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In this unprecedented work two decades in the making, leading historian Robert S. Wistrich examines the long and ugly history of anti-Semitism, from the first recorded pogrom in 38 BCE to its shocking and widespread resurgence in the present day. As no other book has done before it, A Lethal Obsession reveals the causes behind this shameful and persistent form of hatred and offers a sobering look at how it may shake and reshape the world in years to come.
Here are the fascinating and long-forgotten roots of the “Jewish difference”–the violence that greeted the Jewish Diaspora in first-century Alexandria. Wistrich suggests that the idea of a formless God who passed down a universal moral law to a chosen few deeply disconcerted the pagan world. The early leaders of Christianity increased their strength by painting these “superior” Jews as a cosmic and satanic evil, and by the time of the Crusades, murdering a “Christ killer” had become an act of conscience.
Moving seamlessly through centuries of war and dissidence, A Lethal Obsession powerfully portrays the creation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the fateful anti-Semitic tract commissioned by Russia’s tsarist secret police at the end of the nineteenth century–and the prediction by Theodor Herzl, Austrian founder of political Zionism, of eventual disaster for the Jews in Europe.
The twentieth century fulfilled this dark prophecy, with the horrifying ascent of Hitler’s Third Reich. Yet, as Wistrich disturbingly suggests, the end of World War II failed to neutralize the “Judeophobic virus”: Pogroms and prejudice continued in Soviet-controlled territories and in the Arab-Muslim world that would fan flames for new decades of distrust, malice, and violence.
Here, in pointed and devastating detail, is our own world, one in which jihadi terrorists and the radical left blame Israel for all global ills. In his concluding chapters, Wistrich warns of a possible nuclear “Final Solution” at the hands of Iran, a land in which a formerly prosperous Jewish community has declined in both fortunes and freedoms.
Dazzling in scope and erudition, A Lethal Obsession is a riveting masterwork of investigative nonfiction, the definitive work on this unsettling yet essential subject. It is destined to become an indispensable source for any student of world affairs.
Under the Cover
An excerpt from A Lethal Obsession
From Deicide to Genocide
There has been no hatred in Western Christian civilization more persistent and enduring than that directed against the Jews. Though the form and timing that outbursts of anti-Jewish persecution have taken throughout the ages have varied, the basic patterns of prejudice have remained remarkably consistent.1 Particularly striking is the deeply irrational and counterfactual character of most accusations that have been leveled against the Jewish people over the past two thousand years.2 As noted in the introduction, the Jews were charged with deicide (the killing of Christ), with piercing holy communion wafers to make them bleed (desecration of the host), and with the ritual murder of Christian children at Easter; they have been held responsible for poisoning wells and for the Black Death during the Middle Ages; for practicing witchcraft, forging an alliance with the mythical Antichrist, and conspiring to destroy Christendom.3 In modern times, new and no less sinister variations have been added to the theme of the "Jewish peril"-that Jews are striving for world domination by achieving control of the international financial system, by promoting revolutionary socialist ideologies, or through the alleged machinations of Zionism and the State of Israel. Modern anti-Semitism has thrived on irrational Manichean myths such as the Judeo-Masonic, the Judeo-Communist, or Zionist-American conspiracies, and the belief in an occult global Jewish power, embodied in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.4 The litany of stereotypes and accusations seems endless and has acquired a seemingly timeless quality, despite its lack of any empirical basis.
The persistence, longevity, and mythic power of such group hatred makes it an especially revealing barometer of the tensions and conflicts within European Christian culture where it was incubated. Moreover, the fact that anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust of World War II-the systematically planned mass murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children-is evidence of the extreme irrationality that has been one of its chief distinguishing features. The traumatic, cataclysmic nature of this event has sparked many attempts in the past sixty years to find theories and explanations that could illuminate anti-Semitism, racism, and the roots of murderous hatreds of the other in general.5 Yet despite the many contributions from historians, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, theologians, and researchers in other disciplines, an element of mystery remains. There are factors in anti-Semitism that both derive from and yet clearly transcend the hatred of the different and the alien that are so characteristic of religious bigotry and racism in general. There are a number of parallels between Jew hatred and the persecution of heretics, witches, homosexuals, Gypsies, blacks, and other minorities, yet the sacral, quasi-metaphysical quality of anti-Semitism is singularly absent in the other cases. Moreover, some of the more obvious factors in racist prejudices, such as the legacy of colonial oppression, slavery, or economic exploitation, have only a very limited value in understanding the specificity of Judeophobia.
