Political scientist and historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen discusses his disturbing new book
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GUEST: Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
AIR DATE: 03/29/14
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And my guest – who joined me at this table several times towards the end of the last century to discuss his brilliant study of Germans, Jews and the Holocaust titled Hitler’s Willing Executioners is political scientist, historian Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who now has written Little Brown’s vastly disturbing The Devil That Never Dies – The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism.
My guest begins his new book: “This devil [Anti-Semitism] changes form, but it never dies.” Then, in a chilling chapter titled “Today’s Demonology”, he writes that “Global Anti-Semitism is new and distinctive.” And I would ask Daniel Jonah Goldhagen both how it is so, and how it has become so.
GOLDHAGEN: First of all, it’s a pleasure to be back with you after all this time …
HEFFNER: To have you.
GOLDHAGEN: It’s nice to see you … although unfortunately we have another unhappy topic to discuss, which is global Anti-Semitism.
HEFFNER: It’s really the same topic … isn’t it.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, it’s the same topic, but it’s new … it is not the same as before. And for, in several ways … for one thing anti-Semitism has really gone … has really gone global. Before it was confined to vast regions, but confined to certain regions of the world.
Now it can be found anywhere … in Brazil, in China, in Japan and India, not to mention the Middle East, all over Europe and of course, North America.
HEFFNER: How do you explain that?
GOLDHAGEN: Well, the … anti-Semitism always mimics or takes on the features of its age and we live in a global world. And in the global world you have information flowing all over the world, with the media blanketing the world and so notions about Jews, which were taught before by parent to child, by priest to parishioner, by community leaders to communal followers is now beamed around the world digitally, on satellite television, on the Internet and so all over the world, people are being exposed to the anti-Semitic accusations, canards …the lies about Jews the anti-Semites have been perpetrating for all these centuries, but they’ve also taken new form as well.
HEFFNER: Yes, but you know, I’m impressed by the fact you still talk about American exceptionalism. And we … lord knows … are very much involved in the new media and the spread of this material. Why are we an exception to this?
GOLDHAGEN: In several respects, and discussing anti-Semitism in the United States is a complicated thing. Because, on the one hand you say the story is a good story because it’s been declining here when it’s been rising elsewhere. It’s at much lower levels than in comparable countries such as Western European democracies, so that’s all very positive.
Jews are far more integrated into American society, as Jews … that is Jewish Americans … than they are in any other country, except, of course, Israel. So that’s all positive. At the same time, the levels are still alarming.
HEFFNER: The levels of …
GOLDHAGEN: … the levels of anti-Semitism. If you … 30 … 20 to 30 to 40% of Americans might answer “Yes” to anti-Semitic statements in surveys. Many still believe and still profess that Jews today are responsible for the death of Jesus, one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards, and most damaging perhaps prejudicial canard of all time.
And so, if you look at the absolute levels, when you should say “There shouldn’t be anti-Semitism, why should people hate Jews?” … the numbers are alarming.
But when you compare the United States to other countries, it looks and it looks good in other respects. Because it’s not really part of our public culture in the way that it is even in Western Europe, let alone in the Middle East and elsewhere. You don’t have major public figures in our country espousing anti-Semitism or virulently anti … so-called anti-Israel lines, which are really just anti-Semitism in, in, in a more politicized form directed at Israel, as you do in Western European countries.
And so the public culture in this country is far better and the media culture is far better than in Western Europe and as I said, American Jews represent themselves and their interests quite openly without fear of being deemed disloyal, suspect by dint of their political positions, which is not the case for European Jewish communities.
HEFFNER: You really do insist, don’t you, that if one has serious questions about Israeli policy that this is a sign of anti-Semitism?
GOLDHAGEN: No. That’s not, that’s not the case …
HEFFNER: Sounds that way, but tell me what is the case.
GOLDHAGEN: It’s perfectly fine to have, be very critical of many of Israel’s policies, including its occupation of the West Bank and its basic orientation towards Palestinians, not to mention specific policies. One could be very, very critical. But if one is anti-Israel in the sense … against the country or says that this country has no right to exist …
HEFFNER: Ah …
GOLDHAGEN: … which is what the anti-Zionists, anti-Israel orientation is … or one says things such as “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians”, sounds fantastical … yet 55% of Europeans say Israel is conducting a war of extermination against Palestinians, when in fact the Palestinian population before Israel gave up Gaza doubled under Israeli occupation in the 20 year period. Hardly a war of extermination.
