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August 06, 2015

Antisemitic Regimes Should be Taken at Their Word, says Historian of Holocaust and Islamic Radicalism

University of Maryland Prof. Jeffrey Herf is the author of acclaimed works on the Holocaust, modern European history and antisemitism. These include Reactionary Modernism, The Jewish Enemy, and Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World among others. His July 2 essay for The Times of Israel, “Taking the Ideas of Others Seriously: A Lesson From German History and the Iran Nuclear Issue,” is based on Herf’s May 3, 2015 address to CAMERA’s annual board luncheon in New York City. The essay relates to the current debate over the agreement reached between the United States, Germany, France, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and the Islamic Republic of Iran over the latter’s purported nuclear program—and what Herf insists is the concurrent need to heed Iranian rhetoric that is a “mix of Nazi propaganda, Islamist ideology, and a peculiarly Iranian vision of world domination.”

“The Iran debate has never been about Right and Left in any conventional sense of those terms,” Herf observes, “It has been about whether the leaders of the United States government actually believe that the Iranian leaders believe what they say again and again.”

Herf warns that the Islamic Republic—which regularly calls for “Death to America” and “Death to Israel”—should be taken at its word.

The professor notes that “the problem of underestimating the role of ideology in politics remains very much with us.” It’s a problem evidenced in Adolf Hitler’s rise and simultaneous inability of “intellectuals and policymakers” to take the German dictator’s Jew-hatred seriously.

“On numerous occasions beginning in 1939,” the CAMERA speaker noted, “Hitler publicly announced that he intended to ‘exterminate the Jewish race in Europe.’…Contrary to some conventional wisdom, he did not keep his policies about the Jews a secret, nor did he speak in euphemisms. He spoke bluntly and often about his intention to exterminate the Jews.” In a Jan. 30, 1941 speech the dictator proclaimed that “the role of Jews in Europe would be finished.”

Herf notes that in an editorial the next day, The New York Times brushed off Hitler’s proclamation, calling the dictators words “worthless.” Why did it do so? Why—he wonders—did so many feel that Hilter could be appeased and his threats were meaningless?

In Herf’s estimation this dismissiveness stemmed from a “Western tradition” in which “sophistication or ‘realism’ about the ways of the world means the refusal to take the ideas of others seriously as guides to their actions. It means,” Herf says, “viewing the ideas of others as tools, instruments, techniques, and methods in the service of other unstated but actually far more fundamental purposes. For the realist and the sophisticate, in this sense, to take the ideas of others seriously, especially when these ideas offend our understanding of common sense, is a sign of naivety and gullibility.”

Put bluntly, it’s a “rationalist bias” which allows self-styled “realists” to dismiss antisemitic conspiracy theories and threats of violence against Jews as being ridiculous on grounds that those issuing such threats and espousing those theories can’t “possibly believe such rubbish.”

Yet, Herf notes that the antisemitic beliefs of Hitler are alive and well today—including among the leaders of an Iran purportedly seeking nuclear weapons. “At its core,” he says, “the debate about Iran is one about how we interpret the core beliefs of the Iranian regime and whether we take these ideas seriously as policy.”

The noted Holocaust historian warns:

“Hilter was exceptional in many ways but he was not unusual in history in acting on the basis of firmly held beliefs. Previous generations found it hard to take those absurdities with the seriousness they deserve. We have no excuse for repeating their blunders or for reassuring ourselves optimistically that things will turn out for the best.”

The full text of Prof. Herf’s article derived from his speech to CAMERA can be found here. —Sean Durns

Posted by ER at August 6, 2015 03:29 PM

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