Antisemitism Before and Since the Holocaust: Altered Contexts and Recent Perspectives. Basingstoke United Kingdom: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. Hardcover, Paperback, E-book, ix + 406 pages.
Anthony McElligott and Jeffrey Herf’s edited collection Antisemitism Before and Since the Holocaust grew out of an idea born at the conference on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial held by the Holocaust Education Trust Ireland in November of 2010, and is the culmination of their subsequent years of work and research. Esteemed professor in Germanic twentieth century history, Anthony McElligott has worked extensively with scholars and experts in Holocaust studies. His co-editor, Jeffrey Herf, is an American Historian as well as a distinguished professor of modern Europe – specifically Germany. Their shared interest in Holocaust studies welcomed the collaboration on an edited anthology focusing on antisemitism (13).
This edited collection contains five specific areas of focus for which the various contributing authors have provided “historical and contemporary perspectives” (3). The collection opens and closes with sections by leading scholars in the fields of Holocaust and antisemitism. The middle three sections include chapters on the relations between Christianity and Islam, the historical and contemporary issues of antisemitism in the United States and European countries, the role of metaphor and discourse in Holocaust studies, and how the use of these dialogues contributes to contemporary antisemitism. In the introductory chapter McElliot and Herf express that this volume does not provide one unified argument but aims to “expose the plurality of positions within the academy and reflect the robust discussions that took place during the conference” (4).
The overarching thesis that the editors set forth as the claim, can be found on page three. The editors state: “This volume not only broaches the issue of Islamist Denial of the Holocaust in the Middle East but also attempts to understand the Western Paradox by looking at antisemitism before and since the holocaust in Europe and the USA(3).”
While this argument does not limit the collection, it certainly tracks the articles into specific facets of scholarship. It does not leave much room for ideological variation across the articles. Looking at each section, we can access the overarching goals and ideas, and use specific articles to better understand how to utilize this text as a critical piece of scholarship and teaching tool. This volume, as the authors note, “combines historical, philosophical [,] …political [,] and social science approaches in an effort to tackle the phenomenon of antisemitism and its relationship to Holocaust denial both in the past and in the present” (6). Thus, accessing each section’s strengths and weaknesses will allow for a more thorough and accurate representation of the collection.
Part One, entitled “Two Preliminary Observations,” includes two writings. The first, “A Few Observations on Holocaust Denial” by Deborah Lipstadt, and the second, “Antisemitism and Holocaust Inversion” by Robert Solomon Wistrich. Lipstadt’s article focuses on the connection between Holocaust denial and antisemitism, arguing that denial is itself just a manifestation of antisemitism (23). The paired chapter in this section, Wistrich’s article, uses the foundational work laid by Jankelevitch to argue that Holocaust denial has been fused with pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionism, and anti-Americanism in European countries (42).
These articles create a nice parallel to one another with the former focusing on Holocaust denial as a form or reactionary form of antisemitism, while the latter article integrates denial into various political agendas, specifically including “militant Muslims.” This dualism is a central theme to the text; the edited collection, throughout each section, leans into both theoretical and practical applications of antisemitism. This section creates a cohesive and concise use of this dualistic approach as many of the other sections, as will be demonstrated, tend to overlap and reiterate many of the same sentiments.
McElligott’s and Herf’s Part II is entitled “Religion.” This section includes author Christian Wiese’s understanding of Christianity and antisemitism, Mark Weitzman’s Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in Catholic Traditionalists, and Bassam Tibi’s transition from traditional Islamic judeophobia into modern Islamist antisemitism. Weise, the first scholar in the section, argues that “the awareness of the fateful consequence of the long tradition of Christian anti-Jewish hatred… belong to the fundamental elements of Christian theological self-reflection after World War II.”
His explorative approach to understanding the Christian contribution to anti-Jewish stereotypes, ideas, and actions—as well as the implications of those negative characterizations to Nazi antisemitism—works to reclaim or re-answer questions “related to the political dimensions of Christian theology regarding Jews and Judaism.” This section worked well in conjunction with Weitzman’s article, but again, this collection works as an interplay between a theoretical— in this case theological-theoretical— approach and politicized approach.
