Facing the “New” Antisemitism

By Robert S.Wistrich



Contemporary antisemitism offers us a stunning paradox. Never has it seemed so unfashionable to be an antisemite, so politically unacceptable and incorrect, even beyond the pale. And never, since 1945 have Jewish communities been so fearful of its eruption and the State of Israel so concerned about it. The official consensus is amazing, almost too good to be true. Successive Popes have condemned antisemitism, using terms like “Never Again”! Governments fight it and some even legislate –especially against Holocaust denial. The OSCE organizes successive conferences against it –in Vienna, Berlin, Cordoba- and soon in Bucarest. The US State Department is obligated by Congress to monitor antisemitism. An All-Party Parliamentary Committee in the U.K. issued a detailed report on it. The Israeli Foreign Ministry invites here to discuss the subject and sees it as an element of policy, international relations, State-to-State relations. Last night we even heard the founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, Sheikh Darwish, ask to be enlisted as the first soldier in the battle against antisemitism. And I myself was recently interviewed for 30 minutes on Al-Jazeera TV on International Holocaust Day and given every opportunity to refute the Holocaust deniers and even to discuss Arab antisemitism. So what is going on? Are we perhaps living in the times of the Messiah?


Is it not remarkable that in the European Union (which some call Eurabia) so many government, leaders and important officials are eager to pronounce their abhorrence of racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia and xenophobia, through levels of Jewish anxiety about Jew-hatred have never been so high since 1945? Is it not ironic that the memory of the Holocaust is so frequently and respectfully evoked –especially by European politicians, intellectuals, academics, journalists, churchmen and shapers of opinion- at the very time when Israel-bashing has become a Europe-wide popular sport which has achieved global resonance? And how is it that the UN solemnly commemorates the Shoah yet remains –despite some improvements- a world forum for vicious anti-Zionist incitement against Israel? There is no single, monolithic antisemitism which we face in all three cases,but rather a cluster of loosely related phenomena –some of them, irritants of the common cold variety and others potentially lethal. I do not believe there is a single master strategy to deal with all these ailments. But establishing priorities is clearly important. One obvious point is that we have to take into account national differences –the specific challenge in each country will necessarily reflect its history, culture, politics and the character of its Jewish communities. Another, is that we cannot fight antisemitism alone –we need allies but they will change in function of the specific type of antisemitism we are facing and what result we hope to achieve.

Let me begin with the most dangerous form of antisemitism today, that of radical Islam –which I am afraid was somewhat whitewashed (though not intentionally I’m sure) last night. Islamism cannot be dismissed as “extreme” because it has become increasingly mainstream. It directly threatens 5.3 million Jews in Israel with annihilation, it is a danger to Europe, to America, to the whole world. The usual educational and political methods will not work because Islamist antisemitism is tied in to Jihad (Holy war), international terrorist networks and global ambitions. Petro-dollars, the cult of death and martyrdom, and messianic fanatical fervor give it an especially dangerous edge. It is suicidal and genocidal at the same time. In Iran, radical Islamism is linked both to preparing the next planned genocide (with ourselves as the prime candidates) –i.e. Holocaust II while denying Holocaust I. Ahmadinejad will be Hitler with nuclear weapons unless we and/or the US and/or the “international community” stop him. But the countries which need to worry about Iran as much as we need to do (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Gulf States, Jordan) are also major purveyors of antisemitism –as are Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority. The Iranian, Hamas, and Hizbollah style of antisemitism can in my view be qualified as “exterminationist” or “eliminationist” –a term popularized by Daniel Goldhagen. Already twenty years ago, I myself called this threat “apocalyptic” antisemitism and presented Khomeini’s Iran as the heir of Nazi Germany –long before it became fashionable to do so. The popularity of European imports like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the widespread use of the blood libel in the Muslim mass media, strengthen the feeling that here we are confronting a danger that is potentially, at least, on a par with that of the 1930s. That is a very different animal from the Western intellectual discourse which Antony Julius was describing yesterday, as crossing the line from anti-Zionism to antisemitism.

