Professor Robert S. Wistrich is the director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism (SICSA) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of the newly published From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel (University of Nebraska Press, 2012).
Professor Wistrich is the world's leading scholar on anti-Semitism. I hope Atlas readers will read his latest book as well as the colossal historical tome, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad.
Interview with Professor Robert Wistrich
Q. In what ways has the Left betrayed the Jews and Israel?
A. Ever since the late 1940s, the Communist regimes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, through their cynical exploitation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, not only betrayed the Jews but their own self-proclaimed ideals of equality, social justice and opposition to racism. This betrayal continued with the new Left in the 1970s, the anti-globalists and much of the academic Left (in the US as well as in Europe) in our own day. They have demonized and systematically denigrated Israel as if it were the Devil incarnate, the anti-Christ of our time, the ultimate expression of racist oppression.
Q. Has your analysis been informed by your early life in the USSR?
A. I was much too young to be directly influenced since my parents were repatriated to Poland only a few years after the end of WWII. But my father had twice been imprisoned by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) and his experiences probably inoculated me against any illusions about the "Soviet paradise." But it was my own direct experience when trapped as a tourist in Prague (at the time of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia) which did leave an indelible negative impression of Communism.
Q. Why do you think that the Left is so anti-Israel? What are the roots?
A. As my new book clearly demonstrates, the ideological sources of left-wing anti-Israelism go back to the late-19th-century emergence of political Zionism. Already then, many socialist ideologues, following Karl Marx, treated the Jews as if they were a phantom nationality, a caste of greedy exploiters whose only real religion was predatory capitalism. These leftists believed that the advent of socialism would abolish not only capitalism but Jewry itself. Neither happened. The establishment of Israel proved their prognosis to be hopelessly wrong. So, what are they left with? Mindless, irrational denigration! The Marxist Left in particular is incapable of escaping from its own self-created ideological straitjacket.
Q. But why does the Left identify with Palestinian jihadists, whose values – at least outwardly – seem so very different?
A. The Left has always tended to identify with those whom they designate as "the poor," the "proletariat" or the hapless victims of the capitalist system. However, the international proletariat did not live up to Marxian expectations as the "chosen class" of world history – while the Communist bloc collapsed in 1989-91. The Palestinians represent a substitute form of redemption for all these failed hopes – the prologue and catalyst for a new revolutionary would-be upheaval. And there is always the additional attraction that the Palestinians are fighting the Jews – or rather "The Zionists." Ergo, they must be supported.
Q. And the jihadi component?
A. In From Ambivalence to Betrayal, I show that already in the 1920s, Moscow tried (unsuccessfully) to "Bolshevize" the Muslim masses in the East, especially in Palestine. They proposed a "Red Jihad" against Western imperialism and Zionism. There was some common ground. Both Marxists and Islamists divide the world in a simplistic Manichean fashion between forces of light and darkness, ruthless imperialists and downtrodden masses, between oppressors and oppressed. Jihad does have revolutionary potential and can meet Marxist requirements with the help of some dialectical juggling. Moreover, once Palestinians are defined as the absolute victims (a convenient fiction), then Zionists must necessarily be branded as absolute perpetrators and accused of committing "genocide" against them. But as I demonstrate, this is a fantasy-view. Despite its great popularity today, it is really just a "softer" remake of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories so beloved by Nazis and fascists.
Q. So why are so many Jews attracted to the Left, despite such attitudes?
A. There are several possible explanations. There is, of course, the Biblical tradition (embodied in Moses and the Prophets) of pursuing justice, righteousness and compassion for the poor – embedded in the Jewish cultural DNA. Then there is Jewish social marginality before the 19th century and the relentless persecution over centuries, which made Jews into archetypal victims and outsiders. However, in America and the West (including Israel) where Jews have "made it" they still often "vote like the poor." Sometimes it even seems that Jews are stuck in a time-warp which makes them always see the enemy on the Right – while remaining blind in the left eye. I do hope that my book will be an eye-opener in that respect.
Q Is this history the reason why so many Jews recently voted for Obama?
A. Well, Jews are suckers for what we might call "compassionism" and especially for humanitarian appeals, in sharp contrast to the grotesque anti-Semitic stereotype (on the Right and the Left) of Jewish "huckstering" and rapacity. Compassion is fine, even admirable in many ways. But making an ideology out of it is highly suspect. Some of the worst crimes in modern history have been committed in the name of human rights, solidarity, and defense of the poor – as the record of Soviet-style Communism unmistakably shows. Obama, in American domestic terms, is pretty much a leftist, and Jews as good Liberal Democrats naturally gravitate to him in the United States. It's proving hard to shift those habits.