In his chapter, “‘Every Sane Thinker Must Be an Anti-Semite’: Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial in the Theology of Radical Catholic Traditionalists”, Mark Weitzman opens the chapter with a discussion of the 2009 decision by Pope Benedict to lift the “excommunication of four bishops associated with the breakaway Society of Saint Pius (SSPX)” (83). Immediately after, one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, was recorded on Swedish television as having questioned the Holocaust and citing that “the historical evidence is strongly against it” (84). This radical Catholic movement has persisted, as well as questions regarding their association with Holocaust denial. Weitzman suggests, in his thesis, that “a closer examination of [these groups] will demonstrate that Williamson was not an isolated aberration, that antisemitism is indeed a foundational aspect of the core beliefs of the radical movement… and [they] deserve our attention because of their continued influence to both the Catholic Church and the general public discourse” (84).
This thesis posits Weitzman to claim that this extremist Catholicism is but a reminder that Western traditions of religious adherence also contain radical religious roots “that have left their mark on the shaping of our modern world” (84). Wetizman finds, over the course of his chapter, that the Church’s “open door” policy towards re-acceptance of those members who use their theology to diminish the beliefs of others, will cause Jews and other religious groups to continue to question the Church’s commitment to those issues. The only solution is to make clear to the radical Catholic traditionalists that their antisemitic beliefs are “a sin against God and humanity” (103).
The final section, Tibi’s transition from traditional Islamic judeophobia to modern islamist antisemitism, worked seamlessly with Wiese’s piece, but felt disconnected from the Catholic Traditionalist perspective. While each article posited new information, this section leaned farther into a Christian/Catholic theological ideology than the section’s title “Religion” would assume.
Part III, while the longest of the five sections, proved to be the strongest, and most cohesive. “Historical and Contemporary Political Arenas,” has five chapters that compose this roughly-100-page section. This section works particularly well because although it does not create the explicit dualism mentioned previously, it does provide a general overview of several historical and contemporary examples of anti-Semitic ideology, politicization, and agendas. This chapter, from a geographic level, includes the United States, “the Arab World,” Iran, Germany, and Britain. This vast geographic span, as well as poignantly picked time-periods, creates a well-versed and well-informed historical additive to the collection.
The opening chapter on the United States, authored by Pierre Birnbaum, argued that there exists a third example of political antisemitism that is often overlooked by historians. He suggests that “the antisemitism of the French Third Republic and the unbound extremism of the Third Reich are the two poles between which historians usually broach this subject… [but] I wish to outline a third example… the United States” (151). Birnbaum looks to compare the link between the “state Jews” under the New Deal and political antisemitism in North America. The political antisemitism in the United States remained quite subdued compared to the French and German political climate of the time. However, understanding this third avenue of comparison reveals a vaster anti-Semitic climate during the years leading up to World War II than just of European nations.
Chapter eight, written by Jeffrey Herf, is titled: “Nazi Propaganda to the Arab World During World War II and the Holocaust: and Its Aftereffects” (183). Herf’s chapter opened with a definition of Islamism relative to the Nazi regime. He argues that
“Islamism, a hybrid of European and Islamist ideology, began in the Middle East in the 1920s, found refuge in Nazi Berlin during World War II, persisted in the postwar decades, shaped parts of Palestinian nationalism, and… has inspired terrorism of Islamist jihadism in Al Qaeda” (183).
This opening argument positions Herf to create a historical dialogue about the relationship between the Arab world and the Nazi regime. He details specific moments that fall on this timeline, including the role of Arab exiles in Berlin during the WWII decades, the hybridity and mixing that resulted from fascist and Nazi ideologies, the role of broadcasting in the Arab world, and the Nazi’s willingness to find allies in the Arab world.
Following Herf’s chapter, Litvak’s writing on Iranian Antisemitism argues that “Iranian discourse is thoroughly anti-Semitic in seeking to demonize the Jews as a whole, not just Zionists, often conflating both” (205). This chapter was a well-rounded historical overview of Iranian anti-Semitic ideology—its origins, historical precedents, and relation to the Holocaust, especially Holocaust denial. Litvak claims that the targets of Iranian antisemitism today are the Jewish people as a group “as well as Jewish culture and history, and in particular the political manifestation of Judaism that is Zionism” (207). A strong additive to this chapter was the author’s inclusion of the definitions (and distinctions) between anti-Judaism, antisemitism, and Zionism. These well-defined political moves helped to shape the trajectory of the chapter as well as speak to the issue of Holocaust denial and the factors that contributed to it.
