conference) between Islam and Islamism. According to him, Islamism, that is, militant and political radical Islam, has hijacked Islam as a faith and turned it upside down – reversing its true message – turning into a extremist, antisemitic and belligerent creed which wishes to restore the Muslim Caliphate, to conquer the world, to wage a victorious war against the West. As a Muslim moderate he regards these ambitions as dangerous and disastrous.
"I also invited to the conference a young philosopher of Moroccan origin from France, Morad El-Hattab, who in a touching presentation expressed his impassioned disagreement with the anti-Jewish trends in the West and Islam. As a believing Muslim, he feels hurt and threatened by it, by this perversion of his faith in such a negative and inhuman direction."
The third Arab speaker who was invited to the conference is Nonie Darwish. Cairo born, she spent her childhood in the 1950s in the Gaza strip. Her father was sent there by Nasser, then President of Egypt, to command the Fidayun's actions of infiltration into Israel in order to kill civilians. In her lecture at the conference, she recalled having been brought up in an atmosphere of fervent hatred towards Israel. When she was eight years old, her father was killed and officially became a "Shahid." Since then, she says, she has developed a revulsion towards the culture of hatred in which she was educated. As an adult, she immigrated to the USA, and following the 9/11 terrorist attack, began to write letters supporting Israel and against the current fanaticism of Islam, which preaches such appalling anti-Jewish hatred and violence.
"Darwish appears in the documentary which we screened for the first time in Israel – Obsession, in the making of which I was also closely involved. Nonie founded an organization in California named Arabs for Israel.com which publicly expresses support of Israel. At the conference she gave a persuasive lecture about hate indoctrination and what it does to Muslims themselves. I brought these three individuals to Jerusalem to show Israeli society that there are significant Arab voices out there who vigorously dissent from the anti-Jewish mania. They may be a small number of voices at present, but they exist; and we should keep in mind that all great historical changes have modest beginnings. It is most important to give such individuals a chance to be heard and to strengthen them. I prefer them to the many 'trembling Israelites' and hyper-critical Jews in Israel and the Diaspora who are always trying to undermine the justice of our cause. Dissident Arab intellectuals know the Muslim world from within – the abysmal lack of basic freedom of speech, of free debate, the oppression of women, the base appeal to prejudice – and they know to what extent it distracts the Arab population from its real problems." At the same time, Professor Wistrich emphasizes: "I have no doubt that the stark reality represented by Arab Judeophobia was fully exposed at our conference."
Among other things, the Sassoon conference dealt with the paradox of multicultural openness and acceptance of "the Other" from the perspective of the antisemitic obsession. "There is something distorted in present day multiculturalism, which is so fashionable not only in North America, but also in Europe and in other parts of the world," says Professor Wistrich. "It is remarkable that open Western societies embracing pluralist values, which are supposed to be good for Jews – have in effect produced in the past thirty years some virulent new strains of antisemitism. Partly this grows out of an almost demented glorification of the Palestinians, which has nothing to do with reality. But the 'pluralist' attitude has also been problematic since it tends to marginalize Jews in the West as part of the oppressive ruling elites. On the other hand, Muslim immigrants in Europe today are seen as victims; they are therefore always right and should be appeased. The Jews are no longer perceived as victims. They are rich, powerful, exploitative, and aggressive. This is not merely untrue but also an antisemitic stereotype."
One of the conference sessions dealt with feminism. Here, too, the gender struggle for equality was supposed to transcend nationalities and borders – but Jewish feminists have in recent decades found themselves in a very defensive and sometimes inferior position because of their origin and the question of Israel. At the same time, Professor Wistrich points out that many of the pioneer voices of criticism with the Arab/Muslim world are women. Last year he invited the Canadian Muslim feminist Irshad Manji to speak in Jerusalem about her book, The Trouble with Islam – an event which was very successful.
"The attempted boycott of Israel is a nasty example of how the liberal West is betraying its own values."Instead of acting as a mediator," says Prof. Wistrich, "encouraging real dialogue; instead of being a positive source of independent thought, many intellectuals and academics in Western Europe, the USA and Canada, have become promoters of vicious libels against the State of Israel. They organize conferences on Israel as a racist Apartheid state and call for the indiscriminate boycott of Israeli academia as if we were the major serial violators of human rights in the world. Of course, they never mention the real culprits. They could not care less about Sudan, the bigotry in the Arab states, Iran, Russia, China etc. only Israel must be denounced and dismantled. That, too, is antisemitism and actually extremely racist. An 'anti-racist' leftist racism! Jews are sometimes in the forefront of this perversion."
How, then, do you explain this self-hatred, which keeps popping up again and again in history?
