Hefty new book may be definitive work on anti-Semitism

Early on in “A Lethal Obsession,” Robert Wistrich observes that anti-Semitism can flourish in conditions where Jews are a minimal presence or entirely absent. This phenomenon, dubbed “anti-Semitism without Jews,” is one of the key reasons anti-Semitism is such a distinctive … what, exactly? Form of prejudice? Irrational belief? Method of scapegoating and stereotyping?

To be sure, it is all of these things, but above all, as Wistrich underlines, anti-Semitism is a worldview, a way of explaining why there is injustice and unfairness and conflict in our societies.

Colossal in scale, “A Lethal Obsession” begins its 1,184 pages in antiquity but is mainly focused on modernity, when the figure of the Jew as an alien, toxic other “metamorphosised into an absolute,” beyond redemption even by religious conversion.

For Wistrich, arguably the leading scholar on this subject, that is why anti-Semitism cannot be regarded as just one more lazy, ill-thought-out bigotry. The anti-Semite, he continues, hates and fears Jews because he interprets the world through them. Wistrich quotes the French monarchist Charles Maurras’s candid admission that anti- Semitism “enables everything to be arranged, smoothed over and simplified.”

The principal effect of such simplification is persecution. Wistrich transports the reader through the awful crescendos of anti-Semitism, such as the Dreyfus Trial, the Russian pogroms and, ultimately, the Holocaust. What really occupies him, however, is the extraordinary persistence of anti-Semitism in our own time.

A historian by profession, Wistrich is, in this book, more of a commentator on contemporary events whose meanings are interpreted through the prism of the historical parallels upon which he draws.

This ability to show how patterns and themes repeat themselves with depressing regularity is one of the key contributions of “A Lethal Obsession.” Another is Wistrich’s insistence, carefully documented, that anti-Semitism is not, as is conventionally believed, the sole preserve of the European nationalist right wing.

Given its emphasis on the current climate, “A Lethal Obsession” is organized along thematic and geographical, rather than chronological, lines. There are chapters on Britain and France, on the dovetailing of anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism, and on the implications for European Jews of their continent’s various troubled models of multiculturalism.

The final sections of the book are devoted to the explosion of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world, with a particular accent on both the Palestinians and post-revolutionary Iran. Building upon a fascinating discussion of the relationship between the Nazis and Palestinian wartime leader Haj Amin al-Husseini, Wistrich demolishes the notion that anti-Semitism is an alien import into the region, a mere byproduct of the conflict with Israel. Iran under Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, he says, “is a state with a totalitarian ideology, radically opposed to the Western democracies and inspired by hatred of the Jews.”

As is inevitable in a book this ambitious, there are certain flaws. Terms with a slightly sensationalist ring — “Islamicization,” “Eurabia” — crop up with little explanation. From time to time, Wistrich’s analytical narrative is subsumed by a descriptive summary of anti-Semitic events, as though no incident can be left unmentioned in so thorough a study.

Still, these are but minor complaints, given the enormous achievement this book represents.

If Wistrich’s book can teach us anything, it is that sentiment — and the opinions, ideas and actions it inspires — is something we dare not underestimate.


“A Lethal Obsession” by Robert S. Wistrich (1,184 pages, Random House, $40)