The paranoid power of anti-Semitic myth cannot, in fact, be understood without reference to its religious sources and deeper roots in classical antiquity. Moreover, as pointed out in the introduction, it cannot be separated from widespread Gentile resentment provoked by the Jewish sense of being a "chosen people" with a unique vocation that has made them appear unable to assimilate in the eyes of surrounding cultures. In the Jewish self- understanding, the people of Israel (later the Jews) had been delivered by God from Egyptian bondage and granted a law of freedom (the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments), which laid the moral foundations of human civilization. Though upbraided by their own prophets for disregarding this law (the Torah) and later punished by centuries of exile, the Jews never lost confidence in their divine mission, which was simultaneously particular and universal. However, for the leading pagan cultures of antiquity-Egyptian, Greek, and Roman-the chosenness of the Jews appeared to be something incorrigibly exclusivist and separatist, and more like a stubborn, intolerant, and incomprehensible resistance to cultural assimilation.6
In seeking the origins of the modern virus of anti-Semitism, the historian cannot ignore this ancient clash of civilizations.7 It contained many strands, from the animus of the Greco-Egyptian literati against Jews and Judaism in Alexandria to Roman brutality in suppressing Jewish revolts in the land of Israel and North Africa during the first centuries of the Common Era. Vulgar and intellectual anti-Semitism in the Hellenistic world could, moreover, always draw on the fact that no other nation in antiquity, apart from the Jews, so consistently refused to acknowledge the gods of its neighbors, partake in their sacrifices, and send gifts to their temples, let alone eat, drink, or intermarry with them.8 As if to compound the insult, Jews claimed superiority over the "heathens" in the religious sphere (something Judaism involuntarily bequeathed to Christianity and Islam)-committed as it was to a transcendent monotheistic faith and a rational code of ethics.
The Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes was especially irritated by the Jewish refusal to bow to the norms of Greek culture. In 168 b.c.e., he imposed the worship of Zeus in the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem and forbade the practice of Judaism.9 In Alexandria, in the three centuries before the Christian era, similar expressions of pagan anti-Semitism found a fertile soil among the populace and especially the Greco-Egyptian intelligentsia. For example, the Alexandrian Apion-taking his cue from the Egyptian priest Manetho- presented the Hebrews as a race of lepers cast out of Egypt in the days of Moses. Jewish civilization was depicted as sterile, and the Jews were derided as a superstitious godless people who were isolationists and filled with loathing for other gods. Once a year they allegedly kidnapped a Gentile Greek and fattened him up to be eaten by their deity in his Holy of Holies (an anticipation of the Christian ritual murder charge).
Not surprisingly, the first recorded pogrom of antiquity exploded in Alexandria in 38 c.e. at a time when Caligula was emperor in Rome.10 The rival Greek community accused the Jews, who represented almost 40 percent of the city's population, of being unpatriotic and of manifesting dual loyalties when the Aramaic-speaking Judean king Herod Agrippa I visited Alexandria. Long-standing envy at the Jews' position of privilege, wealth, and power, whipped up by professional agitators and abetted by the studied inaction of the Roman governor Flaccus, resulted in mob passions running riot.11 However, Flaccus did not respond to this violence by punishing the rioters. Instead, he stripped the Jews of their civic rights and herded them into a small quarter of the city-the first known ghetto in recorded history. Alexandria erupted again in 66 c.e., following news of the first Judean revolt against the Romans. When the mob seized three Jews in order to burn them alive, the whole Jewish community rose up to rescue them. The ensuing riot was ruthlessly crushed by the Roman governor, a Jewish apostate "whose troops reportedly killed 50,000 Jews."12 Similar long-standing frictions between Jews and non-Jews existed in the land of Israel during this period-notably in Caesarea, Ashkelon, and Jerusalem.
