Mathias Schuetz interviews Prof. Robert Wistrich


On 3 August 2009, the Vidal  Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism organized a special session at the 15th World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem on the topic “Contemporary Antisemitism: The European and Muslim Legacies.” The participants in this colloquium were Professor Robert Wistrich, the Head of the Center, Prof. Irwin Cotler from McGill University (currently a Canadian M.P.); Prof. Jeffrey Herf, a historian from the University of Maryland and author of a forthcoming book on Nazi Propaganda in the Middle East; and Prof. Menahem Milson of the Hebrew University and MEMRI, who presented visual material on “Antisemitism in Arab and Iranian Media”

After the session the German research and journalist, Mathias Schuetz interviewed Prof. Wistrich, who had initiated the conference, about the topic of this lecture, namely the relationship and interaction between European and Muslim traditions of antisemitism, past and present.


Mathias Schuetz:

The panel at the conference was called “Contemporary anti-Semitism. European and Muslim Legacies”. I’m wondering if it makes sense, or if one is supposed to make a difference between European and, of course, National Socialist anti-Semitism on the one hand, and Muslim anti-Semitism on the other hand. When you look at the ideologies and their violent purpose, isn’t anti-Semitism rather a universal syndrome which has to be understood without geographical or ideological adjectives?


Robert S. Wistrich:

Frankly, I do not see any contradiction between accepting that anti-Semitism is both a particular and a universal phenomenon (there are some exceptions like China and India). There is no doubt, that as with other ideologies and movements, anti-Semitism takes different forms in various places and at different times. It is not exactly the same phenomenon in every time and place, though, one can also see continuities that connect the multiple strands of anti-Semitism throughout history. Even in an age of globalization like today, it would be a great mistake to imagine that all cultures are the same, that they all have the same mental structures, that they have identical codes or customs. I think any historian worth his salt would recognize that if you do not take account of the particularities, that if you do not familiarize yourself with (or at least attempt to understand) a given culture from within, you will not penetrate very far into its specific characteristics. So, I think the point is that we have to find ways to balance the distinctive features with the near universality of a phenomenon like anti-Semitism, just as you would do if you examine other modern ideologies like fascism or communism. You cannot simply ignore how it evolves in a particular place. Communism in China or Vietnam is not the same thing as it is in Cuba or France yet it was and remains an international phenomenon.


It is the same with anti-Semitism. I think, therefore, it entirely legitimate to explore European as opposed to Muslim legacies and then to look at the interactions between them and how one influences the other. That approach presupposes that there are clearly distinctive elements. The basis of Muslim anti-Semitism, its starting point, is quite different from European anti-Semitism, but there is still convergence. I believe that is one of the things which emerged in the presentations at our conference in Jerusalem. No less important is that we exploded the myth that Islam itself is free of anti-Jewish elements.


M.S.: Yet there seems to be almost a consensus when it comes to Muslim anti-Semitism, especially in Germany and Europe, that there is no social or theological basis for anti-Semitism within the Muslim world, and that it is an export product of 19th century European colonialism.


R.S.W.: There may be such a “consensus”; you would know better than me whether this is true in Germany. But from my point of view it is a very serious mistake to assume that. It may be politically correct to argue that this is the case, but as I already tried to suggest, this is highly misleading. Look at the indigenous Muslim sources, beginning with the Qur’an itself and what it reveals. That text reflects for instance the antagonistic relationship between Muhammad and Jewish tribes of his time, the fact that he waged a war against them in which they were eliminated. Think of those passages in the Qur’an, and there are really quite a few of them where there is a marked hostility expressed towards the Jews, as enemies of the Prophet and of Allah and of Islam itself, references which claim that the Jews had intrigued and conspired against Islam, and that they were its worst enemies. This is an entirely indigenous Islamic product. It did not come from outside, and it is right there at the dawn of Islam. At the birth of this new monotheistic faith there is a strong antagonism, embodied in the Qur’an, which has had, of course, tremendous influence on Islamic civilization, especially today, in the context of militant and political Islam. But there is also the Hadith, all the sayings contributed to the Prophet, the Sunna, and anti-Jewish elements that I would say entered into the traditions and the folklore of Islam over centuries. If you read Andrew G. Bostom’s anthology The Legacy of Islamic Anti-Semitism, this is unmistakably clear. In my own forthcoming book A Lethal Obsession. Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, I have analysed the consequences of this legacy more comprehensively than has ever been done before.