Q. Why do you say the creation of Israel was a "slap in the face to the Marxist analysis of the 'Jewish Question'"?
A. Because, according to Marxism, the Jews should long ago have disappeared as a nation! An influential sector of the Left, long before Israel's creation, regarded Zionism as an illegitimate "backward" and reactionary movement. It is true that for a time much of the Left did support Israel (between 1947 and 1967) as long as they could see Jews primarily as poor, persecuted, downtrodden refugees of the Holocaust who were building a "socialist" country of their own. What they could not stomach was a proud, independent, Jewishly self-affirming and militarily efficient Israel able to strike back at (Arab) enemies hell-bent on its destruction. Weeping over dead Jews is fine, but real, living, flesh-and-blood Israelis who vigorously defend their right to exist is apparently, for many on the Left (including some Jews), just too much to take. I would see that attitude as a form of latent, undeclared anti-Semitism. As for Obama, his whole mind-set and natural inclinations seem to me to reflect a kind of Third Worldist ideology. Hence, the retreat from American global supremacy. However, his hostility towards Netanyahu is truly stunning and, I think, ill-advised. Most Israelis are not stupid and they sense the US President's obvious coldness to their cause, even as he embraces some of their worst enemies, like Egypt's President Morsi and the Turkish leader, Erdogan (both of whom are fairly rabid Islamic anti-Semites).
Q. Following on from that, how then do you explain the refusal to address Islamic Jew-hatred, surely the greatest threat the Jewish people currently faces?
A. There are several dangerous strands of self-delusion involved in this refusal. At a more general level there is the notorious inability of Western liberals to internalize the fact that the Iranians and the radical Arab Islamists really mean what they say when they talk about annihilating the Jews, destroying Israel, bringing down America and establishing Islamic supremacy. There is a real failure to grasp the determination of such "true believers" to act on their fanatical principles, despite the overwhelming evidence before our eyes. Precisely the same failure was visible in Western (and Soviet) appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s. Remember that even The New York Times was largely in denial about the Holocaust all through the war years. It simply buried the story in the back pages. Today, the liberal media are still whitewashing the Islamo-fascist threat and instead, like so many other deluded liberal voices, they prefer to bash Israel, even though it remains the only authentic democracy in the region. This is bad enough. But there is also a lot of ridiculous posturing in such fashionable positions. For instance, the need to appear as "politically correct" and, above all, not to be vilified as "racist" or as an "Islamophobe." There are those out there, for whom any critical comments about Islam are a kind of thought-crime. Moreover, since the Western media prefer to remain largely silent about the endemic and vicious Jew-hatred in the Islamic world (while grossly inflating or manufacturing Israel's fictitious "crimes"), ordinary people – including way too many Jews – have little idea about its genocidal nature. Worse still, even when they know, there is a clear inclination to suppress unpleasant truths rather than face up to them. To stand up to this reality has become an act of real courage in our inverted world.
Q. How then do you see Israel's prospects, surrounded as it is by Islamic supremacists and the threat of annihilation?
A. We live in dangerous times, not only for Israel but for the whole world, including America. In my previous book, A Lethal Obsession (2010), I predicted that the rising tide of Islamist fundamentalism would sweep the Arab Middle East. It is a most telling symptom of its deep sickness rather than a solution. There is, unfortunately, no quick fix or instant therapy for the Arab world. Look at Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. Democracy is not around the corner nor can it offer much to the hungry Arab masses as long as there is no stable middle-class, no functioning civil society, no way to clean out massive corruption and defuse the toxic incitement and hatred of Israel and the West that is so prevalent. The Jewish State is an oasis of freedom, economic growth, cultural creativity, scientific innovation, military skills and robust democratic values in this desert. It will ride out the storm despite the malevolence and nihilistic self-destructiveness of its enemies, including the Palestinian Hamas. It is, however, vital for the West – and above all America – to stand by its commitments to Israel's security out of its own interests in regional stability, its good name, and its self-proclaimed mission as a beacon of freedom to the world. Israel has upheld similar values in the face of great adversity. For if America and Europe were to abandon the Jews once more, the damage to Western civilization would, in my view, be irreversible.