Book Review // Anti-Judaism, Antisemitism and Delegitimizing Israel

By | Nov 28, 2016
anti-judaism anti-semitism and delegitimatizing Israel


Anti-Judaism, Antisemitism and Delegitimizing Israel
Edited by Robert S. Wistrich
University of Nebraska Press
2016, pp. 330, $60

A Tangle of “Isms”

by Allan Arkush

At the end of the 19th century, European liberals and Zionists developed diametrically opposite strategies for dealing with the menace posed by anti-Semitism. Committed to the full integration of the Jews into the diverse societies in which they lived, the liberals tried to combat Jew-hatred through education and political action. Zionists, while by no means opposing liberalism as such, regarded such efforts as futile and sought to bring anti-Semitism to an end by transporting the Jews to a state of their own. Now that the Jews have such a state, however, the hatred of Judaism and Jews has by no means gone away, as the essays in Anti-Judaism, Antisemitism, and Delegitimizing Israel repeatedly and painfully remind us. They have simply resurfaced, in country after country, in the form of anti-Zionism.

   Describing and explaining how this happened and figuring out what to do about it are among the main concerns of the 24 contributors to this volume edited by Robert Wistrich, the recently deceased Hebrew University historian. The author of numerous and highly influential books on subjects ranging from Leon Trotsky to the Jews of Vienna in the 19th and early 20th centuries to Friedrich Nietzsche to the Third Reich, Wistrich devoted a large part of his extraordinary career to the study of anti-Semitism. One of the capstones of his work in this area was his massive 2010 volume, A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad. The essays in the collection under review here do not cover a comparably vast territory but are confined, with a few exceptions, to developments over the past century. Like Wistrich, however, their authors all concentrate on the ways in which the Jews’ multifarious enemies have adopted or revised and then re-circulated one another’s myths and fabrications. Many of them follow Wistrich, too, in emphasizing the degree to which contemporary anti-Zionism is permeated with anti-Semitism, whether it is acknowledged or not.

  Melanie Phillips, the British author of the 2006 bestseller Londonistan: How Britain Is Creating a Terrorist State Within, is one of the volume’s contributors who dig deeply into the past. She describes how the traditional supersessionist belief in God’s rejection of the Jews in favor of the Christians that “fuelled centuries of Christian persecution of the Jews, has now been fused with Palestinianism to persuade Christians that Palestinian Arabs rather than the Jews are the legitimate inheritors of the land of Israel.” As this process continues to make headway in European and American churches, other Westerners, who have abandoned Christianity along with the rest of their cultural tradition, “have turned on the people at the very core of the values they have tried to displace—the Jews.”

Like Phillips, Michel Gurfinkiel, a leading French Jewish intellectual, also digs deeply into the past and speaks of fusion, but of a more complicated variety. He focuses not on standard Christian theology but on the ancient Christian heresy of Marcionism, which held that the Jews “were the Devil’s people, an intrinsically perverse and evil nation, whose purpose was to kill Jesus again and again, in order to delay, obfuscate, or actually prevent salvation.” While all the major churches rejected Marcionism, a “crypto-Marcionism” crept into Christian culture in the Middle Ages “and spread eventually to post-Christian Western culture as well, as secular socio-political anti-Semitism emerged, according to which Jews were the main obstacle to the Good Society and had either to be removed or annihilated.” The current revival of anti-Semitism in France and Europe, according to Gurfinkiel, represents a fusion of this Marcionism with “what one could call ‘Islamic Marcionism,’” a strain of Islam that has similarly characterized Jews as “devilish creatures that had to be destroyed.”

Most of the contributors to this volume are much less concerned with uncovering the roots of contemporary anti-Semitism than with showing how in  recent years it has become intertwined with—or masqueraded as—anti-Zionism. Lesley Klaff, for instance, who teaches law in both the United Kingdom and Israel, provides a dispiriting account of the British Liberal Democratic Party’s inability to deal in recent years with one of its parliamentary representatives who engaged in anti-Semitic fulminations against Israel. The party’s leaders simply couldn’t (and for political reasons clearly did not want to) recognize that the MP’s comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany was tantamount to anti-Semitism.

Efrat Aviv, a lecturer in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, describes how tensions between Israel and Turkey in 2014 led to an intensification of official rhetoric denouncing Israel as a Nazi-like entity and very real threats against Turkish Jews. In the volume’s final chapter, Wistrich himself stresses the crucial role of Islamic ideologues incensed by the rise and success of Zionism in fanning the flames of anti-Semitism,“since the heyday of the Grand Mufti” in the 1930s but especially after “the dramatic rise of the global jihad” following 9/11.

Delineating the precise borderline between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is not high on the list of these authors’ concerns, but they are all careful not to call anyone an anti-Semite just because he or she is an anti-Zionist. Nor do they label anti-Zionist Jews as self-hating Jews. Wistrich, Alvin Rosenfeld, Efraim Sicher and Nelly Las do a good job of summarizing and skewering Judith Butler, Jacqueline Rose and other Jewish intellectuals who have attacked Zionism as a betrayal of Jewish ideals, but they do not spend a great deal of time trying to account for their having chosen to do so. The partial exception is Rosenfeld, who convincingly characterizes Jewish anti-Zionist intellectuals as moral narcissists and self-righteous posturers but chooses not to delve too far into their motivations.

Many of the contributors to this volume are Israelis, and most, if not all of them, are Zionists, but their analyses diverge considerably from those of the classic Zionist thinkers, who usually explained anti-Semitism not as the product of religious or quasi-religious teachings, but rather in the light of the Jews’ situation as a scattered people with a particular socioeconomic profile. There is, apparently, a tacit and perhaps overoptimistic consensus, even among Zionists, that there is no longer anything anomalous or provocative about the Jews’ minority status or their mode of existence in the diaspora that would provoke large-scale hostility to them—were it not for the existence of Israel. Beyond this, the Zionists among our volume’s contributors are also barred by their own analyses of the current situation from reiterating the old Zionist answer to the problem of anti-Semitism. Wholesale abandonment of the diaspora can’t eliminate an anti-Semitism that is focused on Israel in the first place. So what can one do?

  Fiamma Nirenstein, a former member of the Italian Parliament and a newly minted Israeli, insists that taking young Europeans to see Auschwitz is not enough: “Rather, we must invite high school and college students to visit Israel and to learn about its reality and history which currently they tend to completely misunderstand.” Joel Fishman, editor of the Israel-based Jewish Political Studies Review, concludes his essay on “Anti-Zionism as a Form of Political Warfare” with a recommendation for a concerted effort at a counterattack. We have to fight, he says, “against the campaign of delegitimization by discrediting the other side whenever it engages in myths and lies,” and we have to “produce good, honest history, not only for others but also for ourselves.” And we “ought to undermine the sources of political and financial support of our enemies….”

This brings us, in a sense, back to square one, at the end of 19th century. Only this time, it isn’t the non-Zionist or anti-Zionist liberals who are seeking to combat anti-Semitism through educating the Gentiles and taking political action on the domestic fronts of non-Jewish polities, but the Zionists themselves. Let’s hope that they have better luck than their predecessors had.

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University. He is the senior contributing editor of The Jewish Review of Books.

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