Op-Ed: The Anti-Imperialism of Fools
Prof. Robert S. WistrichProf. Robert S. Wistrich is the director of The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (http://sicsa.huji.ac.il/) and the author of A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, January 2010).
At first glance the United States and Israel make a strange couple. The Jewish State is approximately the size of New Jersey, as small and vulnerable even in its unrecognized national boundaries as the United States is huge and seemingly impregnable. Israel may be a formidable regional power in the Middle East but it is dwarfed (like the rest of the world) by American military might. While it boasts a spectacularly successful high-tech industry and a stable economy, Israel can never aspire (nor should it attempt to) to America’s wealth, power and profligacy.
America and Israel do, of course, share many fundamental common values with their roots in the Judeo-Christian
Israel can never aspire (nor should it attempt to) to America’s wealth, power and profligacy.
tradition – including the hatred of tyranny, rugged independence, love of freedom, a robust democracy, and belief in a transcendent moral law inspired by divine guidance. This common thread has made America both the most Christian and the most “Jewish” of Western nations since the demise of the British Empire.
These attributes are at times reflected in the kneejerk anti-Americanism and violent hostility to Israel so prevalent in many parts of the world. Though some of the more traditional anti-Americanism has abated in Europe since President Obama’s inauguration over a year ago, it has hardly disappeared. America’s first African-American president may be more popular than George W. Bush but anti-Americanism is not and has never been reducible to anti-Bushism.
Anti-Americanism could be defined as an excessive distaste, aversion, or hostility towards American society, politics, and culture, beyond what is really necessary. In its reflexive disparagement of everything American, it seems at times to resemble racism, sexism, or antisemitism. The cultural animus which loathes the hollowness of the mass entertainment industry, the shallow philistinism of middle-class consumerist values and the hypocritical piety of some forms of Christian fundamentalism, becomes anti-American once it attributes these and other general characteristics of modernity predominantly or exclusively to the United States.
Postwar anti-Americanism is in some ways structurally similar to antisemitism and more respectable since it is untainted by the Holocaust. Those in Europe who vehemently attacked America’s reaction to Islamic terrorism after 9/11, often used latently antisemitic topoi in emphasizing the vengeful, bloodthirsty, and “biblical” character of the response. . Street demonstrations in 2003 against George W. Bush in European cities, often depicted the American President as a reckless Texas cowboy, a warmonger, “terrorist,” “assassin,” or born-again “Crusader.” His image was thoroughly demonized through the use of a full array of Nazi-era references with swastikas to adorn his visage.
In such a poisoned atmosphere Jews could be smeared with impunity as “Zionist pigs” and Americans as rapacious thugs. Conspiracy theories, suicide bombings and terrorist attacks represent the violent face of this nihilistic rage against America. Condescending cultural critiques are its smoother, more cynical and more erudite mask.
Martin Heidegger, the immensely influential German philosopher, had already described America in 1935 as a demonic invasive force appropriating the soul of Europe, sapping it of strength, spirit, and creativity.
The postwar French philosopher Jean Baudrillard echoed this dark view of America as a cultural “desert,” an “antiutopia of unreason,” heralding the death of Western civilization. He felt galled by the stifling power of the “almighty dollar” and threatened by a society deemed to be culturally inferior – “a desperately artificial universe” of
Postwar anti-Americanism is in some ways structurally similar to antisemitism.
endless freeways, Safeways, Hollywood movies, TV soap operas, Disneyland, Microsoft, McDonalds, and Coca Cola. America was a world “completely rotten with wealth, power, senility, indifference, Puritanism and mental hygiene, poverty and waste, technological futility and aimless violence....”
The jihadist assault on America of 11 September 2001, was revealingly regarded as cathartic by some European intellectuals like Baudrillard who saw it as a profound purging of the soul. German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen even called the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers “the greatest work of art imaginable for the whole cosmos.” Conspiracy theories about the active role of the Israeli Mossad or the CIA in orchestrating the 9/11 massacre also abounded. Invariably, it was America and Israel who were in the dock, not the jihadists who had carried out the bloody deed. . In the anti-globalist worldview, America and Israel were synonymous with wolfish capitalism claiming its divine inspiration from the Old Testament cult of chosenness.