The demonization of the Jews may be less visible in Islam that it was in Christianity from the time of the Church fathers. Early Islam lacks, for example, the harsh polemic literature of adversus Judaeus. There was a whole effort that was carried through from the 3rd and 4th centuries of the Christian era in Europe which aimed to completely negate Judaism. You did not have something exactly parallel in Islam, and that is why, until the 20th century, Islam seems to be somewhat more tolerant, compared to the medieval Christian literature with its sermons, diabolical myths and folklore. But this “toleration” had very strict limits. It is not really tolerance in a sense we understand it today, it is something quite different. Basically it says, as long as you Jews (and Christians) recognize the superiority and the dominance of Islam, we will tolerate you within certain discriminatory rules that are legally fixed. In my view, the ahl al-dhimma, the pact that “protected” Jews and Christians under Islam is, paradoxically, one of the explanations for why anti-Semitism was initially more restrained in Muslim lands. The pact offered some protection but it defined the Jewish status as subordinate, humiliated, inferior. Ideological anti-Semitism was not therefore necessary as long as Jewish and Christian subordination was so clearly guaranteed in Muslim law. This humiliation of non-Muslim minorities ended with European rule. The beginning of equality for the minorities came, ironically, as a result of Western colonialism, European penetration and the emancipation from religious dogmas, with more liberal ways of thinking and western ideas. Cultural and racist anti-Semitism emerged as a vain effort by traditionalists, nationalists and Islamists to try and restore a lost Muslim hegemony. This is one of the reasons why it has been so eagerly embraced in the Muslim world during the modern era. In many ways it reflects Muslim inferiority feelings and a deep resentment towards the West. The Jews are, moreover, seen as advancing at the very same historic moment that the Muslims are regressing in terms of their status. It is also no accident that in the 19th century, particularly in the declining Ottoman Empire, the European blood libels (which were first adopted by Christian minorities) began to penetrate the Muslim Middle East. The more uncertain, defensive and insecure that Muslims would become in their own cultural identity, the more susceptible they seem to be to European-style anti-Semitic myths.


M.S.: So after all, would you say that this was a creation of the West, an importation of anti-Semitism, or a local awakening?


R.S.W.: It was in part an importation, but there were reasons why this transplant succeeded where others did not. You have to look at why this particular “product” of Western culture appealed to certain Muslims, especially Arabs. Even in societies which were relatively moderate like Tunisia, a society in which conditions were more favorable for Jews and for successful westernization, the final result in the end was the same. In virtually all Arab lands the Jewish minority either fled or was obliged to leave after 1945. This was not only the result of the Palestine conflict but also a consequence of the internal dynamics of Arab societies, of the rise of an exclusivist Arab nationalism and an intolerant Muslim fundamentalism.


M.S.: So one could say that the worst images of anti-Semitism, the blood libel and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, were imported but not the basic idea which stands behind these images?


R.S.W.: Absolutely. The Protocols were a Russian invention imported from the West to the Arab world but there are foundations in Muslim sources which explain why there has been such receptivity to these European anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Jews already have a negative image in early Islam of being treacherous and manipulative, of working deviously behind the scenes to subvert and to undermine the new creed. Islam, like Christianity, is essentially a dogmatic creed, with rigid articles of faith. Judaism, while also rigid, lacked the power or the desire to impose its core beliefs by force on others. In that sense it was more “tolerant” of the “other” though not in a modern liberal sense of the term. Islam seems to me, however, a special case within the monotheistic family, especially in its contemporary militant form. It negates both Judaism and Christianity while misleadingly claiming that it respects them. In reality, it incorporates them, and they are ultimately expected to dissolve, because everything that is good in Judaism and Christianity has already been taken over and appropriated by Islam! All of the Hebrew patriarchs, the Biblical prophets and kings are ipso facto “Muslim”. They are believers, therefore they are Muslim... Any true believer is a Muslim by definition. So Abraham (Ibrahim) is a Muslim, the first one. Moses (Musa) is also a Muslim, a model believer– a major figure in the Qur’an. David (Daoud) and Solomon (Suleiman) are Prophets of Islam. Is this tolerance? No, it is spiritual annexation! What makes it dangerous is that mainstream Islam then accuses Jews and Christians of falsifying their own Holy Scriptures in order to justify the supremacy, finality and infallibility of the “perfect revelation” to Muhammad.


Christianity also did something similar against Judaism but in a different way. It recognized the Old Testament and then said that the New Testament Gospels had come to fulfill the Old Testament. But it did not negate the Old Testament and it did not say that Abraham, Moses or the Prophets of Israel were Christians. It asserted that the Hebrew Bible predicted and prophesied the coming of Jesus, the “Christian” Messiah. But it does not claim that Hebrew Prophets such as Isaiah were ever Christians. Islam, however, regards the Hebrew prophets and Jesus as Muslims. In the Shi’i version of Islam today, especially in Iran, where they have a more apocalyptic reading of Islam, there is the belief that in the Last Judgment Jesus will return, but he will return as a Muslim, alongside the Mahdi (the Islamic Messiah) to redeem the world. This is evidently what Ahmadinejad and others firmly believe and this scenario will probably be linked with a massacre of Jewish “infidels” (referred to these days as evil Zionists).


