Last week, Professor Robert S. Wistrich, head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and widely considered the world’s leading scholar on anti-Semitism, tragically died of a heart attack in Rome last week at age 70, just before he was about to address the Italian Senate on anti-Semitism.
His untimely death came as a great shock to all those involved in the endless fight against antisemitism, and he has been eulogized in many media outlets. Here are just a few which help emphasise the enormous contribution Prof. Wistrich made in his field.
From Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld in the Jewish Press:
Professor Robert Wistrich, a”h, was our leading historian of anti-Semitism who published important books in other fields of history as well. The combination of his intellectual depth and prolific authorship reflected his expertise in many aspects of the anti-Semitism field.
His presence was most important in an area where the number of scholars has unfortunately not caught up with the recent explosion of hatred and its mutations, from despising the Jewish religion and Jewish people to the defamation of the Jewish state.
… When Robert took over as head of the university’s Vidal Sassoon International Center in 2002, he transformed it into a leading force for the publication of a broad array of anti-Semitism scholarship, covering many countries and subjects.
Robert was not only a skillful writer but a sophisticated speaker as well. Born of Polish Jewish parents in the Soviet Union, English was not his mother tongue but one among the several languages he mastered. This and his encyclopedic knowledge allowed him to gain deep insight into various cultures.
It is impossible to review all of Robert’s works unless one writes a lengthy essay, so I will focus on some of his more recent publications. His magnum opus, A Lethal Obsession, subtitled Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, came out in 2010. Its individual chapters can be read as self-standing essays.
Extreme masochistic trends, including psychological self-flagellation, regularly occur among Jews. In this book, Robert devoted an entire chapter to “Jews against Zion.” He covered the history of Jewish self-haters, beginning with the apostates in Christian Spain after the massacres of the Jews in 1391. He referred to a statement by the 19th century Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler: “Anti-Semitism did not succeed until the Jews began to sponsor it.”
Many scholars look away from the widespread anti-Semitism emanating from Muslim states and from parts of the Muslim population in Western countries. Despite the inevitable backlash, Robert remained outspoken when his post-9/11 essay on Muslim anti-Semitism, originally published in English, was updated and republished in German in 2011. Therein, Robert claimed that the hardcore anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world is comparable only to that of Nazi Germany.
Expressing such an opinion was far more than an academic judgment. It was an act of courage. Gentler criticism about extreme ugly phenomena in Muslim societies was already being labeled as Islamophobia. Such criticism is constantly stifled not only by Muslims but also by many “politically correct” Westerners. Robert explicitly stated that Muslim hatred for Israel and Jews is “an eliminatory anti-Semitism with a genocidal dimension.”
From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel came out in 2012. The book includes the chapter, “Great Britain: A Suitable Case for Treatment?”
Probably more than anyone else, Robert showed how anti-Semitism is not only inherent in European history but that is an integral part of European culture.
Robert was a passionate and tireless fighter for his ideas. A comrade-in-arms against the many ugly enemies of the Jewish people and a man of principle, I had the privilege of last speaking with him – a lengthy, and as always, stimulating and pleasant conversation – during the recent Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, a few days before his passing. His sense of purpose remained unabated until the very end.
Like all great intellectuals, he will live on through the legacy of his profound work and original thought.
Ben Cohen writes a very moving eulogy in JNS, reprinted in the Algemeiner:
In the short period that I knew him, I learned much from Robert, the author of nearly 30 books and countless academic papers, newspaper articles, and speeches. Above all, I understood through him that one can be both an unapologetically proud Jew and an incisive writer and thinker. Robert spoke with the accent of an educated, erudite Englishman, yet his material and spiritual home was in the city of Jerusalem, rather than a salon in Bloomsbury.
Robert spent the bulk of his academic career at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, where he directed the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism. In my experience, most people, upon hearing that such a center is named after a man primarily associated with grooming and beauty, react with bemusement, amusement, or some combination of the two. But actually, there was a very good reason. Sassoon had come of age in London just after the Second World War, when he actively participated in running street battles with Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist Blackshirts, who were then attempting a resurgence. Thanks to Sassoon and his Jewish comrades in the “43 Group”—whose name derived from the fact that there were 43 of them in the room above an east London pub where the group was launched—these odious and deceitful bigots received a hiding, both physically and politically, from which they thankfully never recovered.