We are talking here about fully-fledged conspiracy theories concerning Israel and the Jews, which are not amenable to rational discourse at all. Hard-core antisemitism of the vilest kind. Films like Horsemen without a Horse or Al-Shattat are as bad, if not worse in my judgment than the Nazi antisemitic cinema and we need to highlight that without any equivocation. Much of the antisemitism of the Arab-Muslim world is based on classical stereotypes –Jews as ruthless exploiters, cunning, selfish and cruel, always scheming and plotting –corrupt, evil and ultimately demonic. Instead of subverting Christendom, they are now said to be undermining Islam, seeking to erode and destroy the faith of the believers. Israel does not do enough to expose this vicious antisemitism in which Jews (and, of course, Israelis) are reduced to a diabolical abstraction –the source of all the world’s troubles. This is not merely the “normal” antisemitism of racial prejudice or religious and social discrimination. This is the realm of dehumanization and demonisation –phenomena which we know can lead to genocide. Israel is the prime target not for its policies but because of its existence as such. Jewish self-determination in the form of a national State in Zion is treated as a total heresy. Though the conflict with the Palestinians was originally national, territorial, political –it now has this religious twist to it that makes it so much more dangerous. You cannot compromise with that, you cannot finesse it –you have to confront such intransigent enemies. It is our obligation to expose the ugliness, the nullity and the nihilism of this Islamo-fascist ideology. There is simply no option of running away from it.

But what about the West, and those whom Nathan Sharansky last night referred to in his short message, as the advocates of a “world without Israel”? As he suggested, they are smelling blood; there is the possibility that maybe, after all, they might achieve their aim in the current climate of appeasement and ignorance of the Zionist narrative   –a state of affairs for which Israel itself is also very much to blame. The more we stammer and stutter; the more we radiate uncertainty, confusion, hesitation, and an insecure identity, guilt feelings or self-doubt about why we are here –the more emboldened our Islamist enemies will become. Just like in the West, our intellectuals and opinion-makers are often paralysed or even strangled by their own political correctness. That is hardly a convincing way to fight antisemitism. There is no point in fighting such a war, unless you are determined, serious and intend to win; and for that you have to believe in the justice of your cause. Frankly, that is not the message we have been getting in recent years from successive Israeli governments, from the media, academics and intellectual or artistic elites. How can you fight the global dimensions of this prejudice if you even lack basic conviction or belief in the raison d’être of your country, your history, your heritage and identity? Frankly, Israel and the Diaspora need to get their houses in order, to clean out the Augean stables and focus on a new approach, adapted to the 21st century, which lays out our national purpose and moral message to the world.

If I am not for myself, who am I? And why should others be for me or want to ally with me? Perhaps, this moment will be a turning point, a moment of resolve where we begin to transform our situation, to go on the offensive. We have to reconnect with the roots of our existence in Zion and with the meaning of being a Jew in the world. We have to face the reality that much of the enlightened world sees us as a narrowly nationalist “anachronism,” as the last European colonial project; as flouters of international law, serial violators of human rights, and lackeys of American imperialism; as Occupiers, “ethnic cleansers,” as an Apartheid State, even as the reincarnation of the 3rd Reich. This is becoming a tidal wave of demonisation and if we do not push it back, we risk being overwhelmed. If this were not enough we also have some self-styled “progressive” Jews adding their own nasty sting to the Israel-bashing chorus.

None of these issues is going to disappear. The struggle against the “new” antisemitism has to face this challenge, even as we accept the right to Jewish dissent, to engage with alternative voices while politely but firmly rebutting their misguided arguments. Nothing will be gained by counter-boycotts of left-wing Jews; that can only play into the hands of those eager to publicly show the world how “repressed” they are by the Jewish establishment.  I would recommend subtlety and irony rather than heavy-handed tactics in facing that particular irritant. It should never be placed on the same level as the “eliminationist” Jew-baiters.