M.S.: You named the Qur’an as one of the sources of Islamic anti-Semitism. How great would you say is the influence of this source, not only on Radical Islam, but also on the “Muslim street” and in the Islamic Diaspora?


R.S.W.: I think it has a very big influence today, more than ever before. In part this is because contemporary technologies greatly facilitate its spread. But it’s not just that. It is the fact that though there are such high rates of illiteracy in the Islamic world, the Qur’an is known almost to everyone. Its reading is essentially a recitation, the recital of the Qur’an. You know, here on Mount Scopus or in Jerusalem more generally I can hear the sound of the Muezzin every evening. The impact of the Qur’an comes partly from the power of this recitation. The Qur’an read in Arabic (or rather recited) has a rather hypnotic effect. It is less conducive to critical thought, at least in its current manifestations. The more fundamentalist and monolithic the interpretations of the sacred text, the more hatred appears to be generated toward non-Muslims. So what happens is that the anti-Semitic poison is tremendously inflated and highlighted in fundamentalist Islamist readings of classic texts.


Imagine what used to happen in the Christian world, for instance among Catholics before Vatican II. There was a certain reading of the New Testament, in which the Jews were literally sons of devils. Nobody could really contradict that, because it became the standardized way to see the role of the Jews in the death of Christ. Now, 40 years later there has been a positive effort to educate Christians into new ways of thinking about how they should relate to anti-Jewish stereotypes. But there is nothing like that today in the Islamic world. What you have is the macabre domination of jihadist ideology and relatively little contradiction to that until very recently. But in the last few years there has been the start of a sobering-up. After all the jihadis have been killing Muslims in large numbers! So of course there is concern, even in a country like Saudi Arabia, which has such a great responsibility for spreading its very toxic anti-Semitic version of Wahhabi Islam around the world. And now they, too, are worried, because they feel endangered, both by the Shi’i Iranian threat and by Radical Islam in general, the Frankenstein monster which they helped to create. It is very late in the day to do something about that. Even now they do not stop the vicious anti-Western and anti-Jewish sermons coming out of Saudi mosques. When it comes to the Jews, the Saudis are hardly moderate, even though they are sometimes depicted as a voice of “moderation”. So on this anti-Semitic issue, whether it is Jews or Christians (but especially Jews) the Saudis bear a heavy guilt.


The voices who do speak out among Muslims, represent a small minority, and they tend to be more secular. This is a problem because the room for secularism in the Islamic world today (outside of Turkey) is still not very great. Nevertheless there is some criticism internally, of the radical anti-Semitic demagogy that has emerged in recent years. The critique tends to come from more enlightened Arabs and non-Arab Muslims in the West who are alarmed because they understand that anti-Semitism is a weapon of religious fanatics who seek to limit their freedom to think differently and express themselves. Or it comes from Muslim women crushed and enraged by a repressive creed and codex that condemns them to servitude. But the dissenters are isolated politically. It’s true, however, that in Egypt, there is something of a backlash against extremism because of the growing fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. The official Egyptian position towards Hamas is also quite cool (if not hostile) and this is why there is a cautious political rapprochement with Israel on certain issues. But even that is ambivalent as you know. On the other hand, the scale of what is permitted in terms of anti-Semitic publications in a society like Egypt is very considerable and frankly shocking. If it happened in Europe today all hell would break loose.


M.S.: At the conference you said, that anti-Semitism is winning back its traditional standing in Europe, partly through the Muslims’ Diaspora. Would you say, that the islamization or reislamization of Muslim societies and, of course, of the Muslim Diaspora, can only be thought of as being combined with the rise of anti-Semitism?


R.S.W.: Unfortunately, I think all those trends towards Islamization are fundamentally anti-Western whether in the Middle East or the Diaspora and usually contain an anti-Semitic element. The fundamentalists who follow Sayyid Qutb, for example, are almost invariably anti-Western and anti-Semitic. Anti-Western means being opposed to pluralism, to liberal thinking, to democracy as a charade and a threat to Islam. The capitalist West (and Communism before it) were always linked by antisemites to the influence of Judaism, of Jews and Zionism. There is not much distinction in contemporary Muslim ideologies between al-yahud (the Jews) and the “Zionist conspiracy”. For the Islamists the two are basically identical. The Fatah used to claim it opposed only “Zionism” but Hamas does not make any distinction between Zionists and Jews. Hizbullah sees no distinction either. Iran pretends that it only denounces Zionism and protects its Jews. Demonizing Israel, however, always leads to anti-Semitism in the end. Today, the semi-secular Fatah calls on Arabs to fight the “Judaization” of Jerusalem. They abhor the “Judaizing” of Al-Quds– their “holy city”. Worse still, Arafat, Abu Mazen and other Fatah leaders always denied any historic connection between the Jews and Jerusalem, which is, of course, an outrageous falsification.