"This academic year I gave a course at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the recurring historical phenomenon of Jewish self-hatred. It is certainly evident today both in the Israeli academic milieu and in the general media. It is easy to find Israeli and Jewish intellectuals who think Israel is to blame for all the problems in the Middle East and even in the world in general. They are only two eager to spread this 'good news' to the wider world and be hailed as champions of justice. They rant on about the Jewish lobby, the Christian lobby, the foreign policy of the United States. Those are often worse than Arab anti-Zionists. In fact I prefer an open-minded Arab intellectual, even if he or she is anti-Israel to the Chomskys, the Finkelsteins and Ilan Pappes of this world for whom I have no respect at all. They are much more dogmatic, sarcastic, narcissistic, and self-righteous than most Arabs I know. I suppose they believe in what they say. But I do see it as a pathological phenomenon, because they are driven by hate and anger against their own people. For Chomsky, the Hizbollah terrorists are heroes.
"The self-haters should learn the lessons of history. When Spanish Jews tried to convert en masse to Christianity, the Inquisition soon followed. When Jews supported Communism in Russia it boomeranged against the Jewish people. Zionism is a historical and existential necessity but we still need to be more prudent and intelligent in our actions as well as determined in deterring our enemies."
Professor Wistrich makes a point of emphasizing that the present condition of Jews in Israel is better than it has been in the past, and that the antisemitic wave is not irreversible. "It is true that in the past five years," he explains, "there has been a growing demonization of the Jews. It began right after the breakout of the second Intifada. Paradoxically, what strengthened this wave was the 9/11 terror attack in America, along with the opposition to the war in Iraq. Europe's inability to absorb its mass Muslim immigration and its desire to appease radical Islam also played a harmful role in promoting antisemitism. This has begun to slowly change for the better. But the long-term demographic and electoral weight of Islam in Europe does not augur well for Jews."
But in contrast to other speakers on the subject, some of whom fear that Europe has already surrendered without a fight and become "Eurabia", Robert Wistrich thinks that all is not yet lost. "A few weeks ago a survey was published, by a very serious German institute," he reports, "according to which, a clear majority of Germans identify Islam with fanaticism and believe that a war of civilizations is taking place. That is what ordinary people in the Netherlands also think. They have seen the terrorist attacks in Madrid, the riots in France, and the bombings in London last July. The sheer violence and destructiveness of today's Islamist campaign could lead to a fierce reaction, though I'm not counting on it. Europeans are careful not to express what they really think. But there is a lot of racism against Muslims under the surface. One day it may erupt. That will not solve Jewish problems, however, since the radical Right is generally antisemitic as well. We have no interest in creating a bigger rift with Europe than we already have. But Israel must do a much better job in explaining itself to others in a way that fits our time."
"Recent years have seen an erosion of our historical identity as Jews and Zionists. I am very concerned, because history has taught us where this can lead. For example, the Palestinians have been claiming for years that there is no historical connection between the Jews and Jerusalem, that the First and Second temples never even existed. The narrative they invented drains Judaism of any link with the land of Israel. Unfortunately such falsehoods have captured a significant part of Western opinion in the past thirty years. Israel should have made sure a long time ago that its own narrative is heard, updated and properly understood. Nature abhors a vacuum and policy-makers in Israel allowed this Zionist vacuum of values to develop. Above all there is a lack of conviction and belief, not enough pride in being a Jew."
At this point Professor Wistrich is unsparingly critical of Israel's diplomatic appointments to the world, which have not always done it justice: "Moreover there is a deeper problem. Too many Israeli politicians, diplomats, academic representatives, and spokespeople do not understand why we are here and what we represent. So how can they represent the country? How can someone who has doubts about the legitimacy and morality of what we do, be an effective advocate?"
"Israel's case has always been a strong one, but it has been years since it was presented with true conviction. Why do our representatives keep retreating, apologizing, stuttering. Where is their faith? What do they stand for? What does Israel stand for? We face fanatical ideological enemies. We have to believe in our cause, in its fundamental justice and stand firm. I hope the present government will do so. With enemies like Hamas, Hizbollah, and Iran, we are faced with what I would call annihilationist antisemitism driven by a monstrous ideology of "holy war" (jihad)."
How about an optimistic message in conclusion?
"I'm a pessimist in the short term but an optimist in the long run. We live in an era of globalization," says Prof. Wistrich, measuring his words carefully. "Antisemitism, too, is global. Israel remains in the eye of the storm. It is as if we were preparing a countdown to Armageddon or if you want to be more optimistic – the "birth pangs of the Messiah. This is a scary time and increased antisemitism is one of its symptoms. But we have lived with the disease for over two thousand years; we have survived it, and even flourished. If we go down, so will human civilization. I hope the rest of the world will get the message before it's too late."
A shorter and somewhat different version of this interview first appeared in Hebrew in Makor Rishon, 30 June 2006. This is an accurate and much fuller rendition of what was said.