Prof. Robert Wistrich, the world’s foremost authority on anti-Semitism, died of a heart attack in Rome on Tuesday evening at the age of 70.
According to a report in La Stampa, he was due to address the Italian Senate on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.
As head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Wistrich was a much sought after lecturer and the author of dozens of books and scholarly essays on anti-Semitism.
Although he was born in 1945 in Kazakhstan to parents who had fled Poland in search of a haven from anti-Semitism, Wistrich grew up in England, earning both his BA and MA at the University of Cambridge and a PhD at the University of London. He has headed the Vidal Sassoon Center since 2002.
Declared the “leading scholar in the field of anti-Semitism study” by The Journal for the Study of Antisemitism in 2011, his expertise has been avidly sought out by think tanks, Jewish organizations, and governments. From 1999 until 2001 he was part of a special Catholic- Jewish commission tasked with examining the wartime role of Pope Pius XII.
Wistrich also served as rapporteur on anti-Semitism and related issues for the US State Department, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Council of Europe, the United Nations Commission on Antisemitism and Human Rights, and the Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
His most renowned works are Socialism and the Jews (Oxford University Press, 1985), which received the American Jewish Committee award; The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph (OUP, 1991), which won the Austrian State Prize for Danubian History and Anti-Semitism; and The Longest Hatred (Pantheon, 1992), which received the H.H. Wingate Prize for nonfiction in the UK.
The Longest Hatred was also the basis for a PBS documentary, which Wistrich wrote and co-edited. His most recent works include Hitler and the Holocaust (Random House, 2001), and the co-edited volume Nietzsche – Godfather of Fascism? (Princeton, 2002).
An outspoken critic of European policy regarding anti-Semitism and a pessimist when it came to the future of European communities, Wistrich was unafraid to assert his views no matter how unpopular or politically incorrect.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post not long before his death, Wistrich said that, while he believes France has made good-faith efforts in the past, unless Europeans face up to the treatment of Israel in the media and the link between Muslim immigrant populations and anti-Semitism, all the efforts being made are “no more than tinkering with the surface of things.
“You have the denial, for instance, that there is any relationship between so-called criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, but, in fact, most of what goes by the name of criticism of Israel is feeding on a daily basis the growing demonization of the Jewish state, which in turn spills over, I would say, almost with mathematical inevitability into some form of dislike, hostility, or even loathing of Jews,” he said.
“Governments treat the whole Muslim issue as taboo. They won’t touch it. They will rarely ever admit that there is such a thing as Muslim anti-Semitism – for political reasons they won’t admit it. So we have this kind of paralyzing political correctness.
It’s very difficult to even take the first step in the right direction and that’s not going to happen.”
Wistrich’s “lasting legacy as a fearless fighter against the scourge of anti-Semitism was on full display just days ago at the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, where he cautioned in his signature sagely manner that the dangers inherent in Islamic anti-Semitism – a topic of his extensive research – must be tackled headon with disregard for fashionable political correctness.
“His untimely death leaves a gaping hole in the ranks of the fearless few who took on the haters and outed them,” said B’nai B’rith World Center director Alan Schneider.
Wistrich had warned of the dangers now facing the Jewish community, noted Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, calling his passing “a tragic loss to his family as well to the entire Jewish community and to all those engaged in the efforts to counter resurgent anti-Semitism.
“He always backed his assertions with in-depth research and factual substantiation. His voice will be sorely missed,” Hoenlein said.
Irwin Cotler, a member of the Canadian Parliament and a former minister of justice and attorney-general of Canada, who is the co-founder and past chairman of the International Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism, said: “The world of academe has lost an outstanding scholar and historian; the world of Jewish studies has lost a seminal thinker; and those involved in the study of, and struggle against, anti-Semitism, have lost the world’s preeminent scholar of anti-Semitism and the most powerful advocate against it.
Wistrich’s role as an educator was especially important, recalled Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev.
“His discussions with educators at the International School for Holocaust Studies of Yad Vashem, in explaining the phenomenon of modern anti-Semitism to teachers from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, China and other countries around the world, added an important dimension to their studies. He was able to simplify a complex and centuries-long phenomenon in a way that could be understood and tackled,” he said.
Wistrich’s death came at a moment “when his voice was so needed in the emerging discussion of anti-Semitism,” commented noted Holocaust historian Dr. Deborah Lipstadt.
Wistrich’s final article was in the process of being edited for inclusion in an upcoming issue of The Israel Journal of Foreign Relations when he died, said Israel Council of Foreign Relations director Dr. Laurence Weinbaum, a longtime friend. Wistrich was a member of the council’s board.
“An eloquent and riveting speaker, he was an indefatigable champion in the struggle against what he evocatively called ‘the lethal obsession’ and ‘the longest hatred.’ His death comes as a devastating blow to all of us; yet his prodigious, canonical work will guide and inspire future generations,” Weinbaum said.
“The Robert Wistrich I came to know and love was first and foremost a ferocious defender of his people,” said Simon Wiesenthal Center associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper. “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 lines – 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 was a scholar committed to the sober documentation of facts and the highest caliber of scholarship,” noted Dr. Charles Small, the executive director of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy.
Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman called Wistrich a “good and wise man” whom he would miss “dearly,” adding that he “combined impeccable scholarship with a passion for disseminating as broadly as possible understanding about the current threats facing the Jewish people.”
“I am profoundly saddened by the loss of a dear teacher whose classes I took when he was first in Israel, whose integration I helped facilitate, and whose career I have followed ever since,” lamented Hebrew University president Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson.
Jerusalem Post staff and Benjamin Weinthal contributed to this report.