These are signs of anti-Semitism or the expression of anti-Semitism as opposed to a reasoned, if very harsh critical stance towards Israel’s policies.
Israel faces something that no other country in the world faces, which is an international eliminations coalition. That is a coalition of countries, organizations and peoples that are devoted to its elimination through various prospective means.
Some would love to destroy the country … literally to destroy it … others would say, “Israel should stop being a country as it is.” It should become a bi-national state, or something like that. And against no other country in the world is there such a coalition … is there a call for the extinction of a country. This is … in itself is a form of anti-Semitism … just as in the past people have called for the extinction of Jews as a people, their elimination … now it’s the state where Jews have a political home.
HEFFNER: Daniel there have been those who say that The Devil That Never Dies … is too excitable … I find it difficult to understand how one could be too excited over the question of anti-Semitism, particularly the viral anti-Semitism you describe.
But how do you respond to that, that … I know the charge was made about your first great book … how do you respond to people who are saying … “Take it easy, don’t be quite so excited about this. Don’t be quite so virulent yourself”?
GOLDHAGEN: Well, the people who say that have not pointed to anything that’s actually wrong … substantively in the book (laugh) … they don’t like the conclusions, they don’t like the raising of the alarm … but that is the case when you write about subjects that cause dis-temper in many different kinds of people, or people of many different orientations … because, in this case many … some Jews don’t like the subject because it makes them uncomfortable and makes them uncomfortable in front of their non-Jewish friends.
HEFFNER: Tell … tell me about that because I had that suspicion when we spoke all those years ago. That some Jews, perhaps many Jews, were very uncomfortable because of what you wrote.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, first … there, there are a couple of reasons … one is … things in this country are pretty good for Jews. And as they … and people are right to think that there are good relations between Jews and Christians, so they say, “Why rock the boat?” … why discuss openly the extent of anti-Semitism, which still exists among Christians, not all Christians … in fact most Christians in this country are not anti-Semitic.
And, and the long history of anti-Semitism, which goes back to Christianity causes dis-temper for Jews and for Christians. So why rock the boat? They’re very unhappy about that.
HEFFNER: But with the first book you hadn’t written about global anti-Semitism, you were writing about where it was so clear … you were writing after the Holocaust, you were writing about the Holocaust … you were writing about Germany.
HEFFNER: And yet there was, I believed at the time, that uneasiness among our fellow religionists.
GOLDHAGEN: There, there was a great deal of unease for many reasons, one is because the book challenged many comforting … maybe “comforting” is too strong a word, but many settled notions that people had come to terms with about the nature of the Holocaust, about what caused it.
And instead of saying it was Hitler and a few bad people who terrorized German society, it raised the lid on that and say, “No, these were ordinary people who moved by anti-Semitism, decided that it was appropriate to eliminate, in this case, to exterminate Jews”. Now this is a very disquieting notion for Jews and for non-Jews.
HEFFNER: But why for Jews?
GOLDHAGEN: Because they know there’s a lot of anti-Semitism that still exists …
HEFFNER: Ahh …
GOLDHAGEN: … and, and the linking of, the linking of these acts, these murderous, mass murderous acts to this belief, when people know that there’s such beliefs … at least in the formal terms it’s call anti-Semitism … is still, are still around … makes them unsettled, to say the least.
The notion, it’s unsettling for anyone … the notion that a person could willfully take a child and bash a child against … bash a child’s head against the wall for no reason other than, than the belief he has about the nature of this child, that the child’s a Jew… is a very disturbing notion for lots of people … Jews and non-Jews. That, that, that such deeds would be willful and done with such malice and so on.
And what they didn’t understand is that in the case of the Nazis, in the case of Germans at the time, they had a very different kind of anti-Semitism moving them from what we are more familiar with in this country … which are low level prejudices or maybe prejudices which say the Jews are, you know, are clannish or they are too powerful in business.
