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The legacy of Robert Wistrich, world’s leading scholar of anti-Semitism

Click photo to download. Caption: Robert Wistrich. Credit: Douglas Guthrie.
Click photo to download. Caption: Robert Wistrich. Credit: Douglas Guthrie.

The cemetery in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul neighborhood was bathed in the fading sunlight of a late May afternoon. Silently and steadily, the column of mourners wound their way towards an open grave, surrounded by glinting white headstones, inhaling the heady scent of the cypress trees that flourish on the adjacent hillsides. As the mourners came to a halt, a rabbi recited the Jewish memorial prayer, El Male Rachamim, his sorrowful tones punctuated by the crunch of the gravel underfoot and the gentle sobs of the family of the deceased.

The mourners, of whom I was one, had come in tribute to one of the greatest Jewish intellectuals of the last century. Many of us had flown thousands of miles to be there. I think it’s reasonable to say that for all of us, the reality of our loss became apparent only at that moment, as the grave was filled with fresh earth. It was true, terribly, shockingly true. We really were saying our final farewell to Professor Robert Wistrich.

I learned of Robert’s death on Tuesday afternoon, May 19. Less than 24 hours later, I was on a plane from New York to Tel Aviv. In my seat, a novel open on my lap, I found myself reading the same sentence over and over again. Consumed by sadness and unable to concentrate, I closed my book, swallowed a sleeping pill, and woke up shortly before we landed at Ben Gurion Airport.

For the last three years, I was fortunate to enjoy the friendship and intellectual support of Robert, unquestionably the world’s leading scholar of anti-Semitism. We had first met in person at a conference in London where I’d presented a paper, and we continued our relationship by email, as well as on the phone and on his visits to New York. I don’t mind admitting that I was awed by Robert, and could never quite believe that he considered my own modest contributions on the subject of anti-Semitism—the “longest hatred,” as he famously termed it—worthy of his attention. After all, I’d been reading his work since I was a schoolboy, beginning with his book on the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky, whose ideas I became infatuated with during my precocious teenage years.

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.

Again through him, I understood that Jewish history is also general history, that it is impossible to understand the trials of a people locked in their diaspora without an intimate knowledge of the prevailing political forces around them. Whatever the subject—the ideology of Marxism, the twists and turns of European nationalism, the profound existential threat posed by radical Islamism, the laboratories of Jewish intellectual life in Paris or Vienna or Budapest or Moscow—you could always rely on Robert for unrivaled, unique insights.

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. Robert did this with extraordinary energy and commitment. Indeed, on the day that he died from a sudden heart attack, at the tragically young age of 70, he was on a visit to Rome to address the Italian Senate on the subject of the rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

Now that he is gone, there is an aching void in his stead. I can think of nobody—not an academic, not a journalist, and certainly not any of our Jewish leaders—who can fill his shoes. But I know, too, that the fight against the ugly libels that bedevil our people goes on. That we must defeat those who dress up their hatred of the Jewish people in the language of anti-Zionism with the same vigor, and even ruthlessness, that was adopted by the 43 Group. That we are on the side of truth, and that is why we will win.

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. Thus do I offer these lines from the English poet, Anna Laetitia Barbauld, as a fitting epitaph.

“When faith is firm, and conscience clear/And words of peace the spirit cheer/And visioned glories half appear/’Tis joy, ’tis triumph then to die.”

Bless you, Robert. Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014). 

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