Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010


by Robert S. Wistrich
Random House, 2010

Review by Milton Viorst

As an admirer of Robert S. Wistrich, I picked up this huge book of nearly 1200 pages with anticipation. I had read the author's earlier work, The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph, and found it careful, intelligent, and fair, as well as more manageable in size. It had won the Austrian State Prize for History, which in my judgment it merited. Wistrich taught me much about the social mix that existed during the era when the seeds of Zionism were sprouting.

My own research on Zionism made me particularly interested in Wistrich's account of the relationship between Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, and Dr. Moritz Gudemann, the chief rabbi of Vienna and an early supporter who later turned on Herzl. Like most Viennese Jews, Gudemann was an assimilationist who genuinely believed, despite the riptide of anti-Semitism, that Jews had a most hopeful future in Europe. He denounced Herzl for giving up the struggle against anti-Semitism at home to urge Jews "to grow vegetables in Palestine."

But Gudemann also argued that a nationalist Jewish state—"based on cannon and bayonets"—was likely to be as warlike and intolerant as the increasingly belligerent states of Christian Europe. It was a prescient observation, unique to Gudemann I believe, and a warning that Jewish nationalism contained serious dangers. Wistrich is the only writer I know who considered it important enough to publish.

So I looked forward to Wistrich's providing a fresh and original—or at least thoughtful—treatment of anti-Semitism in A Lethal Obsession. I forgave him for misleading me by promising to examine "antiquity," when in fact only a few pages predate modern times. I also overlooked his blooper on "the emancipation of Jews in Israel/Palestine from Muslim rule by 1948" when he knows, of course, that the last Muslims to rule Palestine were the Turks, whose empire fell in 1918; it was Britain that yielded power to the Jews in 1948. More discouraging was that little of the information in the book was fresh; much of it read as if Wistrich did research in front of the computer, consulting Google. But what troubled me most was his pervasive lack of detachment from the problem throughout his swollen narrative.

It seemed to me as if something had happened to Wistrich, the scholar, since the publication of The Jews of Vienna two decades ago. His bio says that, after some years of teaching at English universities, he is now a professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, a very distinguished institution. What alarmed me, however, was Wistrich's journey from scholarship to propaganda. A Lethal Obsession reads as if it had been sponsored by AIPAC or Likud or, at times, even the Jewish Defense League.

I don't quarrel with Wistrich's theme. It emerges from his observation that Zionism did not succeed, as Herzl had predicted, in abolishing anti-Semitism—or, to use the nineteenth-century euphemism, solving the "Jewish Question." Whatever Zionism's achievements, it also offered anti-Semites a new target: "Israel itself," Wistrich writes, "would gradually emerge as the new ‘Jewish Question.'"

But Wistrich grotesquely overstates the case, denying that the hostility Israel has faced since its creation has anything to do with conflicting nationalisms. The wars, he says, are not confrontations between states that can negotiate rationally. What fuels the conflict is anti-Semitism and its derivative, the Arabs' refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist. Indeed, we know that anti-Semitism is still present in the world and Israel's enemies have been intransigent, unwise, and certainly ungenerous. But what Wistrich would have us believe is that, in the bloody history of Palestine, Israel is as pure as Anne Frank facing the storm troopers and that any prospect of its settling the conflict by retreating from Israel's hard-line positions is a total, even an evil, delusion.

Wistrich asserts with a sneer that many critics of Israel

attribute the dramatic rise in global anti-Semitism, especially since 2000, to Israeli occupation of the territories acquired in the 1967 war. They point to oppressive treatment of the Palestinians and alleged crimes against humanity, atrocities or systematic infringement of human rights to explain the widespread hatred of Israel. This explanation is doubtless attractive to those blinded to Arab wrongs or who are unaware of the long history of anti-Semitism.

As one of those critics of Israel, I am neither blinded to Arab wrongs nor unaware of anti-Semitism's long history. But Wistrich and his fellow right-wingers choose simply to dismiss Israeli policy as a factor. At its founding sixty-two years ago, Israel enjoyed a reservoir of human sympathy that covered much of the earth. That reservoir is now nearly empty. Readily conceding anti-Semitism and Arab failures, I am deeply pained by the denial of reality that permits the Jewish State—and many of its citizens, as well as diaspora Jews—to find justification not only in outrageous behavior but also in the pursuit of policies that, as I see them, place Israel's existence in permanent jeopardy.

It saddens me further that Wistrich is so intolerant of Jews who propose to reach out to reconcile with the traditional foe that he accuses us—dredging up a cliché that should embarrass him—of being "self-hating Jews." How does Wistrich presume to know that we're self-hating? Because we don't think as he does? Is he claiming to be our therapist? I recognize his right to take a position different from ours but not to vilify our motives, much less our psyches. I acknowledge his concern for the Jews, but I also insist he acknowledge ours.

After all, if there was ever a self-hating Jew, it was Theodor Herzl. As an adolescent, he yearned to be a Prussian aristocrat. In his twenties, he urged Jews to read the works of anti-Semitic thinkers to learn more about themselves. His diary is sprinkled with denigrating comments about Jews' noses. He even wrote a play called The New Ghetto, in which he hurled contempt at Jews for money-grubbing—mainly the Jews of his own social class. It took Herzl a while to recognize that the anti-Semitism around him was a danger to all Jews, and when he did he called for the creation of a state as a refuge for the beleaguered.

Wistrich has not paid attention to Herzl's plea for a refuge, much less to Gudemann's warning about Jewish nationalism. Instead, he has taken his stand with extremists who have redefined Zionism to rationalize Israel's rule over its neighbors—a rationalization that Herzl could not possibly have imagined.

Wistrich is correct, as his title suggests, that over much of history—or, at least, European history—anti-Semitism has been both lethal and an obsession. But there are many books on anti-Semitism, and surely in a work purporting to be as ambitious as this one, he has a scholarly duty to examine it with a scalpel rather than a bludgeon.

He might recall that in our own time, Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has made a serious effort to come to grips with its shameful involvement with anti-Semitism. Even if its success has been imperfect, the effort has had positive results. As for the Arabs, they have never been as anti-Semitic as the Christians of Europe. I would think even Wistrich can discern a difference between the Holocaust and the social bias to which Jews were subject—in dress and taxation, for example—while living in Arab lands.

As for the quarrels of the last hundred years, we Jews have our perspective and the Arabs have theirs, but we cannot simply dismiss theirs as unwarranted. Seeing all of Israel's problems within a framework of mindless anti-Semitism, as Wistrich does, is to embrace a phantom, feeding self-pity and self-delusion. I fear that, without greater discernment, the "lethal obsession" of which he writes may well turn out to be not just our enemies' but our own.

Milton Viorst has written about the Middle East for most of the past half-century. He is currently writing a book on the evolution of the idea of Zionism.

Viorst, Milton. 2010. Why the Propaganda. Tikkun 25(4): 66

tags: Anti-Semitism, Books, Israel/Palestine, Reviews, Zionism  
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