M.S.: So this distinction between Jews and Zionism…


R.S.W.: It is pure rationalization. For the Arab masses it means little and the Arab intellectuals have relentlessly contributed to anti-Jewish incitement by their slanderous vilification of Israel and Zionism.


M.S.: Of course you know Adolf Hitler‘s sentence: “Indem ich mich des Juden erwehre, erfülle ich das Werk des Herrn.” This is not perhaps a good programmatic description for National Socialist ideology, but it sounds like a good description of Radical Islamic ideology. Could one describe Radical Islam as an executor of the National Socialist Testament?


R.S.W.: I did that myself 25 years ago! I wrote a book translated into German as Der antisemitische Wahn, which, when you look at it retrospectively was really prophetic. At the time, some “experts” tried to dismiss it, but they proved to be wrong. In the English original, my book was entitled Hitler’s Apocalypse. That was in the early days, back in 1984! I think that things are far more extreme now than I would have imagined then. Yet I did foresee a lot of things that were going to happen and pointed clearly to the totalitarian anti-Semitism of the Islamic revival.


Today we can more clearly perceive that the groundwork for radical Islam, was already being laid in the 1930s and 40s. Jeffrey Herf has done a very good job in explaining the impact of Nazi propaganda in the Middle East, and how sophisticated it was in terms of its appeal to Islamic tradition. The Nazis adjusted their propaganda; they used the Arabist knowledge of German orientalists as well as the presence of Arab exiles in Berlin, who knew exactly which idioms to employ in their radio broadcasts to the Middle East, because of course they were talking in their own Arabic language. Some Arab propagandists in Berlin like Haj Amin al-Husseini were genocidal anti-Semites who openly approved of murdering the Jews. But, the question we also have to ask, and I did ask it in my new book is why the wider Arab society and its political culture has proved so receptive, so ready and willing to absorb the worst features of European anti-Semitism. There must have been some core elements in their own political culture and way of thinking which led them to be so enthusiastic about Nazi anti-Semitism. Even if Nazi propaganda was unusually cunning it could not have worked unless the Arab consumers found something attractive in their message. No doubt, part of the explanation is political. The Arab world from the 1930s to the 1950s was fighting against British and French imperialism, and they were looking for an ally that would help them to liberate the Arabs from the Western yoke. Obviously one would have to be very naive to ignore this factor. Hitler in that context, could look like a potential Liberator. But there were also elective affinities. The kind of people who founded the Ba’athist Movements in Syria and Iraq in the early 1940s or the Egyptian nationalists, like the young Nasser and Sadat who would carry out the Egyptian revolution in 1952 certainly looked up to Nazi Germany. The German National rebirth, including its anti-Jewish ideology, really appealed to them. The Third Reich represented militarism, glory, obedience, national unity, a messianic political faith and the removal of the Jews.


Of course there was also the struggle going on in Palestine, and to some extent the internal domestic situation in Arab societies, which were still under Western colonial domination. The Jewish minorities were regarded from an Islamic or Nationalist standpoint as being alien. For the Muslim majority they were “agents” of the colonial West. In the last resort the Jews would have to leave. That is what happened after 1945. With the rise of pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism the future of the Jews in Arab lands was doomed. Look, for instance, at Iraq, already in June 1941. There was a devastating farhud (pogrom) in Baghdad, driven forward by a Nazi-like Iraqi Arab anti-Semitism. A decade later the Jews of Iraq were ruthlessly expropriated and expelled from the country. They had been citizens of Iraq and lived there for 2500 years, much longer than the Muslims. They were Arabic speaking, integrated and prosperous. But there was an anti-Semitic war against them, alongside the economic, cultural, and political war. Undoubtedly, there was also a marked pro-Nazi propaganda. But the core influence came from Iraqi nationalism, as well as the insidious presence of the Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestinian exiles in Iraq who incited to mob to attack Jews and seize their property.


M.S.: The final effect was the same…


R.S.W.: The final effect was to turn Iraq into a judenrein (Jew-free) society. That is exactly what happened in 1950-1. Indeed from 1945 to 1970 the entire Arab world was ethnically cleansed of nearly a million Sephardic or “Oriental” Jews. Nobody bothers to deal with that crucial fact. It has been shamelessly flushed down the memory hole. Israel owes its existence, in part, to that exodus yet remains strangely passive in evoking this dark half-buried past which testifies to the visceral reality of Muslim anti-Semitism. The Middle East conflict is not only about Palestinian refugees from Israel but it is equally about Jewish refugees from the Arab lands and, of course, the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe.

This interview was conducted with Prof. Robert Wistrich at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem by Mathias Schuetz on August 11, 2009.