The Old-New Anti-Semitism

The Old-New Anti-Semitism

Mini Teaser: The "new" anti-Semitism of the Arab and Muslim worlds bears much resemblance to the "old" anti-Semitism of Europe. As the latter became a warrant for genocide, it would be foolish to underestimate the lethality of the former.

by Author(s): Robert S. Wistrich

The 20th century may well be seen by future historians as the age par
excellence of ideological politics. Millions were slaughtered on the
altar of false messianisms and their salvationist logic, and in some
places the killing still continues unabated. In the totalitarian
nightmare of the last century the secular political religions of
Nazism and Marxist-Leninism undoubtedly occupy a special place. So,
too, does the oldest and darkest of ideological obsessions--that of
anti-Semitism--for which over a decade ago I coined the term, "the
longest hatred."

For Adolf Hitler, in particular, anti-Semitism was the axis and
raison d'être of the Nazi movement he created. His dream of global
hegemony was overcome only through the combined military might of the
United States, the British Empire and the Soviet Union. Nazism as a
vital force in world politics was indeed destroyed in the flames
engulfing Berlin at the end of April 1945, but the anti-Jewish poison
it spread to far-flung corners of the globe has yet to be eradicated.
The legacy has proven to be especially potent in the former Soviet
Union and the Arab-Islamic world, where anti-Semitism is once again
acquiring a potentially lethal charge.

There is currently a culture of hatred that permeates books,
magazines, newspapers, sermons, video-cassettes, the Internet,
television and radio in the Arab Middle East, which has not been seen
since the heyday of Nazi Germany. Indeed, the dehumanizing images of
Jews and Israel that are penetrating the body politic of Islam are
sufficiently radical in tone and content to constitute a new "warrant
for genocide." They combine the blood libel of medieval Christian
Europe with Nazi conspiracy theories about the Jewish drive for
"world domination" and slanderous Islamic quotations about Jews as
the "sons of apes" and donkeys.

The Quranic motifs began to grow in importance after the Iranian
Revolution of 1979, along with virulent anti-Americanism. In the
Islamic demonology, both America and Israel are now bonded together
as "Satanic forces" that threaten the core-identity, values and
existence of Islam. This has been especially the case since the
beginning of the Palestinian Al-Aqsa intifada in the autumn of 2000
and the massacres of September 11, 2001. Not only did an astonishing
number of Muslims seek to place the responsibility for this mass
murder onto the Jews, but Israel, more than ever, was execrated as a
dagger of the West poised to strike at the heart of the Muslim Arab
world. In the anti-Semitic script, America itself is depicted as
being run by Jews malevolently determined to subvert and destroy
Islam. This chorus of voices has grown even shriller with the
American war on Iraq, a conflict that has led to an ever closer
twinning of anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic sentiment in
western Europe, as well as the Islamic world.

Driven by this ideology, Islamists see the fingerprints of the
all-powerful Zionist lobby everywhere, spreading its tentacles and
deadly lies, draining the life-blood of Arabs and Muslims,
gratuitously inciting war against Iraq, and carrying out its sinister
plans for global control. The current popularity of The Protocols of
the Elders of Zion--a forged Russian document from the beginning of
the 20th century in which many Muslims appear to believe--is
frightening testimony to the power of such myths. The recent
television series in Egypt dramatizing the "Protocols" and their
fantasy of "Jewish world domination" is a mark of how deeply this
anti-Semitic virus has already penetrated the thinking of political

Fundamentalist and oil-rich Saudi Arabia, the same soil from which
Osama bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda movement have sprung, is a major
hotbed of the type of Muslim jihad that specifically calls for the
terrorist murder of Jews and Christians. Government dailies even
print gory nonsense about the "well-established fact" that "Jews
spill human blood for their holiday pastries." But a no less
anti-Semitic outlook holds sway in more secular Arab societies such
as Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan. This hysteria cannot be adequately
understood in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Certainly, the
cause of Palestine has periodically been hijacked by radical
Islamists and pan-Arabists in order to broaden their political
support in the Muslim world. But the "Jewish Question" in radical
Islam (as with its Western totalitarian predecessors) is not centered
on Palestine, and certainly does not see Palestine as a purely
territorial issue amenable to rational bargaining. The ideological
anti-Semitism that characterizes Islamist thinking is driven by
something else: an irrational belief that history itself is
determined by the evil machinations of the Jewish people. In this
respect the Islamists seem to be directly following the Nazi model,
with its fixation on a mythical Jewish power that strives for global

Of course, the two models and the two situations are not identical,
and the context has changed as well. The "Jewish question" radically
changed its contours with the establishment of a Jewish state and
Israeli military power in the Middle East. Nonetheless, the creation
of Israel could not, on its own, blunt the potential of anti-Semitism
as a global phenomenon. It seems rather to have attenuated its force
for about two decades, even while a new version of the problem
metathesized. Zionism in effect has shifted the focus of postwar
anti-Jewishness to an assault on the dominant collective
representation of contemporary Jewish existence--the State of Israel
itself. Since 1948, the major ideological and political threat to the
survival of the Jewish nation gradually switched from Europe to the
Arab Islamic world, fueled by a politicidal "anti-Zionist" ideology
whose main thrust has always been the destruction of Israel as an
independent state.

