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Lessons of Lepanto

In his excellent new book about the Battle of Lepanto of 1571, Victory of the West, Niccoló Capponi describes the reaction of the Ottoman Sultan, Selim II, when his courtiers finally dared to tell him the news of the Turkish defeat. Everyone else in Edirne had known about the disaster for two days, and the sultan had repeatedly inquired about the cause of the cries and lamentations to be heard outside the palace. Capponi quotes an account given by Don Cesare Carafa to the Duke of Urbino, based on information from Venetian spies:

The third night, with the whole city wailing and screaming because no one could hide any more the grief for such a loss, the Great Turk, concerned and irked by all the moans and tears, demanded to hear the truth. It was answered that it was impossible now to hide the news that his fleet had been all burnt, sunk and taken by the Christians, with the death of all his great soldiers, captains and his General. Hearing this he gave a deep sigh and said, “So, these treacherous Jews have deceived me!” And having the Lord’s utterance spread through the palace and the streets, everyone started shouting, “Death to the Jews; death to the Jews!” and there was much fear that this would degenerate into a general massacre.

Christians defeat Muslims; Muslims blame the Jews. Haven’t we heard this somewhere before? The creation of Israel by the United Nations was followed by the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Muslim world. In the first Gulf war, an American-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, so Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel. The destruction of al Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan was followed by attacks on Jewish targets. In the second Gulf war, Iraq was liberated by an American-led coalition, so Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

Anti-Semites usually react to defeat in this way. Hitler came to power partly because he was able to persuade Germans that their defeat in the Great War was the fault of the Jews. Hitler himself exhibited the same pathology. Though it is difficult to prove a causal connection, the Wannsee conference, at which the orders for the “Final Solution” were given to Nazi officials, came within weeks of Hitler’s defeat at Moscow and his declaration of war on the United States. Realizing that the war was ultimately lost, Hitler blamed the Jews and tried to annihilate them.

What is even more insidious, however, has been the way in which many people who do not consider themselves anti-Semites have adopted this mindset. Every al-Qaeda attack is blamed on Israel, directly or indirectly. The misfortunes of the United States in Iraq are blamed on the “Israel lobby,” while many Europeans blame Israel for everything they resent about America.

The re-emergence of this syndrome in Europe bodes ill for the Jews of that continent, but it also implies that the transatlantic community of values and interests is in danger of breaking down. What else is meant by the unity of “the West” if not a common rejection of the old reflexes that made scapegoats of the Jews on the slightest pretext?

Sultan Selim “the Sallow” had not been systematically anti-Semitic: his chief adviser was a Jew, Joseph Nassi, whom he made Duke of Naxos. Capponi describes Nassi as “something of a proto-Zionist,” for he tried to persuade the King of France to establish a Jewish settlement on Lake Tiberias. This improbable project failed. But Nassi, too, was made a scapegoat: when he died in 1579, Selim’s successor Murad III seized all his possessions. Behind the paranoid accusations against the “treacherous Jews,” greed and avarice lurked, as so often before and since. The Venetians, to whom we owe much of the traditional narrative of Lepanto, depicted Nassi as the “evil genius” who had egged on Selim II to conquer the Mediterranean—another anti-Semitic stereotype commonly encountered today.

Lepanto was indeed a decisive victory for the West—but that does not exhaust its most pertinent lessons for our time. I have reviewed Victory of the West (Da Capo Press, $27.50) at greater length in a forthcoming issue of the New Criterion. Capponi’s book should be required reading for those who lack historical perspective on the present jihad—which means most of us.



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