Why Robert Wistrich is required reading on past, present, future anti-Semitism

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

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

A year ago, the world of Jewish academia suffered an irreplaceable loss with the passing of Prof. Robert Wistrich, the head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Wistrich died in Rome on May 19, 2015, shortly after arriving in the Italian capital to deliver a lecture on anti-Semitism.

Many of his friends, colleagues, and admirers—myself included—took this tragedy as a sign of Wistrich’s dedication to his mission to examine, expose, and combat the world’s “longest hatred,” one that he pursued until his last breath. After all, as his wife Danielle reminded the audience at a recent memorial event in Germany organized by the Berlin International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, “In academia, some subjects are taboo, and Robert had the courage to bring them to light.”

Few subjects these days have the aura of a taboo as does anti-Semitism. That’s not to say it isn’t researched and studied in academe—there are fine institutions doing just that at American universities like Yale and Indiana, as well as at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University in Israel. If anything, serious academic study of anti-Semitism, in significant part because of the efforts of Robert Wistrich himself, is a growing and welcome trend. It is a fascinating subject because deciphering its ugliness involves so many disciplines, among them history, sociology, philosophy and psychology, and so many globally critical historical episodes, such as the Dreyfus trial and the ethnic cleansing of the Jews of the Arab world—both subjects close to Wistrich’s heart.

The problem emerges, however, when it comes to contemporary anti-Semitism. There are plenty of academics and activists out there who view the entire subject through the prism of “solidarity” with the Palestinians, and who therefore dismiss any identification of a person or a statement as anti-Semitic as an attempt to prevent—as former London mayor Ken Livingstone has repeatedly charged—“criticism of Israel.”

There lies the rub: While the definition of what constitutes anti-Semitism is, in the hands of Zionism’s adversaries, continually squeezed so that only a zombified white guy in a Nazi uniform can be deemed a Jew-hater, their parameters for what constitutes “criticism of Israel” are far more generous. Is expressing the fabricated claim that “Hitler was a Zionist” merely criticism of Israel? According to Livingstone, who has repeatedly stated this falsehood, it is. To those who continue to protest that the claim is, in fact, a virulent example of anti-Semitism, Livingstone’s response is to talk about unnamed “Jews in the street” who have apparently approached him offering encouragement. (Which doesn’t sound, shall we say, hugely plausible.)

There were few people more qualified than Wistrich to comment on events like the latest Livingstone scandal, because of the weight of historical knowledge that he brought to bear. Thanks to Wistrich and the scholars with whom he worked, we have a comprehensive historical account of the Soviet campaign against Zionism and Judaism, as well as the New Left’s adoption of anti-Semitic tropes as part of its support for the violent Palestinian struggle against Israel. Both these milieus influenced Livingstone and his cohorts and explain why he, and they, continue to trade in abject falsehoods. The lie that Israel is an apartheid state, the lie that a Jewish sense of “chosenness” underlies Zionism, the lie that the Zionist movement collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust—all of these were being actively circulated in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, whether by the Soviet diplomatic mission at the United Nations, or by Trotskyists on provincial university campuses in the United Kingdom.

I have many friends and colleagues who have told me, wistfully, that Wistrich’s loss has deprived us of the most cogent analyst of anti-Semitism then and now. And I agree with them—as I said earlier, Wistrich is irreplaceable. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take advantage of his prolific writings when it comes to informing our response to both anti-Semitism and the denial of anti-Semitism.

Look, for example, at the next two years. In June 2017, Israel will mark the 50th anniversary of its triumph in the Six-Day War. In November 2017, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration will fall. In May 2018, Israel will mark the 70th anniversary of its creation as a sovereign state.

All these occasions will be cause for celebration, but it also doesn’t take a mystic to foresee that Israel’s foes will use each of them as a platform to level their standard accusations—and perhaps some new ones?—and call for a boycott. All of us can counter that offensive by educating ourselves.

That’s why I want to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Wistrich’s passing with a plea to my own readers to read his books. If you want to understand the relationship between the Jews and the left, read “From Ambivalence to Betrayal.” If you want understand the epic historical sweep of anti-Semitism, get a copy of “A Lethal Obsession”—if its size is daunting, you can read individual chapters rewardingly. And if you just want to learn why Wistrich was such a good historian, read “Fate of a Revolutionary,” his study of the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky.

I issue that plea not from a feeling of anxiety, but from one of confidence. After all, more and more good scholarship on anti-Semitism is coming to the fore, at the same time as important political and moral victories over the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign are being won. In that sense, the Jewish community owes an important debt to Wistrich in getting us to where we are now.

And if that doesn’t inspire you, let me end by explaining how Wistrich’s center at Hebrew University came to be named after Vidal Sassoon. The celebrity who daringly transformed women’s hairstyles and created a line of beauty products came from humble beginnings, a Jewish boy growing up in a one-parent home in London. In his teenage years after the Second World War, Sassoon regularly battled with the fascists who had returned to the streets, recounting how he would turn up for work with bruises and a black eye. That experience led him to fight for Israel during its War of Independence. Sassoon’s abiding belief that anti-Semitism had to be studied properly if it was ever to be expunged brought him together with Wistrich.

The importance of that connection, and its legacy to our generation, can’t be overstated.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org 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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