The European Legacy

To grasp the origins of the demonology behind contemporary Islamist
versions of anti-Semitism, one needs to be aware of its
characteristics as they first crystallized at the end of the 19th
century. Fin de siècle European anti-Semitism was deeply pessimistic.
It was obsessed with the "decadence" of Christian and "Aryan"
civilization, supposedly in thrall to a newly emancipated and
"victorious" Jewry. From the radical journalist Wilhelm Marr's
prophecy of Finis Germaniae (1879) to Edouard Drumont's La Dernière
Bataille (1889) and the Teutonomaniac Houston S. Chamberlain's
Foundations of the 19th Century (1899), we find the same specter of
Jewish power and gentile demise invoked by a new class of
best-selling publicists and populist intellectuals. The anti-Semites
inhabited a murky fantasy-world imbued with quasi-apocalyptic visions
of European decline, colored by occult sectarianism and permeated
with notions of retributive punishment on a cosmic scale. They
elaborated negative millenarianism in secular garb--a "reactionary
modernism" that reluctantly adapted to democratic mass politics and
class conflict while preaching a backward-looking utopia based on
pre-modern feudal or even tribal models.

In this fin de siècle world of economic disorientation, rapid social
change and eroding traditional values, populist anti-Semitic
movements arose that became the seedplot of Nazism. They were
especially powerful in the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire, where
the young Hitler acquired the "granite-like foundations", as he
called them in Mein Kampf, of his Weltanschauung. The main elements
of 20th-century ideological anti-Semitism were already in place by
1914, when Hitler was 25 years old. These elements included: the
beliefs that nationalism was an irresistible force and that race was
a secular equivalent of Destiny or Providence; the fear of pollution
by alien, inferior races; the angst provoked by Marxist class
struggle and the leveling tendencies of mass society; and the hatred,
nourished by movements of the radical Right and Left, of capitalism,
modern urban civilization and liberal democracy.

European anti-Semites usually shared a belief in occult, sinister
forces working to undermine social hierarchy, order, authority and
tradition. They were alarmed by the spiritual vacuum induced by the
declining hold of Christianity, and especially by the working
classes' attraction to apocalyptic, revolutionary Marxism. Above all,
they shared an obsession with the mythological figure of the satanic,
ubiquitous, immoral and all-powerful Jew. Here was, as Richard Wagner
put it, the "plastic demon of modern civilization", whose
unquenchable will to destroy gentile society lay behind all negative
processes of change, providing a coherent explanation for the
resulting anomie. "All comes from the Jew, all returns to the Jew."
This classic formula of Edouard Drumont in 1886 exemplified the
delirious causality embraced by modern anti-Semites. The principle of
evil is not in ourselves; it comes from outside. It is the product of
conspiracy and devilish forces whose incarnation is the mythical Jew.

The mass slaughter of World War I, with its destruction of
traditional elites, collapse of established monarchies and sudden
flurry of revolutionary coups in central Europe (above all the
Bolshevik triumph in Russia, whose autocracy had been the
fountainhead of the ancien régime in Europe), immeasurably envenomed
and radicalized anti-Semitism. The massacres of Jews by the White
Armies during the Russian Civil War (1918-20), the fierce
anti-Semitic backlash against Jewish participation in the German and
Hungarian revolutions, and the juxtaposition of the "Jewish" and
"Red" perils in east-central Europe were all alarming signals of
growing extremism.

These events greatly encouraged the mass dissemination of
19th-century anti-Semitic stereotypes and ideologies. The climate was
ripe for a far more effective translation of conspiracy theories into
political praxis than had been the case before World War I. German
defeat in that war, crushing economic reparations imposed by the
Allies, the resultant loathing for the democratic West, the
devastating inflation of 1923, chronic political instability in the
Weimar Republic, growing fear of communism, and the ravages of the
Great Depression were so many milestones on the road to Nazism. From
each one, the sense of helplessness grew, and the longing to blame
someone or something for it grew with it. Nazi anti-Semitism thus
sprang from popular fears, and at the same time stoked and organized

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