Litvak rounds his chapter out in one of the strongest conclusory sections of the anthology. Holocaust denial, in an Iranian context, is a clear manifestation of antisemitism and the Iranian discourse, he says, that “denies Jewish history and deprives the Jews of their human dignity by presenting their worst tragedy as a hoax” (221). Although this chapter was evidently based on Iranian contexts, the conclusion of the chapter spoke to the themes of the book and created cohesive ties to the other authored sections.
The following two chapters in the section worked with Germanic and British political agendas. These two chapters, authored by Werner Bergmann and Tony Kushner, respectively, operated outside of the expected historiography. While Germanic history is riddled with anti-Judaic and anti-Semitic political agendas, Bergmann’s section on “Antisemitism in Contemporary Germany” offered a refreshing twist on a well-known history. His section used quantitative data to discuss the “trends that emerged in Germany since the German reunification in 1990” (231). Bergmann’s section detailed various anti-Semitic attitudes and the trends that have followed in the years after 1990—tracing yearly, bi-yearly, and/or decade-based attitudes towards Jews. Kushner’s chapter on “Antisemitism in Britain,” begins with the revolutionary work of James Parkes who famously stated:
[Hostility] to the Jews can only be called anti-Semitic when it is abnormal in the sense that there is no adequate explanation for the form or the severity of its manifestation in the actual contemporary conduct of the Jews against whom it is directed (254).
This chapter’s historical work on British antisemitism includes the resurgence of antisemitism and more recent controversies. Like Bergman, he uses statistical evidence (voting results) to discuss where antisemitism has played out in modern British politics.
The strength of Part III and the contributing authors was due to the differentiated material, the geographic span of the topics, as well as the introduction and dissemination of key terms. Parts IV and V, “Method and Discourse” and “Further Observations,” paired well with Part I. Each section has two articles, resulting in the paralleled dualism that appeared early in the text. Part IV’s two chapters include: “’Stealing the Holocaust from the Jews’? The Holocaust as Metaphor in Public Discourse,” by Esther Webman and “Soft Denial in Different Political and Social Areas on the Web,” by Juliane Wetzel.
Webman’s chapter, she states, was titled after Edward Alexander’s article, “Stealing the Holocaust,” published in 1980 (279). The “stolen holocaust” refers to an inversion of “the roles of the victim and the predator” (279) Webman makes use of her training, offering to the reader that she is not a scholar of the Holocaust but of Arab representations of the Holocaust (281). Her chapter focuses on “the Arab… public discourse which has incorporated the Holocaust into its own indigenous political vocabulary either for the reconstruction of Palestinian national identity, juxtaposing it with the… Palestinian catastrophe, or for the demonization and delegitimization of Israel” (282).
The Palestinian Catastrophe— the nakba—becomes Webman’s starting point. Her discussion centers around the use of the Holocaust to discuss what happened to the Palestinians. She offers examples of nakba denial and the comparison of victim status among the Palestinians and the Jews. Re-using the terminology of the Holocaust or comparing Israel to “the Third Reich and Israel’s policies to Nazi crimes causing a ‘holocaust disaster,’ or defining Gaza as a concentration camp” exemplifies, she says, “intentional misuse of terms and metaphors” (297). These metaphors and analogies not only suggest a minimization of the Holocaust, but contribute to the act of denial.
Wetzel’s chapter on “Soft Denial,” concerns itself with “the various and different forms of trivialization of the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War” (305). Wetzel’s chapter, like Webman’s offers a differentiated idea of Holocaust denial. Rather than an overt denial, or lack of acceptance, the issue of denial comes into play in the way that the Nazi terminology is reused or trivialized. However, Wetzel offers an interesting claim stating that the trivialization of the Nazi genocide does not always intend to diminish the Holocaust but “rather with the intention of using the Holocaust to draw attention to political or social issues, such as abortion, mass animal transports, and so on, or… to serve as an advertising ploy” (305). Wetzel’s chapter offers a good explanation of the differences between “holocaust distortion,” “holocaust inversion,” and “holocaust equivalence” especially related to Israel and Palestine. Wetzel’s article would have done well to precede Webman’s due its terminological elaborations. Nevertheless, Wetzel’s chapter offers the reader a modernized and differentiated form of soft core denial by using the web as a medium.
