1, Issue 1 (November2006 / Cheshvan 5767)
Interview with Walter Laqueur*
Alexander H. Joffe
You have commented on antisemitism and anti-Zionism
in a recent book (The Changing Face of Antisemtism, Oxford
University Press, 2006, and a long article in The Times Literary
But let us begin on a personal note: You grew up in Nazi Germany;
antisemitism has not been a purely academic issue in your life.
Did you expect
a resurgence of antisemitism after Hitler and the
gave antisemitism a bad name, but there had been antisemitism
before and there was no reason to believe that it had come to an
end in 1945. Prior to Hitler antisemites did not mind to be called
antisemites, (there were some exception--the Nazis did not
like the term and virtually banned it during the war because it
was offensive to some of their allies such as Haj Amin al-Husayni,
the Jerusalem mufti). To day this term has gone out of fashion
and there is great indignation in some circles to if they are charged
with antisemitism. In some countries, it can lead to criminal prosecution.
A spade is no longer called a spade but an agricultural implement.
In any case the impact of the Nazi deterrent was limited to Europe
and North America. There was closed season as far as the Jews were
concerned; this lasted for several decades but was bound to come
to an end. The surviving Jewish communities had been doing too
well, moved into prominent positions in many fields and many people
got impatient to be reminded constantly of the mass murder which
had taken place. After all, they argued, there had been massacres
on a massive scale in other places even in our time, how could
one possibly maintain that the holocaust was somehow unique?
But some critics such as Chomsky maintain that antisemitism has
wish he were right, but it is a ludicrous statement. Do we really
have to discuss this? I don't think that upon further reflection
even Chomsky will stick to this thesis. It is true that antisemitism
is changing its manifestation and motivation, not for the first
time in its long history. Racialist antisemitism has gone out of
fashion after the Nazis, at least in Europe and America. But racialist
antisemitism is a relatively recent (19th century) phenomenon,
even though some antecedents can be found in 15th century Spain
(the purity of the blood concept). Medieval antisemitism was largely
religious-theological in inspiration. The Jews rejected the founders
of two of the world's major religions and this was bound to lead
to great hostility. Some historians believe there was antisemitism
in the ancient world prior to the rise of Christianity. Others
think this was no more than part of general, free floating xenophobia.
This is a highly specialized field, I am not an expert but I tend
to think the latter are right.
How then would you define the new antisemitism?
is post racialist and in many respect similar to the earlier
religious antisemitism, except of course that certain ideologies
have replaced religion. "Usury" has become "Wall
Street". The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are
no longer in fashion in the West, they have been replaced by the
as the nefarious plotters and wire pullers and the all powerful
Jewish lobby in Washington. In the 1920s and 30s, one of the main
accusations in the antisemitic arsenal concerned "Jewish
Communism"; today it is Jewish globalism and capitalism.
In Lessing's "Nathan"--the classic 18th century play--there
is a famous repetitive scene: "Tut nichts, der Jude wird verbrannt,"
("Never mind, the Jew is for burning").
Well, for the time being the Jew is not for burning, only for boycott.
Church (and Islam) believed that there was no salvation outside
the Church, but the moment the heretics desisted from their heresies
and joined the fold (political correctness in modern parlance),
they were no longer enemies but were treated as equals. This explains
inter alia the presence of Jews (or lapsed Jews) in
their ranks. Post racialist antisemitism (again I refer to Europe
and the Americas--the
situation elsewhere is not the same) does not aim at the expulsion
of the Jews let alone their physical destruction. They want the
Jews to desist from their erroneous belief that they have the right
to have a state of their own and generally speaking take a lower
Which leads to the issue of antisemitism and anti-Zionism. To
what extent (to pick just one example) is antisemitism involved
in the appeals to boycott Israel?
Had Israel committed crimes more heinous than any other country
it would be only natural that it should come in for such massive
attack. But if it is singled out for sins, real or spurious, committed
by many other countries and governments on a far larger scale,
the reasons must be other than those adduced. According to the
peace researchers 25 million people were killed in internal conflicts
since the end of World War Two. 8.000 civilians were killed in
the Arab-Israeli conflict, which ranks forty-sixth in the list
of victims. Yet Israel has been condemned far more often than all
other countries taken together by the United Nations. Israel has
been condemned for its treatment of its Arab minority and I am
sure there could be improvements. But the situation of the Palestinian
Arabs has been and is infinitely better than that (to name but
one example) of the Dalets (the Untouchables) in India of which
there are about a hundred millions. But I have not heard of any
protest demonstrations in this context in the streets of Europe
or any other continent.
Why this relentless focusing on Israel and who are its main protagonists?
varies from country to country. In the UK the teachers unions
have been very active, they were for many years under Communist
influence, today the Trotskyites have key positions. But if there
would be no willingness to follow their lead the boycott appeals
would not be very successful. In the US the influence of certain
churches has been strong. Sometimes the naivete displayed on these
occasion is disarming. I read somewhere: Why can't we bar
Ahmadinejad from coming to Europe on the occasion of the soccer
world championship? After all we (meaning the European governments)
decided not to let enter Lukashenka of White Russia and Mugabe
of Zambia. As if the answer was not known--if Lukashenka and
Mugabe had substantial oilfields in their countries and if they
were close to producing nuclear weapons, no one would dare to deny
Israel (and the Jews) have been singled out for
attack because they were few and weak. Let us engage in a simple
exercise in counterfactual
history. If the Ottoman Empire had collapsed not in 1918 but at
the time of the Crimean war, or after the Russian-Turkish war 1828/9.
