A review of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, by Robert S. Wistrich

In all its myriad manifestations," says the British historian Paul Johnson, "the language of anti-Semitism through the ages is a dictionary of non-sequiturs and antonyms." Jews, as the embodiment of whatever the anti-Semite fears, are by turns money-grubbing misers, or crass, showy spenders; fancy Rothschilds or vulgar peddlers. They are unassimilable aliens, secretive and hermetic, or else they are chameleons who assimilate themselves all too well into their host cultures.

Anti-Semitism has also proven itself a surpassingly expedient political fantasy, equally instrumental to Left and Right. Depending on the ax being ground, Jews have been seen as revolutionaries, enemies of the status quo, or as imperialist preservers of the status quo. They were greedy bankers, rapacious loan-mongers, exploiters of workers, and profit-loving capitalists; or they were subversive socialists. In Russia "the Jews" were blamed for capitalism in the 19th century and for Communism in the early 20th. In the 21st, to come full circle, Jewish capitalist oligarchs are often blamed for the Soviet collapse.

But in the capable hands of Robert S. Wistrich, a professor of modern European history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the history of such nonsense becomes scholarship. An expert pathologist, Wistrich traces in his latest book the most virulent strains of the anti-Semitic disease, and diagnoses its symptomatic expressions in Christianity, Nazism, and Islamism.

In Wistrich's exhaustive catalogue, the earliest form of the murderous pathogen was theological: the Jew, who rejects Jesus as messiah, was depicted as a willfully blind or "stiff-necked" adherent to a superseded faith, ultimately complicit in the crucifixion of the son of God. To the Christian anti-Semite, Jews, having rejected God, were themselves God-rejected, a shunned remnant deservedly cursed to endless wandering and servitude. In the words of the 4th-century Church Father Gregory of Nyssa:

Murderers of the Lord, assassins of the prophets, rebels and detesters of God, they outrage the Law, resist grace, repudiate the faith of their fathers. Companions of the devil, race of vipers, informers, calumniators, darkeners of the mind, pharisaic leaven, Sanhedrin of demons….


Over the centuries, the charge of deicide gathered around itself other accusations: desecration of the host, ritual murder of Christian babies on Easter, well-poisoning, and blood libels (in which Jews were imagined to be re-crucifying Christ). "The preaching of hate and the teaching of anti-Jewish stereotypes were, for many centuries, an integral feature of Christianity," Wistrich argues.

Not all Christians succumbed to this hatred, of course, but it cannot be denied that polities throughout medieval Europe denied Jews citizenship and civil rights. Jews were barred from holding government posts, excluded from membership in guilds and the professions, and made to wear a yellow badge (a measure introduced by Pope Innocent III in 1215). They endured forced conversions, burnings of the Talmud, massacres, and expulsions: from England (1290), Germany (1350s), Spain (1492), Portugal (1496), Provence (1512), the Papal States(1569), and Vienna (1670).

Emancipation, when it came, was predicated on the erasure of Jewish difference. Only with total assimilation would the "Jewish question" be solved. This demand proved impossible to meet. Enlightenment, socialism, even liberal democracy—none of these could prevent modern Europe from inheriting the medieval fabrications. But as anti-Semitism became secularized and politicized, it also reached new levels of abstraction. "The Jew in general, the Jew everywhere and nowhere," in the phrase of C.W.F. Grattenauer's 1803 book Wider die Juden [Against the Jews].

The epidemic of European anti-Semitism culminated in Auschwitz and the systematic, industrialized, state-sponsored slaughter of six millionJews. Even as they loathed the "Semitic" origins of Christianity and promulgated an anti-Christian nationalism, Wistrich contends, the Nazis harnessed the powerful legacy of Christian anti-Judaism. He takes at face value the testimony of Julius Streicher, publisher of Der Stürmer, who declared at the Nuremberg trials that Nazi propaganda invented nothing beyond what Martin Luther had already said 400 years earlier in the splenetic tract Concerning the Jews and Their Lies (1543).

To this rich heritage the National Socialists joined a new, pseudoscientific racial theory that depicted the Jews—then comprising less than 1% of German population—as Untermenschen (subhumans) threatening the health of the GermanicVolk. ("Politics is applied biology," said the eminent German Darwinian Ernst Haeckel.) With Jewishness defined in terms of race, earlier means of escape (through baptism, for example) closed.

Hitler's genocidal anti-Semitism, Wistrich writes, "though it grew up on Christian soil, was ultimately determined to replace and supplant Christianity." He concludes that Christian Judeophobia "was a necessary but insufficient cause for the Holocaust, whose finality and exterminatory drive radically transcended the theological hatred of its predecessors." In fact, obsessive anti-Semitism was the substance in which the National Socialist worldview crystallized and hardened. Wistrich shows that the Final Solution—the extermination of what the Nazis called the Weltfeind, or world enemy—was no peripheral part of Hitler's war, but an act essential for the very salvation of Germany.

Hitler regarded even the war against the United States as a war against the Jews. The dictator, Wistrich reports, imagined President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a Judenknecht (a servant of the Jews) and America itself as the product of a degradedJudengeist (Jewish spirit). In late 1941, Hitler charged that Roosevelt had been influenced "by the circle of Jews surrounding him, who, with Old Testament-like fanaticism, believe that the United States can be the instrument for preparing another Purim for the European nations that are becoming increasingly anti-Semitic." In his last testament, dictated on April 29, 1945, the Führer blamed the war on "international Jewry and its acolytes."

