I have known Manfred Gerstenfeld personally for almost 20 years as a friend and intellectual mentor. Outwardly, he was the epitome of a European gentleman, always impeccably dressed and with an accent that betrayed his Viennese roots. On several trips to Jerusalem I visited him at the apartment where he lived with his wife and where – sitting in his living room packed with books and with a glass of scotch in hand – I listened to his findings about the outbreaks of anti-Semitism, which always performed frequently in Europe and other countries, admiring Gerstenfeld’s ability to identify the ideas and issues that linked seemingly unrelated events. Writes Ben Cohen
There here is a bitter joke that is told in the Netherlands that says that most of the Dutch were part of the anti-Nazi resistance but joined “after the war”. Like all good jokes, it debunks the myths we humans create about ourselves to ward off the guilt and shame our actions can generate.
But the truth – that collaboration with the German occupiers was widespread in the Netherlands during the war, that many people turned a blind eye to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the country’s Jews were deported and exterminated – cannot remain hidden forever, no matter how hard we try to deceive ourselves and others.
In that regard, Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld, who died in Jerusalem on February 25th at the age of 84, an unsurpassed master of the art of deconstructing myths in order to reveal the naked truth. He did this through his countless books and articles in which he analyzed the persistence of anti-Semitism after the Holocaust, especially in the various countries of Europe, the continent where he was born and spent most of his life.
I have known Manfred Gerstenfeld personally for almost 20 years as a friend and intellectual mentor. Outwardly, he was the epitome of a European gentleman, always impeccably dressed and with an accent that betrayed his Viennese roots. On several trips to Jerusalem I visited him at the apartment where he lived with his wife and where – sitting in his living room packed with books and with a glass of scotch in hand – I listened to his findings about the outbreaks of anti-Semitism, which always performed frequently in Europe and other countries, admiring Gerstenfeld’s ability to identify the ideas and issues that linked seemingly unrelated events.
When the so-called “new anti-Semitism” picked up speed around the turn of the century, only a few scientists, including Gerstenfeld, were able to explain that the wine was new, but the skins were old. “The widespread resurgence of European anti-Semitism after the Holocaust suggests that it is anchored in European culture and values,” he clarified in a 2005 article. Like ballet, he continued, European anti-Semitism had many critics and calumniators, and yet – again like ballet – its importance for the development of European culture was indisputable and it had retained a large number of admirers. «The statistics would probably show that the number of European anti-Semites far exceeds those who like ballet»,
Gerstenfeld’s influence has been present wherever anti-Semitism has been debated in the last two decades: the academic boycott of Israel and the even broader “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement (BDS) that sprouted noticeably after 2003; the rhetoric about Jewish money and power and double loyalty that dominated the renewed hostility towards Israel among both the extreme left and mainstream liberals and social democrats; the international controversy sparked by the publication in 2006 of the book “The Israel Lobby” by American political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt; the growing tendency to mock and distort the Holocaust in order to attack Israel and Jews in general; the global campaigns to demonize Israel as a rogue state that accompanied the wars against the Hamas regime in Gaza in 2008-09 and 2014; and the effects of mass immigration from Muslim countries on the expression of anti-Semitism in Europe.
It was precisely on this last point that Gerstenfeld’s work provoked resistance, especially from the left. His unambiguous remarks clashed with a reluctance to recognize that Muslim communities, which have undoubtedly also been victims of racism, can themselves hatch an anti-Semitism which, as we have seen several times in France in recent years, can assume a murderous quality. At an academic conference in London a few years ago, Gerstenfeld’s emphasis on the disproportionate number of Muslim attackers in reported attacks on Jews led a British professor to storm out of the room with the words “You are a racist!” yelled and demonstratively refused to have the private conversation to reduce tension that the always polite barley field offered him.
But everyone who met Gerstenfeld knew that he was not a person who made concessions to political dogmas of all stripes. The worldview of many nationalists and Christian Democrats would probably have been shaken if they had read Gerstenfeld’s 2005 analysis of the three most important strategic mistakes that Europe made after the Second World War.
The first mistake, he said – anticipating a similar complaint by American conservatives more than a decade later – was Europe’s “unwillingness to take responsibility for its own defense against totalitarian communism.” This has led to a “low-resistance mentality,” which assumed that protecting the continent from threats such as communism and later Islamist terrorism was the responsibility of others, especially the United States.
The second mistake, according to Gerstenfeld, was that Europe’s dependence on Arab and Iranian oil broke the last moral backbone of its political leaders. A long-forgotten example of this was the decision of French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1977 to grant political asylum to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who two years later led the Islamist takeover of power in Iran. By placing its energy interests first, according to Gerstenfeld, France played a key role in legitimizing a regime that, more than 40 years later, posed an existential threat around the world.
Europe’s third mistake, according to Gerstenfeld, is “excessive dependence” on immigration to promote its economic prosperity. Foreign immigrants, mostly from Europe’s Muslim neighbors and former colonies, “were needed to provide labor, to make up for the deficit in Europe’s birth rates and also to guarantee future pensions for those who work today.”
Taken together, these three “mistakes” had profound negative consequences for the Jewish communities in Europe as well as for European relations with the State of Israel. They also played a crucial role in ensuring that Europe could slip back into the role of “world conscience” after four centuries of imperial expansion – by combating racism and defending itself against alleged American and Israeli intimidation in the Middle East.
The Jewish people were lucky that Gerstenfeld tirelessly unmasked these ongoing hypocrisies. Like all great thinkers, he will not be easily replaced, although his influence will certainly continue. May his memory be a blessing.
Ben Cohen is a New York City-based journalist and author. First published in English by Jewish News Syndicate.