They actually believed at the time that Jews were devils in human form, as hard as that is to believe and that they needed to be extirpated in order for Germany and for Europe in general to survive and to prosper.
And so people confused the term “anti-Semitism” per se which covers a range of beliefs and emotions with the specific anti-Semitism that the Germans … that was the property of so many Germans and Europeans at the time that led them to kill.
And the other thing one has to say is that the book challenged the self-understanding of Germany and Germans of their own history and was very unsettling for them, so that produced a big backlash. And also all the scholars who had worked in the field for so many years, who had never investigated the killers and who had been saying things which my book showed that … which my book showed were wrong. And so there was a reaction within the scholarly community of “How can he have written such a book with all this evidence that shows that what we’re saying is wrong” … we have to push back and so on and so forth.
Now I remembered something as I was coming here … I thought back to the time we were together and I hope I remember correctly … it was in July … after the book was published in this country … before I went to Germany …
GOLDHAGEN: … the book was published in Germany and you said to me, “Are you really going to go to Germany?” or something to that effect. Given that there was such a furor that the book had unleashed even before it’s publication in Germany.
And I said to you … “I’m confident that the book will prevail, I’m going to Germany, it will get a hearing, I think Germany is different today and people will come around.
And, in fact, that’s what happened. Once they finally found out what the book said as opposed to how it was being misrepresented … the book ended up trouncing Germany and it’s changed the way Germans understand their own history.
And so I think very fondly back to this moment here …
HEFFNER: But you know I remembered thinking about what we were going to discuss here, I remembered that … I remembered particularly though the … and I went back to the transcript … of the second program in which you were rejecting, you were, you were … you wanted not to be put in a position where one was talking about guilt. And you were taking, what I considered very legalistic position … well, guilt is a matter of legal judgment.
What, what are your thoughts now about Germany and the Jews?
GOLDHAGEN: About Germany and the Jews today? Or …
HEFFNER: No, Germany and the Jews then.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, my views haven’t changed … ahmm, and the book was not about guilt or innocence …
HEFFNER: I know …
GOLDHAGEN: … in that respect … it was in … it was a social scientific attempt to explain what had happened and why it happened. I …since … in the meantime I wrote a book that deals with these moral issues, called A Moral Reckoning, which is precisely about those issues. And I tried to, to put forward a more nuanced way of thinking about blameworthiness and guilt and so on and so forth.
And I still maintain that people are guilty only for their individual acts and deeds. Not by dint of membership in a group. Because the issue really was, in Germany at the time … of Hitler’s Willing Executioners … the issue really was collective guilt which they said I was charging Germany with … and I …
GOLDHAGEN: … decidedly wasn’t, I wrote at the time I wasn’t, I’ve never said … I’ve always been, perhaps, the most vocal and harshest critic of the notion of collective guilt.
You’re not guilty by dint of your membership in a group, you’re only guilty for your deeds or acts and you may be deemed blameworthy for your beliefs and for what you support morally and emotionally, but that doesn’t make you guilty.
And yes, I still take a more legalistic account … or approach to the notion of guilt, as you put it.
HEFFNER: Where do you see this ending, if that’s the proper word … The Devil That Never Dies …
GOLDHAGEN: Well, I’m quite pessimistic about the state of anti-Semitism today because it’s become even more endemic to the world than it was even during the Nazi period. Because of it’s spread all around the world, because of digital technology … I mean it’s really frightening … you type the word “Jew” into Google or Bing … a child or an adult who wants to learn about Jews and the third or fourth or second site depending on what day it is … it comes up as a site called “Jew Watch” or “Jew Watch News”.
And it’s an emporium, a supermarket of hatred, well-organized, seemingly sensible … if you don’t already know it’s not, with a claimed 1.5 billion pages, who knows how many pages there really are … but organized by categories … Jewish Hate Hoaxes, Jewish genocide, Jewish … Jewish manipulators, Jewish mind control, Jewish criminals, etc., etc., etc. and what is someone supposed to think who goes there, who doesn’t really know, who’s looking for information. This stuff is everywhere on the web.
