Sunday, January 21, 2024

Q&A with Jeffrey Herf




Jeffrey Herf is the author of the new book Three Faces of Antisemitism: Right, Left and Islamist. His other books include Israel's Moment. He is a Distinguished University Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Maryland.


Q: What inspired you to write Three Faces of Antisemitism?


A: I wanted to have a collection of my essays that drew on my scholarship about antisemitism from the past 40 years. The essays were in various places that many readers would not find.


I also wanted to publish a book that addressed all three forms of antisemitism between two covers. The polarization of our intellectual life produces many books that examine one form or another. I wanted to publish a book that captured this moment when antisemitism comes simultaneously from three different directions.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: This is a collection that draws on past work. The essay on reactionary modernism revised the way German historians thought about the blend of modern and anti-modern elements in Nazism and in Nazi Germany.


Divided Memory revealed the full dimensions of the anti-Semitic purges in the early years of the East German Communist dictatorship and was an early work to examine the tension between democratization and justice for the crimes of Nazism in West Germany.


The Jewish Enemy was the first work to explore in depth the connection between antisemitic conspiracy theory and the implementation of the Holocaust.


That may sound odd but until that work, the connection between antisemitism as a lunatic explanatory framework and the Nazi justifications for mass murder had not been adequately understood.


Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World revealed for the first time the full scope of Nazi efforts to spread Jew-hatred in its Arabic language propaganda. The findings did not surprise me but I was surprised to see how well informed the United States State Department was about the full depth of Nazi Jew-hatred in its Islamist form.


Q: The scholar Susannah Heschel said of the book, “To understand the shocking, worldwide resurgence of antisemitic ideology and violence in recent years, the renowned historian Jeffrey Herf dissects the contemporary in light of the historical. His essays are thoughtful, profound, and crucially important.” What do you think of that assessment, particularly as it relates to dissecting the contemporary in light of the historical?


A: I’m very glad Prof. Heschel made that point. Three Faces of Antisemitism is important for understanding the ideological background to the Hamas mass murders of October 7. Hamas was an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and it, in turn, was led by people who became fans of Hitler.


The Jew-hatred that exploded in mass murder, rapes and kidnapping on October 7 has its origins in Islamist Jew-hatred that dates from the late 1930s, found a home in Nazi Berlin, and reemerged in the leaders of the Arab Higher Committee who rejected the UN Partition Plan of 1947 and waged war instead against the Zionists.


Three Faces of Antisemitism sheds light on the reactionary origins of Hamas, origins which the liberal press in the United States has refused to examine.


Q: What do you see looking ahead when it comes to patterns of antisemitism?


A: I think it’s going to get worse. The antagonism to Israel, and the erroneous interpretation of its history is now tenured in major universities. It will be there for some time to come.


Trump is a figure who has updated the antisemitism of American first in the 1930s. Were he elected, his destruction of our alliance would be catastrophic for Israel. Public criticism of the refusal of academics to examine leftist and Islamist antisemitism is essential.


Three Faces of Antisemitism strives to foster a liberalism of the vital center that rejects illiberalism of the left and the right, and, of course, of the Islamist.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Several webinars to bring scholarship about antisemitism and antagonism to Israel to a broader audience.


The next archivally based book will be about the response of the German government, the German press, and German scholarship to the rise of Islamism in the Islamic Republic of Iran, to Hezbollah and Hamas, and to Islamist organizations in Germany.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Since October 7, I’ve published some essays on Hamas.  

"The Ideology of Mass Murder," (about Hamas), Quillette, October 10, 2023:

1,700 words


"From the River to the Sea," (about Hamas 2017 statement), American Purpose Magazine: November 20, 2023:

4,460 words with links.


And with Norman Goda, "Holocaust Historians, the Genocide Charge, and Gaza," Quillette, November 23:

2,447 words


In spring 2022, Cambridge University Press published my Israel’s Moment: International Support for and Opposition to Establishing the Jewish State, 1945-1949.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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