What if the great majority of European Jewry would have decided
to migrate to Palestine , and what, if with a birthrate like the
Gaza Strip, it would now have fifty million inhabitants or even
more? Such a Greater Palestine extending from the Nile to the Euphrates
with substantial oilfields would be a major force in world politics.
It would live in peace with its neighbors, the refugee issue would
be settled, just as it has been settled everywhere else, no one
wants to trifle with a country this size. It would be a honored
member of the United Nations, Muslim religious leaders would invoke
quotations from the Koran and the Hadith stressing the closeness
and friendship between Muslims and Jews, children of the same ancestor---
Abraham-Ibrahim. The Norman Finkelsteins of this world would sing
songs of praise concerning the miraculous renaissance of an old
people its progressive, tolerant character--or legoyim--a
shining beacon to the rest of the world.
These are of course mere fantasies that might have appealed to
a visionary like Disraeli. The Ottoman empire did not collapse
and the Jews did not emigrate and Israel is a small country without
oilfields or other such resources. It is safe to attack Israel.
This may explain anti Zionism and hostility towards Israel, but
to what extent does it explain the new antisemitism? Where is the
It goes without saying that not all anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
We should not forget that up to the 1930 the great majority of
Jews were either opposed to Zionism or indifferent--which
did not make them antisemites. And there is room for legitimate
criticism of Israeli policy; I for one have been more than uneasy
since 1967 about Israeli policy vis-a-vis the West Bank and Gaza
which I thought shortsighted and self defeating. This explains
why Israel lost a great deal of sympathy. But it does not explain
why other countries, many of them not great and powerful, who have
been responsible for gross violations of human rights have been
immune to attack--no demonstrations, no UN resolutions, no
boycott. In other words there is some specific animosity whenever
Israel is concerned--whether to call this Judeophobia or
post racial antisemitism or radical anti-Zionism is an interesting
semantic question. But whatever terminology is used, there is some
element involved which does not exist when the behavior of other
people is judged. If Palestinian hostility can be explained as
a consequence of the conflict, why should Israel and the Jews generate
such strong passions among the likes of Mikis Theodorakis or Carlos
the Jackal, people without a known personal stake in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict who have not suffered from it physically or emotionally?
Sympathy with the underdog? But if so why concentrate on one specific
underdog and ignore all the others?
To what extent is the situation of European Jewry affected by
the new wave of hostility?
It has been affected for years; Jewish institutions such as schools
all over Europe need special protection by police and other security
forces; no other ethnic or religious group is in a similar position.
Amsterdam has a Jewish mayor, but he cannot move a step without
his bodyguards. I am less concerned about the countries in which
antisemitism was rampant before World War Two, simply because the
Jewish communities there are quite small. There is xenophobia and
aggression against aliens, but the Jews are a very small part of
these aliens and if dangers are perceived by, for instance, ultra
nationalist Russians they are threatening from very different directions.
If there is a physical danger facing Jews in countries such as
France it comes from among Muslim radicals. We all know that the
ethnic composition of European countries is rapidly changing. About
a third of the young generation in many West European cities (and
this goes not only for France but also for Germany, the Netherlands,
etc) is now of Muslim origin, and their birth rate is much higher
than that of the local population. Since the Jewish communities
are also concentrated in the big cities it means that soon they
will live in a largely or even predominantly Muslim milieu. Some
years ago a French left wing intellectual wrote in Le Monde that
the political implication of the fact that there are ten times
as many Arabs as Jews in France cannot be disregarded. The person
was attacked, but he only articulated what many others were thinking.
In less than a generation from now there will be more politicians
such as a Ken Livingston the mayor or London. He is not of course,
an antisemite, some of his assistants are Jews, some are Muslims.
But these Muslims hate the Jews, and the Jewish friends hate the
Zionists, whatever that may mean. In brief, the situation of Jews
in this new Europe will not be an easy one.
What about Jewish self hate, which is sometimes mentioned
as a motive--and indignantly rejected?
In our time a great many people have been distancing themselves
from religion and (to a lesser degree) from their ethnic origins.
This is true a fortiori for the Jews among whom assimilation
has been more widespread than among any other group. It has been
many ways a natural process and I find nothing reprehensible in
it--there is no moral obligation to identify with the Jewish
community or support Israel. But if "anti-Zionism" is
the only known Jewish activity of such a person, the question of
a deeper motive such as self hate inevitably arises. Self hate
does exist. And it is not a Jewish monopoly, Pascal wrote "le
moi is haissable". This goes back among the Jewish left too
for a long time, well before the existence of Israel. Rosa Luxemburg
wrote in one of her letters from prison to Mathilde Wurm (I quote
from memory)--do not come to me with your specific Jewish concerns
(she had written about the pogroms in Eastern Europe). The fate
of the Indians in Putamayo (Colombia) she wrote was closer to her.
She felt, that she had to prove that she was a true internationalist.
There was something (to put it very mildly ) self-conscious in
Laqueur was director of the Wiener Library in London and chairman
of the International Research Council of the Center
for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is
the author of over 25 books on history and contemporary affairs,
Dying for Jerusalem: The Past, Present and Future of the
Holiest City (Sourcebooks, 2006), The Changing Face
of Anti-Semitism: From Ancient Times to Present Day (Oxford,
2006), No End to War: Terrorism In The Twenty-first Century (Continuum,
2003), A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to
the Establishment of the State of Israel (Random House,
2003), and Fascism: Past, Present and Future (Oxford,
About the Author
Alexander H. Joffe is co-editor of Covenant and
director of research for The David Project of Boston, Massachusetts.
An archaeologist and historian, he has written widely on the ancient
Near East, arms control and international security, and cultural
Covenant - Global Jewish Magazine 2006