Think Again: Robert Wistrich — A great Jewish champion

So astounding was Rober Wistrich's productivity, in so many different areas, it’s hard to believe he was only 70.

Robert Wistrich (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Robert Wistrich
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
With the untimely passing of Prof. Robert Wistrich on May 19, not only did the world lose the preeminent scholar of anti-Semitism, but the Jewish people lost one of its greatest champions.
He passed away in Rome, where he was to address members of the Italian Senate later in the day on the rising anti-Semitism in Italy and the rest of Europe.
So astounding was his productivity, in so many different areas, it’s hard to believe he was only 70. And yet it is equally hard to believe that someone so active and vigorous could have been felled so suddenly. The week before his fatal heart attack, he delivered a major address at the Fifth Global Forum on Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem, where he briefly tossed aside his prepared remarks to take issue with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro’s presentation preceding his.
“If things are so good,” he began, “why are they so bad?” An op-ed based on his prepared remarks appeared posthumously in The Jerusalem Post.
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His scholarly production was remarkable by any measure. He produced 18 books, most of them of considerable length. Not long after I had interviewed and profiled Wistrich for Mishpacha magazine in 2011 on his book Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism – From Antiquity to the Global Jihad, a massive tome of 938 pages with nearly 200 pages of endnotes, his publicist sent me his next magnum opus, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel. Wistrich wrote these important works, it would seem, almost as quickly as the normal person could read them.
But he was no cloistered academic producing works for a small scholarly audience. He propagated his findings as widely as possible. To that end, he scripted a three-part PBS series based on his work, The Longest Hatred, and he spoke frequently at popular as well as academic venues around the world.
He told a group of young Jews in England, where he grew up, that he did not see a future for Jews in England and that they should think seriously about making aliya. Given the public vitriol directed at Jews and Israel in England, he told me, “I don’t see how any self-respecting Jew can want to live in such a society.”
like to focus on three aspects of Wistrich’s work, the discussion of which primarily occupied us during our hours of conversations.
The first is his in-depth work on Islamic anti-Semitism, a subject many academics shy away from due to not wanting to be accused of Islamophobia. Yet The Lethal Obsession, despite its subtitle Anti-Semitism – From Antiquity to the Global Jihad, focuses primarily on the last 20 years, and on Islamic anti-Semitism in particular.
I asked him why the book was so long.
He responded, “I felt it was essential that the case be made absolutely irrefutable. I didn’t want critics to say that I was cherry- picking quotations from a few isolated figures to create a tendentious picture of the Palestinians or the Muslim world.”
It is not a story, he pointed out, likely to come out of the academic study of Islam – most of which is conducted in Middle East Studies departments scandalously dependent on Gulf oil money.
He showed how terms like “Islamism” and “Islamofascism” are not just pejoratives thrown about wildly, but rather terms of art referring to clearly defined phenomena. At the heart of Islamism, or radical Islamic ideology, “is the call for jihad to restore the world-wide caliphate through conquest.”
And Islamofascism refers to the ways in which Hitler’s ideas of a cosmic struggle between Aryans and Jews have infiltrated and infected the Muslim world. The grand mufti of Jerusalem, the founding father of Palestinian nationalism, spent the war years in Berlin, where he was feted as a major ally by Hitler. The mufti’s portrayal of Jews as a cancer that needed to be excised from the Middle East, Wistrich noted, long preceded Israel, much less the settlements.
The commonalities between Hitler’s cosmology and modern Islamic anti-Semitism is a point lost on US President Barack Obama. In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama was asked whether it is really possible to treat Iran as a reliable negotiating partner, given that their anti-Semitism warps every aspect of their thinking. The president responded that anti-Semitism might affect the Iranians’ thinking “at the margins, where the costs are low,” but does not preclude being rational about “the need to keep your economy afloat.”
Wistrich would have termed that comment an example of the “inability of the modern liberal imagination to take fanatically held religious dogma seriously, or to credit the possibility that it could hold sway over millions of people.”