A lethal obsession's most original contribution is its meticulous examination of post-Holocaust anti-Semitism. Memory of the Holocaust has inhibited or discredited anti-Semitism in Europe. Figures such as France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, and groups like his National Front, have lost most of the modicum of influence they ever gained.

Islamist anti-Semitism, however, the subject of the final six chapters of this book, has not receded. "Islamofascism today," the author contends, "builds on the same mythological figure of the satanic, ubiquitous, immoral and all-powerful Jew that once haunted the European anti-Semitic imagination from Richard Wagner to Adolf Hitler."

Even so, the ubiquity of Islamist anti-Semitism astonishes. Wistrich discusses "Our Struggle with the Jews," the influential essay by the Muslim Brotherhood's leading theoretician, Sayyid Qutb, as well as the book by longtime Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass detailing how Jews drink the blood of Gentile children. The epidemic extends from Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, where anti-Jewish vitriol in the leading paper Al-Riyadh is commonplace, to Shiites in Iran, where Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad regularly call for Israel's annihilation. It has infected societies in which Jews are almost entirely absent. In Pakistan, for instance, the journalist Daniel Pearl was forced to declare "my father's Jewish, my mother's Jewish, I'm Jewish," moments before he was beheaded. Egypt, meanwhile, remains a leading distributor of Arabic editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

In style and in substance, much of this venom, until recently absent in the Islamic world, is imported—one of the few Western imports Islamic fundamentalists seem eager to accept. Holocaust denial, for example, once an exclusively European product, has come to pervade the Islamic world, from the 2006 Tehran conference asserting the Holocaust's falsity to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's doctoral thesis, The Other Side: The Secret Relationship Between Nazism and the Zionist Movement. This year, a proposed United Nations plan to teach the Holocaust in Gaza schools drew furious condemnation from Hamas teachers and officials, including the education minister.

The sheer volume of the evidence Wistrich amasses—from books, newspaper articles, television programs, sermons, and indoctrination in madrassas—suggests that classical anti-Semitism has now been more than successfully grafted onto Arab life, amounting to what the author calls "a contemporary culture of hatred…that has not been seen since the heyday of Nazi Germany." For Wistrich, that culture is "the deepest substratum underlying the ongoing Middle East crisis," explaining why a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict has for so long eluded the grasp of negotiators.

As the abhorrence that now attaches to Jews qua Israelis shows, the Islamist importers of Jew hatred have meanwhile become leading exporters, sending old calumnies back to the West with new twists. Those who once charged Jews with killing Christ now accuse Israelis of killing Palestinian children in Bethlehem. "Jesus Christ," Yasser Arafat declared at a 1983 press conference, "was the first Palestinian militant fedayin who carried his sword along the path on which the Palestinians today carry their Cross." As Christians once considered themselves the new Israel, so some Palestinians deem themselves the new Jews.

* * *

In some precincts of the progressive anti-Zionist Left, the old suspicion of Jewish otherness and difference has effortlessly attached itself to the Jewish state. To use the phrase of historian Jacob Talmon, Israel has become "the Jew of the nations." Those who once believed that the world would be better off without Jews now insist that the Middle East would be better off without a Jewish state. Wistrich identifies today's fashionable anti-Zionism, with its ritual denunciations of Israel and challenges to its legitimacy, as thinly veiled Jew-hatred. It is anti-Semitism with a good conscience, he argues, a politically correct pretext to vilify the Jews.

Wistrich has little to say on the nature and causes of the "lethal obsession" and its remarkable constancy over time. But he does point to resentment of the "chosen people," a special antipathy which has persisted from the days of Hebrew monotheists' refusal to bow to gods worshiped by other peoples. From that day to this, Jews were said to suffer from a superiority complex, from a chauvinist and clannish pride.

Here again, a continuity. At least one quality that offended Hitler's sense of Aryan chosenness—for in his eyes there could be only one Herrenvolk, or master race—today irritates the anti-Zionists. For proof, we need look no farther than sentiments expressed at the United Nations. In 1971, Yakov Malik, Soviet ambassador to the U.N., told the Security Council: "The chosen people: is that not racism? What is the difference between Zionism and fascism if the essence of its ideology is racism, hatred toward other peoples?" From here it was but a short step to the resolution adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1975, on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, declaring that "Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination."

The infamous resolution was finally repealed in 1991, but the feverishness of its resentment has yet to subside. Expounding on the theme, Portugal's José Saramago, the late winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in literature, had this to say in 2002:

Contaminated by the monstrous and rooted "certitude" that in this catastrophic and absurd world there exists a people chosen by God and that, consequently, all the actions of an obsessive, psychological and pathologically exclusivist racism are justified; educated and trained in the idea that any suffering that has been inflicted, or is being inflicted, or will be inflicted on everyone else, especially the Palestinians, will always be inferior to that which they themselves suffered in the Holocaust, the Jews endlessly scratch their own wound to keep it bleeding, to make it incurable, and they show it to the world as if it were a banner.


As Robert Wistrich makes clear, the millennial hatred of roughly 0.2% of the world's population shows few signs of abating. But his bleak taxonomy of those who have succumbed to the anti-Semitic temptation has at least the virtue of allowing us to recognize its current and future outbreaks with greater clarity.