Sassoon “was absolutely driven by the sense that one had to do something because antisemitism was always there beneath the surface,” Robert told me for an article I wrote for Tablet just after Sassoon died. “It wasn’t an academic point of view, it was a moral one based on his own experience.”
Despite his enviable academic credentials, much the same could be said of Robert himself. He was a man who understood that deciphering anti-Semitism is only part of the challenge; leading the fight against it is arguably more important.
Even as I grieve for the passing of my dear friend and mentor, and the wonderful family he leaves behind, I give thanks for his scholarship and his example. Robert may be gone, but in the enormous volume of work he bequeathed, he continues to guide us.
Bless you, Robert. Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet.
Shortly before he died, Prof. wistrich z”l addressed the Global Forum on Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem (via UK Media Watch). Here is the video of his speech:
Wistrich wrote a column for The Jerusalem Post which was intended to be published the week after the Global Forum. Following his death, the JPost decided to publish it immediately, as a tribute to such a great scholar.
In the column Anti-Semitism and Jewish Destiny, Prof. Wistrich describes the different kinds of anti-Semitism, and how anti-Zionism has morphed into anti-Semitism:
In my own remarks to the conference I emphasized the need to free ourselves from certain outdated myths. My first point was that even today, Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are fixated on the dangers of far-right traditional anti-Semitism – whether racist, religious or nationalist. While neo-fascism has not altogether disappeared, it is in most cases a secondary threat.
Second, there is an illusory belief that more Holocaust education and memorialization can serve as an effective antidote to contemporary anti-Semitism. This notion, shared by many governments and well-meaning liberal gentiles, is quite unfounded. On the contrary, today “Holocaust inversion” (the perverse transformation of Jews into Nazis and Muslims into victimized “Jews”) all-too-often becomes a weapon with which to pillory Israel and denigrate the Jewish people. Hence the approach to this entire subject requires considerable rethinking, updating and fine-tuning.
Third, we must recognize much more clearly than before that since 1975 (with the passing of the scandalous UN resolution condemning Zionism as racism) hatred of Israel has increasingly mutated into the chief vector for the “new” anti-Semitism.
Fourth, today’s anti-Semitism is a product of a new civic religion that could be termed “Palestinianism.”
My fifth point is closely related to this reality. Since the turn of the 21st century, anti-Semitism has undergone a process of growing “Islamicization,” linked to the terrorist holy war against Jews and other non-Muslims with its truly lethal consequences.
My sixth observation relates to the need for Israelis and Diaspora Jews to rediscover, redefine and reassess their Jewish identity, core Jewish values and the depth of their own connection to the Land of Israel as well as to their historic heritage. I was privileged to have authored two years ago the exhibition “People, Book, Land – The 3,500-Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land” for the bold project initiated by the Simon Wiesenthal Center together with UNESCO. Against all the odds and in the face of predictable opposition, it opened at UNESCO headquarters in Paris in June 2014.
Wistrich then concludes:
I believe that in an age of Jewish empowerment, living in a sovereign and democratic Israeli state, we can and must first clarify for ourselves our vocation, raison d’être, moral priorities, and the deeper meaning of our near-miraculous return to the historic homeland.
This is the other side of the coin in our essential and relentless fight against anti-Semitism. As we celebrate Jerusalem Day let us be worthy of the scriptural promise that “the Torah will come forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
Here, in the beating heart of the Jewish nation, where its body and soul come together in the City of Peace, we must be true to the national and universal vision of our biblical prophets. Anti-Semitism, the long shadow which has for so long accompanied our bi-millennial Diasporic tribulations, and nearly 70 years of renewed statehood, is neither “eternal” nor must it prevent Jews from fulfilling their ultimate destiny to one day become a “light unto the nations.”
Adam Levick at UK Media Watch wrote a moving In Memoriam of Robert Wistrich z”l, and includes a video of a speech that Robert Wistrcih z”l gave to a CAMERA event in Jerusalem earlier this year. Read the article and watch the video.
What a huge loss to students of antisemitism, what a loss to defenders of Israel, and what an enormous loss to the Jewish People. May his memory be for a blessing and may his family be comforted amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
ברוך דיין אמת. יהי זכרו ברוך.