Wetzel also chooses to counter Deborah Lipstadt’s term “soft core denial” and instead argues for the use of the term “Holocaust trivialization” because “it better captures the complexity of the wide spectrum of minimization strategies, including those forms that do not follow any historical political objectives” (308).. She argues that the use of the term Holocaust for campaigning purposes and drawing attention to other causes is particularly harmful because it plays into the trivialization she mentions. As Wetzel says, “the World Wide Web [is] an easily accessible, anonymous communications and propaganda medium… not only used by radical Islamists to distribute such content but also by extremist right-wing networks” (324). Wetzel’s article would have been better titled using her term, “holocaust trivialization,” rather than Lipstadt’s term that she does not fully agree with.
The final section, “Part V: Two Further Observations,” mirrors Part I and presents articles written by scholars in the field(s) of Holocaust studies and antisemitism. The first of these final chapters, “Five Reflections on Holocaust Denial…,” by Elhanan Yakira, includes a well-informed overview of the spectrum of what is considered hardcore denial versus softcore denial, as well as what falls in between. One key theme that shows up in the final chapters of the compilation, including earlier sections, is the idea of a spectrum of denial.
Holocaust denial, according to Yakira, can be organized on two axes, scales, or criteria. One “axe” would be the intensity of the denial; the other is “the ideological and political agendas and ends which the denial anti-narrative… serves” (341). Holocaust denial does not occur without provocation, motivation, or origination—thus, the motivations of the denier should be considered. Yakira chooses to offer structural connections of holocaust denial rather than casual explanations to contextualize what is more fruitful and less hazardous to the study of the Holocaust denial spectrum (349). Holocaust denial inadvertently then reproduces the structural elements that appeared in historical antisemitism.
The final chapter of the text is “Ex Malo Bono: Does This Latin Proverb Apply to Holocaust Denial? The Cunning of Reason,” by Robert Jan van Pelt. Pelt’s chapter offers “six instances in which Holocaust denial has, indeed, led to… worthwhile outcomes—instances in which some general good has emerged from this particular evil” (355). These six instances, or case studies include: two advancements in understanding the history of the Holocaust that emerged from deniers—the case against Hitler and the case of the Auschwitz Crematoria; an argument for the importance of the German decision to not protect public denial by laws that guarantee freedom of opinion; the resulting testimonies of eyewitnesses and survivors in the public realm as a result of the “challenges posed by Holocaust denial;” the discussion of the Irving Trial in 2000 that led to a “conscientious historian;” and finally, the gentling of the historians’ condition.
This chapter, upon first read, seemed a peculiar way to end this text. However, upon delving into each of these “instances,” it presents an alternative, pseudo-accepting scholarly analysis of Holocaust denial. For example, Pelt indicates that “until the 1970s, Holocaust survivors generally did not speak in public” (375). Pelt emphasizes that many survivors credit Holocaust denial “as the catalyst to ‘come out’ from the protection of the private sphere” (375). Even further, Holocaust denial motivated survivors to speak about their experiences and with the beginning of broadcasted television and news sources more readily, they could transmit their narratives to the listeners, escaping the private sphere, while also telling their story in a way that was less challenging. Understanding Holocaust denial as a catalyst for change rather than a brand of antisemitism, re-defines how scholars and historians understand how this type ideological politicization works for change—not always against it.
Antisemitism Before and After the Holocaust is a well-informed edited collection of chapters, articles, observations, and scholarly works by experts in these respective fields. However, the repetitiveness of many of the arguments does not bode well for this to be a teaching text in its entirety. The implementation of this text in a class on Holocaust Studies, antisemitism, Modern Judaic studies, etc., would seem redundant. Intra-sectionally, there is high variation, but the text seems to continue to stress the issues with contemporary or new antisemitism and the problem with Holocaust denial. As a volume on antisemitism, broadening the scope of this topic would have better fit the intended model of the collection. Gearing the volume towards Holocaust denial exclusively rather than encompassing both anti-Semitic ideology and the spectrum of denial limits its potential applications.
The collection undertook a large task in trying to unravel different ideologies of hate including denial, antisemitism, anti-Judaism, judeophobia, and the relative spectrums that occur within each of these categories. It became broad very quickly. However, as a cohesive collection, each chapter presented well thought out and thorough ideas, and used an appropriate balance of detail and conciseness. For a volume this long, and a range of authors such as this, the editors worked well to create a unified compilation.
Madison Tarleton is a first-year Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Doctorate of Religion. Madison’s interests lie in the intersection of art and religious opposition. She focuses primarily on the transition from anti-Judaism to anti-Semitism using art as a theoretical lens. Aside from academics, Madison is a swim coach at the University of Denver,.