We also need to reconsider certain conventional wisdoms in analyzing the current wave of antisemitism and hostility to Israel in the West. For decades Jewish communities saw the traditional enemy as being on the Right –whether conservative, nationalist, fascist, racist or Nazi. That enemy has not yet disappeared. But it has either been weakened or is preoccupied with other targets. It is a source of antisemitism that needs to be carefully watched –especially in the area of Holocaust denial and general xenophobic violence- but which lacks real respectability in the mainstream media. On the other hand, anti-Zionist antisemitism has far more legitimacy and has grown at an alarming pace. Its rhetoric is “anti-racist” and views Israel and the Jews who support it, as an obstacle to Humanity (with a capital “H”), to the realisation of universal ideals and the Brotherhood of Man. This liberal, humanist and leftist anti-Zionism is in love with all “others,” except the “Jewish other” –I mean especially Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and third world immigrants. The only “good Jews” in this humanist discourse are dead Jews –the martyred Jews of the Holocaust- or those who ostentatiously denounce Israel

The conventional strategies when dealing with this leftist type of antisemitism are not going to work. You cannot change the image of Israel as a regional superpower with a strong army and a nuclear deterrent, even if this ignores its geo-political vulnerabilities. You cannot  convince the world that we Israelis are “victims,” “indigenous natives,” part of the colonized, the “wretched of the earth” in the sense that this is applied to the Palestinians. But we can frame our own narrative more intelligently. Talking the language of power politics, military force, ethnocentric nationalism and/or tribal religion is not going to do that and distorts what we currently need and lack –a fresh, clean, incorruptible future-oriented vision of our place in the world  –of what we have to offer the region and the rest of humanity. Surely, we can do that without sacrificing faith, particularity, tradition, or a distinct identity –but also without overstating differences when we seek allies and partners.

When dealing with today’s antisemitism, especially the so-called “progressive” kind, we have to rethink and restate the principles on which Judaism, the Jewish legacy and Israel are ultimately based. If we do this honestly and confidently, showing the world and ourselves that we truly value our own heritage –and why it matters to mankind- then I believe attitudes will change. Ironically, with ancient civilizations like China and India, it may sometimes be easier to achieve this than with Europeans –because they come to the so-called “Jewish Question” with much less prejudice –as a kind of tabula rasa. With Muslims, especially in Europe but also here in Israel and in parts of the Arab World, we must find a completely different way to their hearts and minds: one that involves a better understanding of Arab psychology, of the sense of humiliation and bitterness produced by their civilizational decline, the abuses of their own rulers, colonialism, and the blow to their self-esteem inflicted by Israeli victories and successes. This will not resolve the problem of Arab or Muslim antisemitism overnight but we have to believe that the process is still reversible, if we act now.

Having said that, Israel has the right and the duty to demand that the Palestinian, Arab and Muslim culture of hatred be dismantled. Failure to emphasize this demand has already cost us dear and has been disastrous to the Muslim themselves –as we see in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In combating Muslim antisemitism, it is important to show Muslims how self-destructive this has been for their own societies and development, how alien to their best traditions and to the more enlightened forms of Islamic culture in the past. Antisemitism and the negation of Israel are negative forces that hold the Arab world back but which are not irresistible. There are other Arab voices, still very much a minority, but they do exist –who recognize the toxicity of such antisemitism for Arab society and culture. We have to find ways to encourage and empower them.

I am well aware that this will not be easy. The antisemitic virus has spread and penetrated deeply into the body politic of the Arab world and it has returned to haunt Europe once more. Even America is not immune. There is no proven cure to this disease of the mind. But the irrationality and mythical power often associated with antisemitism does not mean that we cannot neutralise it. A determined and organized effort can contribute to containing the infection. We can limit the damage, if our resources –intellectual, political and societal- are judiciously applied in concert with other interested parties. True, there are no quick fixes or short cuts. But with better co-ordination and strategic thinking –with a more systematic and global approach, we may have a chance. The willingness of the Foreign Ministry to take on this task is a good sign as is the presence of so many committed people here today. Where there is hope, there is a way.


This presentation was delivered as a keynote address at the Conference of the Global Forum against Antisemitism held under the auspices of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on 12 February 2007.