The anti-Semitism of classical antiquity was a complex phenomenon that would later provide the bedrock on which early Christian hostility to Jews could develop. As we have noted, it was in part a response to Jewish religious and social particularism-the strangeness (to Gentile minds) of the Jewish way of life and thought as prescribed by the Torah. Jews were seen as foreigners, and they unquestionably had very distinct customs; more than that, they were a monotheistic minority somehow surviving in dispersion. Yet this minority enjoyed a privileged status under Roman rule-especially in Alexandria-something that especially exasperated the local Greek population.13
However, relations with the Romans, despite periodic and ultimately explosive tensions, would remain reasonably good until the great Judean revolt against Rome of 66-70 c.e. Judah Maccabee contracted an alliance with Rome, and King Herod's ambitious expansion of Jerusalem during the time of Christ would have been impossible without Roman imperial support. Moreover, the Romans had recognized the right of Jews to practice their special worship and observances. The Roman authorities appreciated that Jews were an important element in their domains (10 percent of the population in the reign of Augustus and 20 percent in the eastern half of the Empire)-not worth antagonizing. Despite the bitterness of the three Jewish revolts against Rome (66-70 c.e., 115-17 c.e., 132-35 c.e.), the Roman state did, for the most part, continue to protect Jews from local anti-Semitic mobs who felt driven to violence by hatred, envy, or greed of plunder.
Anti-Jewish prejudices were nonetheless increasingly apparent in Roman writings of the first century. Seneca, Juvenal, Cicero, the historian Tacitus, and other great names of Latin literature repeated some of the more scurrilous accusations made in the older Greek anti- Jewish literature. Many Romans shared the Hellenistic repugnance against Jewish exclusiveness-distaste for circumcision, the dietary laws, and the Sabbath (merely a day of idleness to the jaundiced eye); they not infrequently embraced the claim that Jews hated the gods of other peoples and hence the rest of mankind (misanthropia).14 Moreover, as we have seen, the long-standing refusal of Jews to accept the imperial cult and deify the Roman rulers was an acute source of friction.15
First-century Roman intellectuals and writers were generally dismissive of Judaism as the ignorant "superstition" of an intolerant and culturally backward people. Tacitus, like Juvenal, dwelt on the perverse clannishness of the Jews: "But toward every other people they feel only hatred and enmity. They sit apart at meals, and they sleep apart, and although as a race they are prone to lust, they abstain from intercourse with foreign women; yet among themselves nothing is unlawful."16
But this pagan antipathy (which resurfaced during the eighteenth- century European Enlightenment) was also accompanied by anxiety at the spread of Judaism in Roman society, its penetration into the upper ranks of men and women in the senatorial class, and its growing influence on Roman youth. To patricians like Tacitus, Judaism-with its palpable disdain for the pagan gods and abduration of the imperial glory-was a threat to Rome's traditional manly virtues and military values; its growing appeal in Rome itself was taken as a symptom of corruption and decadence.
The potentially seditious aspects of Judaism (allied with proselytism), fused with the logic of Roman imperial repression, led to the quashing of three major Jewish revolts against Roman rulers. The murderous Roman assault against the Jews of Judea left its mark down the centuries on both Judaism and Christianity. Josephus and Tacitus put the number of Jewish dead in the war of 66-70 c.e. at around 600,000. Sixty years later, during the third "Jewish war," the Judean victims may have reached 850,000-a vast number considering the nonmechanized methods of warfare existing at the time.17 Not only was the Second Temple destroyed (never to be rebuilt) and the Jews massacred, but many of the survivors were brought to Rome as pitiful prisoners. Roman losses in the Jewish wars were also heavy and would lead to spectacular punishment for the people who had caused them.
