A tribute to Robert Wistrich: Revered teacher and ferocious defender of ‘Klal Yisrael'

Today we accompany Professor Robert Wistrich to his final resting place on Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot, which literally means “the Mount of Those who are Resting.”

By ABRAHAM COOPER
May 21, 2015 17:46
3 minute read.
Robert Wistrich

Robert Wistrich. (photo credit: HEBREW UNIVERSITY)

Today we accompany Professor Robert Wistrich to his final resting place on Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot, which literally means “the Mount of Those who are Resting.” But while Robert Wistrich lived there was no rest for this brilliant, kind and soft-spoken professor. He died of a heart attack in Rome earlier this week where he had been about to address the Italian Senate on the renewed scourge of European anti-Semitism.

Wistrich will long be remembered by academics for his prolific work on this issue. His colleagues and friends, myself included, were awed by his incredibly organized mind, brilliant writing, wry wit and especially by his menschlichkeit and openness.

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But the Robert Wistrich I came to know and love was first and foremost a ferocious defender of his people. In an era when too many highly placed Jewish academics fail to speak up in defense of the State of Israel, Robert was always on the front line – even when it meant standing alone. He was not only a brilliant wordsmith but also a key strategic thinker whom Jewish activists like myself came to rely upon for guidance and inspiration. Robert, along with Natan Sharansky and Irwin Cotler, was among the key Jewish thinkers who helped formulate the response to vile new threats against Israel’s legitimacy presented at the infamous United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001.

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Wistrich was at his best last week when he delivered a passionate and powerful call to arms at the 5th Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism. The Jerusalem Post published his last speech, which confirms a remarkably organized mind. In it, he told 1,000 activists what they needed – not necessarily what they wanted – to hear. He outlined the threats from the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaigns, Islamist Terrorism and what Wistrich labeled the “religion” of “Palestinianism.”

In his final public speech Wistrich also referred to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s new exhibition, The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People With the Holy Land. Professor Wistrich’s genius and human skills were on full display both as the author of the exhibition and as he helped my colleague Dr. Shimon Samuels and I succeed in gaining official UNESCO co-sponsorship. Robert patiently defended his narrative before no less than four “academic reviews” and helped us overcome the formal opposition of 22 Arab states.

The exhibition opened last June at UNESCO headquarters and a few weeks ago at UN headquarters in New York at the delegates’ entrance to the UN General Assembly. The exhibition will soon open at the US Congress and we hope to dedicate its presentation at the Knesset to Professor Wistrich’s memory.

Finally, the integrity and humanity of Robert Wistrich was often taken for granted by those who knew him well, but his impact on people could be profound. We received the following words of condolence and tribute from Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO:

“Professor Wistrich was a man of absolute integrity, guided by deep and abiding belief in the human rights and dignity of every woman and man. His works on Zionism and anti-Semitism...stand, indeed, as powerful references, underpinned by unique lucidity and unparalleled research...Professor Wistrich brought all this to authoring the exhibition of the Simon Wiesenthal Center that was presented at UNESCO in June 2014...UNESCO is proud to have been the first UN agency to organize such an exhibition on the relationship between the Jewish People and the Holy Land, reaffirming the Organization’s role as a universal platform for intellectual cooperation and intercultural dialogue....

“You may rest assured that, inspired by the resounding example set by Professor Wistrich, I am determined that UNESCO redouble its efforts in these directions, at a time when mutual understanding and respect has never been so important.”

Yehei Zichro Baruch!

The author, a rabbi, is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and was project director for the center’s 3,500 Year Relationship Between the Jewish People and The Holy Land exhibition, authored by the late Robert Wistrich.


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