Not to mention it being really and so pervasive in Arab and Islamic countries today where the surveys that we have show that the anti-Semitism is the property of 95%, 97% of the people in these countries, not to mention Europe, where 50% of Europeans hold absolutely anti-Semitic views of Jews and where Jews are fleeing the continent because, because they’re physically endangered. They’re afraid to show visible signs of Jewishness on the street for fear of being attacked. And they … and many say there’s no future for Jews in Europe.
So if you look around the world … you have vast numbers of anti-Semites around the world, more than ever. They’re everywhere in the world … it’s available at every moment, anywhere with a click or two of the mouse. And the demonology is as bad as ever in the Arab and Islamic world … as Nazified as it was during the Nazi period. In fact more openly blood-thirsty, more openly exterminationist than, than even the Nazis were in their public pronouncements. Not in their deeds, but in their public pronouncements.
So for all these reasons, it’s hard to see how anti-Semitism is going to eradicated, forget about eradicated, but even, even decline in its reach, in its scope, in its numbers and in its power. It’s getting worse, really in the last two decades … it’s gotten much worse and I see the trend lines continuing in a bad, not in a good direction.
HEFFNER: Now, you say all this … you write it so well in The Devil That Never Dies … what’s been the reaction in the Jewish community to this book, as contrasted to the reaction that we’ve just discussed to the first book.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, you know, my, my sample, my sample is not … is not one that allows me to speak with the Jewish community … broadly speaking I can say …
HEFFNER: You’re getting legalistic again.
GOLDHAGEN: (Laugh) I can say two things, in Jewish … in Jewish publications the response, the response has been very … extremely positive. Those who deal with these issues say this is important, they, they present the message, they say “people need to pay attention” to this … and so on.
When I speak before Jewish audiences, they’re immensely appreciative, they want to know more, they’re thankful that I’m … that I’m speaking plainly and directly … which is my habit … to be as direct and plain as possible and not to pull punches, not to think about the fine sensibilities of people, but in fact to take my vocation seriously, which is to do my best to tell the truth as I understand it.
And to do it in the … in as forceful and as direct a manner. And so they’ve been very appreciative. So that’s about as much as I can say. So far things … the response has been very positive and more and more people are in the … are aware of how bad anti-Semitism is out there, even if it doesn’t touch them so much here in the United States in their own communities. And they’ve been searching to try to understand what the nature of this new … of this global anti-Semitism is. And that’s what The Devil That Never Dies … at least proposes an answer to.
HEFFNER: Your response to my question about that focused on the viral network, focused on the means by which we can transmit these canards at, at, at this time. But that can’t be all … or maybe you think it is … maybe you think it is the ease of communications that has led to this spread of this new life, expanded life of anti-Semitism.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, there, there are variety … a number of different issues. One is that there was a several decade period where anti-Semitism was suppressed after the Holocaust in …
GOLDHAGEN: … suppressed, it was really suppressed … the public spheres of Western countries became denuded of anti-Semitism, overnight practically. But the, but the repression of anti-Semitism was artificial because it was just out of the … continued to exist within people’s communities and in families and so on.
And then, with end of the East/West conflict where the world was reshuffled … politics, society and so on … suddenly anti-Semitism … the tablets were broken and they came to the fore and that’s why in the last couple of decades there’s been this resurgence.
But took, but took most experts by surprise. Because it had, because there had been so little public anti-Semitism for several decades. So it was, it was for a variety of reasons, for a variety of reasons … it came back to the fore an it was something that a lot of people from the Left and the Right and not just the Left and Right could, could settle upon as being a way for them to express their antagonisms towards Jews by focusing on Israel, by focusing on American Jews as being powerful and manipulating the United States, as a way for them to make sense of the world and to find outlets for their own passions.
Then you have in the Arab and Islamic world the activation of ancient …of, of chronic anti-Semitism in the context of the Middle East conflict and, and an absolute demonization of Israel, which then was merged with the Western, the European anti-Semitism to bring together a, a … these two streams in a political, in a politicized form of anti-Semitism that is different from before.
Anti-Semitism today is so much more politically oriented, as our global role is more politically oriented. And you now have something that you never had before … which is anti-Semitism and it’s not just with regard to Jews, but with regard to any prejudice that I can think of … you have a … you have anti-Semitism … a prejudice being part of the foreign policy orientations of countries … to spread it, to act upon it, to make alliances around it, this is something that is unprecedented in history and they’ve captured international institutions such as the UN and other international institutions and so you have a completely different constellation for anti-Semitism today than before.
