The course of Middle East politics probably won’t be changed drastically by the news, reported October 3 in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was born Jewish. But the disclosure is intriguing enough to spark a whole new line of speculation. The Forward’s Nathan Guttman suggests that Ahmadinejad’s obsessive Jew-bashing may be an extreme case of Jewish self-hatred. Nathan’s being playful, but the Telegraph quotes scholars who take the idea seriously.
According to the Telegraph, Ahmadinejad was born to a Jewish family named Sabourjian, which can be translated “tallis-weaver.” Mahmoud’s father Ahmad Sabourjian changed the name when the family converted to Islam — which took place, the paper says, after the future president’s birth.
The Telegraph actually isn’t the first to out Ahmadinejad as a Jew. Radio Free Europe carried the news back in January 2009, following a blog post on the topic by the son of a pro-Ahmadinejad cleric. But the Telegraph goes further: It found an official document that seems to confirm Ahmadinejad’s origins.
Not everybody is buying it. Politico quotes Iranian-born Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar, who wrote a biography of the Iranian leader, pooh-poohing the whole notion. On the other hand, it’s possible that Javedanfar is just peeved because he missed the scoop.
It’s important to recall that Ahmadinejad is not the first prominent Jew-hater with roots in the community. Indeed, he joins a proud line. Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky, perhaps the most influential antisemite in post-Soviet Russia, admitted in a 2001 book — after years of denying it — that his father, Wolf Eidelshtein, was Jewish. Zhirinovsky himself bore the name Eidelshtein until he had it changed at age 18.
Then there’s Brooklyn-born chess master Bobby Fischer, who had a Jewish mother and a German father. He began spewing wildly antisemitic ideas during his eccentric, paranoia-plagued later years in self-imposed exile.
But no one has yet matched the self-loathing antisemitism of the champion antisemite of all time, Adolf Hitler. He may or may not have had a Jewish grandfather but he was haunted by the possibility that he might have. Hitler’s father Alois was born out of wedlock, and the identity of Alois’s father — Adolf’s paternal grandfather — remains unknown. One persistent theory is that the old guy was Jewish, possibly a businessman who employed Alois’s mother Maria as a domestic. Most respectable Hitler scholars dismiss the idea, but it seems unquestionable that Hitler himself was quite anxious about it, as psycho-historian George Victor wrote convincingly in his 1998 book “Hitler: The Pathology of Evil.” Among the bits of evidence of Hitler’s anxiety is the widely reported fact that Hitler went into a panic when his British-born nephew William tried briefly to blackmail Uncle Adolf in the 1930s by threatening to go public with the family secret.
An odd sidebar: Nephew Willy Hitler ended up settling on Long Island during the war years, and after a brief lecture tour (based on his Look magazine article, “Why I Hate My Uncle”) and a stint in the U.S. Navy he married and changed his last name in order to sever the family link. Three of his four sons still live in Patchogue, L.I., where they tried for years to avoid publicity and tried to keep their new last name secret. None of them ever married or had children, reputedly so that the Hitler line can come to an end. Curiously, though, Willy’s oldest son is named Alexander Adolf, something the son still says he’s at a loss to explain. And the family name that Willy chose for his sons to bear is Stuart-Houston, a seemingly transparent homage to Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the father of the theory that Germany has a historic mission to destroy the Jews. Whoops.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).