Obama noted further that the scourge of anti-Semitism once existed in the US as well, but the holders of such views did not, in general, act irrationally against their self-interest. The president would have benefited from a course from Wistrich in the typologies of anti-Semitism. There is a world of difference between genteel bourgeois anti-Semitism, a certain reluctance to associate socially with Jews, and the “obsessional” or “exterminationist” anti-Semitism of those who view Jewish conspiracies as the source of all evil in the world, and whose thinking entirely revolves around the cosmic struggle against the Jews.
Obsessional anti-Semites, from Hitler to Ayatollah Khomeini, fully believe what they say. Wistrich related that he had once interviewed the late Hamas leader Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi for a BBC program. And there was no question that the gentle, soft-spoken physician was fully convinced of the authenticity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, cited in the Hamas charter.
In addition to its relevance to the Iranian nuclear issue, Wistrich was convinced that obsessional anti-Semitism was central to the Palestinian issue.
“Anti-Semitism,” he once told a group of Muslim students, “is toxic to any society that inculcates it, and it poisoning the body politic of Islam today.”
For that reason, he doubted the Palestinians could create a state today that would guarantee minimal levels of human rights, as a quick look at Gaza confirms.
Nor did he think Israel could do anything to make the Palestinians statehood- ready, “as long as Palestinian nationalism defines itself exclusively in terms of the negation of Zionism, and remains backward-looking, fixated on some fantasy utopia before the Jews came.”
A SECOND major contribution of Wistrich to the study of anti-Semitism was that he did not shy away from pointing a finger at the Left as the source of much contemporary anti-Semitism.
The Left and anti-Semitism was not just the subject of his last major work, but of three others before that.
He himself had grown to maturity on the Left, and viewed his early immersion in leftist thought to have been a great advantage in his subsequent academic work. As a young man, he confessed, “I knew all the Marxist classics nearly by heart.” During a year of graduate work in Israel, he became the de-facto editor of New Outlook, a journal put out by circles close to Martin Buber.
But as early as 1975, he sided with Simon Wiesenthal, against Austria’s Jewish Socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who wanted to shut down Wiesenthal’s work in Vienna.
FINALLY, I want to address Robert Wistrich the proud Jew. Though he did not publicly identify as religiously observant, he had a profound sense of the Jewish people’s historic mission. In Lethal Obsession, he approvingly quotes Catholic theologian Jean Maritain’s attribution of anti-Semitism to the Jewish “vocation” of bringing the world to the knowledge of God.
Contemporary anti-Semitism has had a profound impact on the self-image of Jews today, he argued, precisely because Jews are so far removed from knowledge of their history.
In my opinion, that is the main reason he undertook to author the text of an exhibition titled “People, Book, Land – The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People to the Holy Land,” jointly sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and (in a feat of diplomatic legerdemain by the center’s Rabbi Abraham Cooper) UNESCO.
But that exhibit was first and foremost for Jews. Four years ago, he told me, “Our... leaders seem to lack confidence in the inalienable rights of the Jewish people to Zion. It all begins with the Torah. I’m not speaking about debating tactics but of our fundamental self-understanding, upon which our national strength must be based.” And he similarly concluded his final speech, at the Global Conference, with an impassioned call for a reassertion of Jewish values and the Jewish vocation so that we can fulfill our mission of being a “light unto the nations.”
“Doesn’t the immersion in the unending history of anti-Semitism – its irrationality, its ability to endlessly adopt new forms, its potential to turn lethal – leave you depressed?” I asked him. He acknowledged that he “could not have looked into the abyss for so long were it not for [his]... belief in the eternity of the Jewish people.”
“When I put on tefillin in the morning, I do feel the Divine protection of Shomer Israel,” he shared.
One of the most powerful lessons of the study of history, he continued, is that there is a self-destructive mechanism plaguing those who set out to destroy the Jewish people, from Haman to Hitler.
May it ever be thus, and may Wistrich’s memory be for a blessing.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in
The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.