CST Blog

Comparing Antisemitism

11 August 2010

There are many varying opinions concerning the current state of antisemitism; and how we might compare it with previous times.

Last week, CST blog reproduced an interview with Anthony Julius from the Israeli newspaper, Ha’Aretz, in which Julius answered some such questions regarding the UK situation, (in the context of the small media circus around comments made by Israeli President Shimon Peres).

Professor Robert Wistrich is another noted author and expert on antisemitism. Reproduced below, is Wistrich’s recent interview with the Jerusalem Post, in which he unfavourably compares the situation concerning antisemitism today, with that in 1910. Indeed, he goes so far as to say

The year 1910 in comparison with what we’ve been living through in the past decade is a paradise.

When I first read this, my instinct was to dismiss it as an exaggerated claim. Upon reflection, and after reading the entire interview, I am now not so sure. At the very least, it is a thoroughly thought provoking claim that raises many questions, such as:

  • How are we to measure global antisemitism?
  • How are we to compare old and new? (For example: the current Iranian regime with those of Tsarist Russia.)  
  • Given our hindsight about the Holocaust, how are we to compare anything with European antisemitism prior to Nazi Germany?
  • How are we to understand post-Holocaust attitudes to Jews; and how permanent are these?
  • In the West, of what importance is modern anti-discrimination legislation; and general societal distaste for racism, including antisemitism?
  • What of Israel? (As a Jewish state; as a protector from antisemitism; and, as a lightning rod for antismitism.)

No doubt, you can add many questions of your own. The whole Wistrich interview is as follows

'Anti-Semitism is worse in 2010 than 1910'

08/10/2010 12:01

An interview with Prof. Wistrich at Hebrew U.

Times are dire, anti-Semitism is on the rise and the world is becoming a more perilous place for the Jews to live in by the day, if you ask Prof. Robert S. Wistrich, the head of the Hebrew University's Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism and the author of a recently published book on the subject called A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism - From Antiquity to the Global Jihad.

The evidence to support his claim is all around us, he said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post on Monday.

UK anti-Semitism at record high
Anti-Semitic incidents in US down by 10 percent in 2009

"Anti-Semitism is continually morphing all the time, which is its strength," he explained. "There's no sign of diminution and it will probably get worse. We see it in every indicator possible showing a clear and steady rise in the number of attacks recorded on Jews."

Why are things as bad as he believes they are? Wistrich says the last decade has seen a several strands of hatred towards Jews intertwine forming an unholy alliance between the extreme left and right together with fundamental Islam.

"What I think that really struck me about the last decade that I don't think was new but has become more intense is that we've seen the coming together of classical anti-Semitism with a number of other strands like anti-Americanism, Islamic fundamentalism and international delegitimization of Israel. Their convergence has become much starker."

But not everyone agrees with Wistrich's opinion. As one reviewer of his tome pointed out, as prevalent and intolerable as anti-Semitism may be nowadays it couldn't possibly be any worse than it was, say, back in 1910, could it?

However, according to Wistrich, it is.

"The year 1910 in comparison with what we've been living through in the past decade is a paradise," he said unhesitatingly. "There was a nasty and ugly potential for anti-Semitism in 1910 but relatively speaking Jews lived in a stable environment and as one Jewish writer Stefan Zweig wrote it was an age of golden security."

The one big exception to that rule is Czarist Russia, that great bastion of anti-Semitism where Jews were confined to live under institutional discrimination within the confines of the Pale of Settlement and were victims of periodic pogroms. Anti-Semitism in Russia in 1910 was worse than it is today, he admits – but not the West.

"Today, even in the most advanced and democratic societies, Jews are uncomfortable," he claims. "The real difference between 1910 and today is not that anti-Semitism is less common but that Israel provides a powerful shield and deterrent. Not a perfect deterrent and also a cause of anti-Semitism in itself."

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Wistrich no one can doubt the depth of his knowledge or his commitment to research.

Wistrich's book includes 150 pages of footnotes. In conducting his research he read sources in 12 different languages: English and Hebrew, as you'd expect from an academic who was raised in Britain and teaches in Israel; his mother's native Polish and its cousins Russian and Ukrainian; tongues of Germanic origin including German, Dutch and Yiddish; the Latin lingos of Western Europe, French, Italian and Spanish, and, finally, even Arabic.

In one important language of particular importance to the study of anti-Semitism in our time, however, he said he had to rely on translations: Farsi. Iran and the fundamental Islam it espouses are a key component in the surge of hatred towards Jews around the world.

"There's a common resentment of Israel and American often linked with anti-Semitic thinking. Clearly, this has been round 70-80 years but it picked up steam with the Islamic Revolution. What we see is an assault on the West in which Israel and the Jews have become a surrogate for an attack."

Wistrich's prose has won praise by reviewers but his thick brick of a book isn't light reading. In case you've ever wondered what kind of a person walks into a bookstore and picks up a 1,000 page history of anti-Semitism Wistrich's answer might surprise you –it's not just Jews, he says.

"By far the most insightful comments have been from non-Jews," he says. "In the US I appear on nationwide radio shows."

As one might expect those readers are mostly Mormons, Catholics and evangelicals, who tend to be supportive of Israel and Jews in general. But he said he has many secular non-Jewish readers in the US In any case, he commended his non-Jewish readership's "genuine horror of reading and grasping the scale of the phenomenon."

Nearing the end of the interview one might be tempted to label Wistrich a pessimist. But he denies that he is one.

Instead, he says he is a "guarded optimist." Ironically, the elites are the great hope in the struggle against anti-Semitism. Once, they despised and feared uppity Jews. Now, they realize the error of their ways. 

"This is a sign of belated awakening of some of the political elites to anti-Semitism," he said. "There are some minority voices in the Arab world, they are inconsequential now but will not be forever. Doesn't mean we're going to turn things round. That would require a long and concerted effort. But it has to begin somewhere."

To Wistrich's mind the Jews in 2010 –as in 1910- have no one but themselves to rely on, and he ends the interview paraphrasing Rabbi Hillel's famous saying.

"If Jews don't mobilize," he asks, "then why should we expect others?" 

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