Text size

The photograph on the jacket cover of Robert Wistrich's new book on anti-Semitism shows two fog-shrouded train tracks that careful observers will recognize as leading to Auschwitz. But for Wistrich, one of the world's leading historians of anti-Semitism, this image is not only a look at the past.

While depicting Auschwitz as the culmination of where extreme Jew-hatred can lead, the photo is also meant to hint at the ubiquitous threat of anti-Semitism - what Wistrich calls a "future of uncertainty." Indeed, the British-Israeli scholar seems to suggest that while the worst is, perhaps, behind us, there may yet be another genocide just around the corner.

"We are in an era once again where the Jews are facing genocidal threats as a people," the author of the recently published "A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad" said during an interview in his Jerusalem office. "We have not been in that situation for quite a while. And maybe this is the first time since the Shoah that [Jews] feel that this is palpable."

Wistrich, who heads Hebrew University's International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, a nonpolitical research center, is referring to the threats against Israel emanating from the Muslim world, especially Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "Sixty-four years after Auschwitz, the politics of genocidal anti-Semitism and the indifference that made it possible are still with us," he writes at the end of the book.

Yes, Jews said the same thing after Israel's wars in 1967 and 1973, Wistrich acknowledged. Yet he maintains the current threat is much more serious: There are people who seek the Jews' extinction and aren't shy about their intentions.

"It's not a matter of speculation, are we interpreting it right or wrong - they say it in such a brazen, open way," he said. "It cannot be a mistake."

Wistrich, who is 65 and moved from Britain to Israel in 1980, pays special attention to the first decade of the 21st century. "I think that the graph of anti-Semitism significantly exploded in this period," in terms of the volume and the aggressiveness of anti-Jewish hostility, he said. He said his analysis was based on "a substantial amount of data" he accumulated.

Weeks before a Jewish Agency study made headlines earlier this year for calling 2009 the worst year for anti-Semitism since the end of World War II, Wistrich reached the same conclusion. (However, Wistrich says it was the worst, in terms of both violent and non-violent incidents, only since 1982, which he said was the first year accurate statistics about anti-Semitic incidents became available.)

No joke

In addition to studying statistics, a historian also "has to have a feeling beyond what is quantitatively analyzable," he said. Expressing such "feelings" sometimes make Wistrich sound more like a politician or an activist than a scholar. Indeed, while virtually all reviews of "A Lethal Obsession" praised its attention to detail and richness of sources, some have called it sensationalist. One reviewer wrote that the book reminded him of the famous one-liner: "What's a Jewish telegram? 'Start worrying: Letter follows.'" But this is no joke for Wistrich, who insists there is indeed good cause for concern.

"We're way beyond the monitoring phase," he said. "We have to act, we have to mobilize opinion, we have to enlighten people about the gravity of the threat. The way I see my own contribution here as a scholar is that I have mapped it all out in a way that has never been done before and made the danger crystal-clear. Nothing is determined, there is no fatality about this unless we close our eyes and shut our eyes. And then indeed, the worst scenario could materialize."

"A Lethal Obsession" devotes a substantial chunk of its 1,184 pages to global jihad and contemporary expressions of anti-Semitism. Naturally, however, the Holocaust is another central theme of the monumental work, although only two chapters are exclusively devoted to Nazi Germany.

"Probably in as many as in 20 out of 25 chapters, the shadow of Nazism and its different manifestations and legacies - both in an earlier period and the postwar era - and the central themes and metaphors that belong to Nazi anti-Semitism are continuously evoked," Wistrich explained. "For instance, in the chapters on Muslims and anti-Semitism there are constant parallels, analogies, and also sometimes differences, which are analyzed. The reader is constantly aware [of the Holocaust], in the sense that the cover evokes: There is a menacing cloud, this obscure but rather threatening fog - and of course, we do know it ultimately leads to Auschwitz. But it also may lead into an indefinite and infinite future of uncertainty. That sense of ominous threat is there all the time and it's inextricably linked with what I call genocidal anti-Semitism, of which the overwhelmingly dominant prototype is Nazism."

British xenophobia

For Wistrich, anti-Semitism isn't just a matter of dry theory. Having grown up in England as the son of Polish immigrants, he says he felt "the brunt of British xenophobia." He estimates that roughly 90 percent of the teachers in the grammar school he attended in the late 1950s and early 1960s were classic anti-Semites. "There were two teachers, who, though they fought against Nazi Germany in World War II, were in fact Nazi-like anti-Semites who truly hated the Jewish people," he recalled.

In the mid-'60s, the climate changed in Britain and it became less accepted to display one's anti-Semitism in public, Wistrich said. But an anti-Israel movement arose after the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, "on a larger scale than people realize today." In 1980, Wistrich left the U.K. and moved to Israel. "I wanted to make my choice a free choice, and not feel like I'm leaving the country because it's too hot," he said. "That wasn't the case in 1980. But I could see enough of what was emerging under the surface."

Wistrich believes his prediction was right. "In Britain, all the taboos that exist in polite society are long gone when it comes to Israel and the Jews," he said, adding that anti-Semitic comments are a daily occurrence, "whether it's at dinner tables, in academia or in the churches." While politicians are less apt than those less in the public eye to publicly display the same kind of animosity, anti-Semitism is widespread even among political leaders, he said. "When I look at anti-Semitism in Britain, I feel it's always been underestimated by people outside the country," said Wistrich. "Having lived with it, I would say it is structurally almost built in to British life and culture."

While the U.K. isn't necessarily the worst country in Europe, Wistrich called it "one where it's become, over a number of years now, an inhospitable climate for any self-respecting Jewish person who feels even the most minimal identification with Israel. And even if they don't, it's becoming an inhospitable and unpleasant environment where you have to constantly justify your identity. Britain is going through one of the most anti-Jewishly tinged periods of its history."

If the statistics are accurate and anti-Semitism is stronger than ever, what can we expect for the future?

"It is almost certainly unrealistic to imagine that we could eradicate anti-Semitism," Wistrich said. Although, there have been periods during which Jew-hatred has seemed to be relatively dormant, he said, "it's always there beneath the surface."

"But we can live with that," said Wistrich. "The Jewish people have always been able to live with that, and there is no reason why everybody has to love the Jews."