HEFFNER: What do you mean “captured” the UN.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, you take the Human Rights Council, which has produced more, more resolutions and censures against Israel than against all Arab countries combined … than against Sudan … Sudan is carrying out a genocide during the last 10 years against the people in Darfur and elsewhere and there are more … there are more resolutions and more, more motions of censure against Israel than again Sudan.
Israel is a permanent … is a permanent agenda item … the only country which is a permanent agenda item on the Human Rights Council … when, when by any reasonable stretch, even of the most critical view of Israeli policy you can’t, couldn’t possibly say that Israel is, is so much worse than all these mass murderous countries. I mean Sudan, after all, committed the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of people … expelled millions more, so that Israel should be the object of such a fixation and obsession on the part of the UN … on the Human Rights Council and the UN in general.
HEFFNER: Because Israel is supposed to be better than everyone else.
GOLDHAGEN: Well, it’s not because it’s supposed to better … because there’s powerful international block of Islamic and, and Arab countries, which, which have made attacking Israel and going along with the censuring of Israel a sine qua non of support.
HEFFNER: Where is Germany now in all of this?
GOLDHAGEN: Germany has a complicated position. In some ways, in some ways Germany has been a good friend of Israel and more, and more supportive of Israel than other European countries, which by and large …you know, it’s easier to go along against Israel than to support Israel, it must makes life easier to go, to go along with the countries that are censuring Israel and also there are large domestic anti-Semitic constituencies in their country.
But Germany in some way has, has been better. But still when you know that 55% or 57%, I think the number is, of Germans say that Israel is conducting a war of extermination against Palestinians … you think, how, how, in Germany of all places, where they know what a war of extermination is … were, were they, not the people today alive necessarily …
GOLDHAGEN: … but their fathers or parents and grandparents actually conducted a war of extermination against the Jews and against many others as well, but specifically against the Jews … that they could have such a fantastical view of Jews and of Israel, to say something as absurd as that. This is one of the hallmarks of anti-Semitism … that differentiates it also from many other prejudices, which is how unmoored from reality it is.
I mean this is just a, this is just an out-of-this world kind of accusation and yet, sober, 21st century Germans who have a lot of access to information … actually believe this. And not just Germans, but Europeans.
HEFFNER: In the very short time that we have left … a little over a minute. Fantastical … you use it in the book, you’ve used it here. What do you mean?
GOLDHAGEN: When people believe as they have historically that Jews are minions of the devil, are in league with the devil, or devils in human form, that has nothing to do with reality. It’s a fan … it’s a phantasm … it’s … one might even say it’s hallucinatory … you look at a human being and you see a devil …
HEFFNER: You mean … nothing to do …
GOLDHAGEN: That was the common sense of the middle Ages. And during the Nazi period they looked at Jews and they didn’t see human beings, they saw devils, secularized devils in human form. And today, Jews and Israel, as incarnation of Jews, the political incarnation are depicted and seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world as also secular devils in human form. Or in some … the eyes of some religions … devils and so on.
This has nothing to do with reality. The charges against us have nothing to do with realty. Most anti-Semites have never met Jews, all they know are the figments of their imagination, what their public cultures or political cultures have taught them, which have nothing to do with reality.
This also distinguishes anti-Semities from many, many other prejudices … the fantasical quality which makes it that much harder to combat because it’s so deeply rooted, so divorced from reality that if you tell people the facts, it doesn’t matter.
HEFFNER: The Devil That Never Dies … The Rise and Threat of Global Anti-Semitism, I’m sure it’s a book that when read is going to make everyone’s hair stand on end. And Mr. Goldhagen, thank you for coming back, I hope another 20 years go by … 16, 17, 20 years go by … you’re able to write a book that isn’t as disturbing as the ones we’ve discussed. Thank you.
GOLDHAGEN: I hope you’re right. Thank you.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.
And do visit the Open Mind Website at thirteen.org/openmind to reprise this program online right now or to draw upon our Archive of 1,500 or so other Open Mind and related programs. That’s thirteen.org/openmind.