Richard Landes: Interview About Anti-Semitism

Historians in the News

Boston University History Professor Richard Landes discusses his new media watch-dog project, the performance of the press, the rise of anti-Semitism, Pallywood, and more.

"I've got to tell you about the dream I had last night..."

I'm in the passenger seat of Richard Landes' car. We're running a quick errand before we sit down for our interview.

"I'm driving along in my car and I pull into a parking garage where I don’t have a permit...suddenly I notice there's something moving all over the floor...It's rats! The floor is covered with rats. And suddenly, I realize I'm not in my car, I'm on a motorcycle. They're all around me, climbing on me and when I try and pull them off I can’t."

He's clearly been giving his new project, in which, he, a medieval historian, is parking in the media’s garage, a lot of thought.

We're heading over to an office to deliver a video tape of a debate the professor has just participated in. He leans over to me, this self-described Man of the Left, and says in a confiding tone, "Of the three participants...I was the right-winger." He rolls his eyes.

That's the state of things in 2005, where a guy who simply wants the truth to be told, who wants a little fairness -- fairness for the Jews, for Israel, for America...and for the Palestinians, too -- can be considered "right wing."

"I'm not about truth per se," he's quick to correct me. "I'm for honesty -- that's something different. Look, the post-modern argument is that there is no such thing as objective truth. Right? Everybody's got a story. Ultimately in a sense they're right, because if you're only going to say things that are objectively true, that are not contested, that are not dependent on people's perceptions, then you're only going to say, for instance, 'the man died.' You can't even say, 'that man killed him,' much less, 'he murdered him.' OK? You could say, 'he killed him,' if, say, you got a picture of him slicing the other guy's head off. If you say, 'he killed him,' we're still in the realm of objective truth. Everyone's going to agree. But murder? That's motive, and motive is a judgment call.

So 'objective truth' means we pass no judgments. Now I personally think that if you can't pass judgments, you're not going to last long. It doesn't say much about you as a moral being."

"I had a student who came to me the other day during office hours. He's doing a paper on the Nazis. He's writing a bibliographical essay and there's a book he's describing, and his summary says something along the lines of, 'This was a very interesting book, but it's pretty biased and I don't know how much I can rely on it, but there are still some facts I can use even though most of it is biased.'

What's its bias, I ask him? 'Well, it's very critical of the Nazis.'" Landes laughs and shakes his head.

"Where did we go wrong?"

"The point is that objectivity is a trap. There have to be judgments. We have to pay attention to different narratives and so-on, yes. I'm post-modern in that sense, but I don't think that because there's no objectivity, there can't be any honesty.

And honesty is what's gone out. The radical-relativists say, 'Hey, the Palestinians have their story.' Well I say, sure they have their story, and by all means listen to it. But how accurate is it? Just because you need to listen to it, doesn’t force you to believe it."

We stop the car to drop off the video tape. We're in the elevator and he asks me, "Did you ever think it would get this bad? The anti-Semitism?" I shake my head.

"I think it's amazing the kind of explosion of anti-Semitism you've been seeing," he continues, "and not just in the Arab World. I mean, you know, everyone knew it was there. Everyone knew belief in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the like was wide-spread, but the outpouring and the hysteria that's been happening, and the resonance they've gotten in Europe has been really..." He trails off.

"You know you can date things that way. Before the year 2000, Alan Dershowitz was writing about the disappearance of the American Jew partly because anti-Semitism was over -- people were saying that anti-Semitism was fading. In 1998 or 1999 very few Jews would say that our existence was threatened...but since's different.

Suddenly it's hitting home to a lot people who never thought about it before. No, it's not just hitting home, it's hitting! Most people had no idea there was this much resentment, that the Brits and the French were only waiting for an excuse..."

[NOTE: This interview continues.]

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