Emperor Hadrian, a zealous Hellenizer, sought in 130 c.e. to eradicate Judaism for good by erecting a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, in place of Jerusalem. This highly provocative act may well have caused the Bar Kokhba uprising (132-35 c.e.).18 Hadrian turned the site of Jerusalem into a miniature Rome, devoted to Roman religious rites and settled by Gentiles. The main cult of the Roman god Jupiter Capitolinus would dominate the new city, displacing once and for all (so Hadrian hoped) the cult of the Jews. The ensuing war was ruthlessly prosecuted. In the succinct words of Roman chronicler Dio Cassius, "Hadrian sent against them [the Jews] his best generals . . . to crush, exhaust and exterminate them." The new Jewish state, like the old, had been named "Israel," and its leader Simeon Bar Kokhba used many of the same rallying cries ("freedom," "redemption," "Jerusalem") as in the earlier Jewish rebellion.19 However, as historian Martin Goodman has pointed out, "Israel" was definitely a significant appellation since the Roman state never used this name to refer to the Jews. Following the costly Roman victory in 135, Hadrian made sure the name of the whole province was changed from Judea to Syria Palestina-an ancient Greek designation referring not to the Jews but to their sworn enemies, the Philistines.20 (This later became the origin of the term "Palestine" and the "Palestinians," adopted by the Arab conquerors.) Hadrian not only banned circumcision and other Jewish observances, he also issued ordinances absolutely forbidding the whole Jewish nation "from entering thenceforth even the district around Jerusalem, so that not even from a distance could it see its ancestral soil."21 This collective punishment meant that in the eyes of Rome, the Jews had definitively ceased to exist as a nation in their own land.
The New Testament and Christian anti-Judaism would be incomprehensible without this context of the Roman war against the Jews. As James Carroll, author of Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, has put it, to completely separate the two phenomena would amount to reading Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl without reference to the Holocaust.22 It was the total defeat of the Jews in the second century c.e. that led to a parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity. By 70 c.e. many, perhaps most, Christians already lived outside Judea, and the majority had not been born Jews. They had begun to come under the influence of Paul's novel doctrine: that adoption of the Torah by Gentile Christians would show a complete lack of faith in Jesus.23 Moreover, Jewish Christians had to adapt after 70 c.e. to a triumphant Roman power knowing their own credibility depended not only on denying their Jewishness but on the negation of Judaism altogether. If they were to succeed in winning over converts in a Roman society where hostility to Jews had become the conventional wisdom, they had to move to the attack. This mental switch was relatively swift. As a result, Christians came to view the destruction of the Jewish Temple as a providential act and to believe that the resurrection of a Jewish state in Judea was both unthinkable and undesirable.
Demonization of the Jews began in earnest, however, only with the special role assigned to them in the dramatic crucifixion of Christ the Messiah as related in the Gospels.24 The original polemics had grown out of a conflict among Jews, since Christianity had started out as a movement within Judaism. It was only the transformation of Jesus into a divine sacrificial figure-the center of a new religion claiming to supersede Judaism-that finally led to the split. In Paul's writings, the Jews are already condemned for murdering their own prophets sent by God (culminating in the death of Jesus); the "Pharisees," in particular, are given mythical status as divinely appointed enemies of Christ.25 In Pauline theology, Jews are regarded as the slaves of a limited law overcome by a higher spirituality. Baptism symbolizes this new spiritual principle, in contrast to the external, and by now irrelevant, mark of circumcision. "Spiritual" man transcends "carnal" man just as the gathered-in Gentiles within the church transcend the old Mosaic Covenant.
Robert S. Wistrich is professor of modern European history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and head of its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. Previously, he held the Jewish Chronicle Chair of Jewish Studies at University College London and was visiting professor of history at Brandeis and Harvard universities. A regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, he is the author of many books, including Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, and scripted the PBS television series of the same name.