Moreover, the United States, as Josef Joffe has observed, was in any case seen as “an antisemitic fantasy come true, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in living color.” In its most extreme form this paranoid perception reflected the Neo-Nazi myth of Washington, D.C. as the center of the ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government) with Israel and the Jewish Lobby pulling the proverbial purse-strings.
For rabid haters of America like the late Harold Pinter (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature), the enormity and sheer viciousness of U.S. crimes precluded any possibility of redemption. In his 2005 Stockholm acceptance speech, Britain’s most acclaimed postwar playwright made it clear: “You have to hand it to America. It has exercised a quite clinical manipulation of power worldwide while masquerading as a force for universal good.” Three years earlier in Turin, he had insisted that the most powerful nation the world has ever known, was “waging war against the rest of the world”: “The U.S. administration is now a bloodthirsty wild animal. Bombs are its only vocabulary.”
In more recent times, American support for Israel has also been a significant source of British and European tension with the United States. Most often, the blame for America’s “pro-Zionist” policy has been placed on the shoulders of the organized American Jewish community. This was also the refrain of left wing critics of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The novelist Salman Rushdie once suggested that European anti-Americanism was an altogether more petulant phenomenon than its Islamic counterpart and far more personalized. For example, he found the diatribes of Londoners against American patriotism, obesity, emotionality, or self-centeredness more offensive than the aversion of Muslim countries to America’s power, “arrogance,” and success. This observation ignores, however, the extraordinary intensity of the loathing currently exhibited in the Muslim world towards the United States. More than a decade ago, Osama bin Laden, in an interview with Al-Jazeera in December 1998, revealed the depths of this hatred:
"Every Muslim, the minute he can start differentiating, carries hate towards Americans, Jews, and Christians; this is part of our ideology. Ever since I can recall I felt at war with the Americans and had feelings of animosity and hate toward them."
Such feelings are commonplace enough among Islamists of every stripe.
Immediately after 9/11, the Palestinian Hamas, for example, issued a vitriolic “Open Letter to America” rejoicing that Allah had given the U.S. “the cup of humiliation” from which to drink deep. There were columnists in the Arab world who openly crowed that an exhilarating blow had been struck in New York against “the mythological symbol of arrogant American power” and “Jewish racist totalitarianism.” One pan-Arab journalist writing in Al-Usbú enthusiastically described the 9/11 inferno as “incandescent hell,” poeticizing about the destruction of the Twin
Anti-Americanism, like antisemitism, is impervious to empirical argument or rational discourse.
Today,it is Iran which stands at the head of a new anti-American axis. Its leaders continually rail against the world’s “arrogant powers,” led by the United States; and against Israel, the “deadly cancer” as it is usually called by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Death to America; Death to Israel!”
The indefatigable President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has led the pack in whipping up incitement, especially in threatening the State of Israel with annihilation; robustly seconded by his faithful “brother” and comrade, Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, who ritually accuses Israel of “genocide” even as he execrates the United States, denouncing it a clone of Count Dracula “always in search of petrol and blood.” Anti-Americanism and hatred of Israel still provides the ideological glue that holds together the bizarre Islamist-Marxist alliance of the early 21st century.
Anti-Americanism and antisemitism will no doubt continue to flourish whether the United States chooses to appease or to confront its enemies. Offering the olive branch to the barbaric custodians of theocracy in Tehran ignores the obvious fact that they need anti-Americanism like the very oxygen which they breathe. Indeed, the ayatollahs would be committing suicide if they were to accept President Obama’s proposal to unclench their fist. Their intransigent response to the groundswell of democratic protest in Iran since last summer has made this abundantly clear.
It is a fact that the United States has over the years done more than any other power to try to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, without anti-American feelings in the region having been diminished in any way. Similarily, it intervened to save Afghanistan from the Soviets; Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from Saddam Hussein; and Bosnian Muslims from atrocities in the Balkans. Yet this had little or no effect on anti-American sentiment. Nor are Europeans today particularly grateful to America for having liberated the Old continent from German imperial ambitions in 1917, from Nazism and Soviet Communism.
The truth is that anti-Americanism, like antisemitism, is impervious to empirical argument or rational discourse. Like other forms of bigotry, it deliberately exaggerates differences, demonizes the motivations of its adversary, and holds the object of its hatred responsible for social evils around the world. In its envy, mean-spiritedness and selective vision, contemporary anti-Americanism has become little more that the “anti-imperialism of fools”.