On the Passing of Professor Robert Wistrich: Magisterial Scholar of Global Antisemtism

Professor Robert Wistrich (1945 – 2015)

Professor Robert Wistrich passed away suddenly yesterday of a heart attack in Rome at the age of 70.   As noted  by his colleagues at the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy (ISGAP): 

He was in Rome to address the Italian Senate on the rise of Antisemitism in Europe–speaking out, as he consistently did, about the inescapable lessons that history has taught.

Wistrich was a member of ISGAP’s International Academic Board of Advisors. This summer, he planned to be a key member of the faculty of the ISGAP Summer Institute for Curriculum Development in Critical Antisemitism Studies, which will take place at Hertford College, Oxford and assist college and university teachers develop Antisemitism courses to be taught at their home institutions.

 Wistrich was born April 7, 1945 in Lenger in what was then Soviet Kazakhstan to parents who had fled Poland at the start of the Nazi invasion in 1939. When his family was repatriated to Poland in 1946, the oppressive Antisemitism drove them first to  France and ultimately to England.  The Times of Israel obituary published today noted his education and early academic research:

At the age of 17 Wistrich won an open scholarship in history to Queens’ College, Cambridge, eventually earning his masters degree in 1969, followed by a doctorate at the University of London in 1974. During his university years he founded a literary and arts magazine.

Between 1974 and 1980, he worked as director of research at the Institute of Contemporary History and the Wiener Library and was then appointed a research fellow of the British Academy. In 1982 he was given tenure at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

 Wistrich was the renowned scholar of European and Global Antisemitism who produced seminal major works on Jew Hatred.  He was the Neuberger Professor of European and Jewish at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the head of the University’s Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism and editor of its annual research Antisemitism International.  Wistrich had been a member of the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission delving into the controversial role of the Vatican regarding its role in the fate of European Jewry during the Holocaust of WWII.  Wistrich’s enduring scholarship is reflected three enduring works:   The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph</em>;   A Lethal Obsession (O.U.P., 1989<em>); Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad (Random House, 2010) and From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel (University of Nebraska, 2012. 

When we interviewed him, see our collection The West Speaks (NER Press, 2012), he considered these the most seminal of his vast oeuvre.  Wistrich’s family background was indicative of his lifelong professional interest in the examination of Antisemitism.  As he explained it his parents were born prior to WWI in the Galician province of then Austria-Hungary.  They fled Cracow, Poland on the first day of Hitler’s invasion of Poland and lived in Soviet Kazakhstan until their repatriation to Poland in 1946, bringing with them their baby son.  Wistrich’s original leftist background was noted by Australian- Israeli columnist Isi Leibler in a 2012 Jerusalem Post review of From Ambivalence:

 His father had originally been a supporter of the illegal Polish Communist Party in pre-war Krakow but became alienated from Stalinist communism after being arrested by the NKVD. He and his wife, who had experienced bitter Polish anti-Semitism, survived the Holocaust by fleeing to Kazakhstan, where Wistrich was born.

He was educated in England, and to use his words, was “radicalized” in grammar school and later at Stanford University. He first visited Israel in 1961, returning in 1969 when he was appointed editor of the left-wing Israeli journal, New Outlook. However his passion for the Jewish state led to a parting of the ways with the Israeli far left.

Robert became increasingly engaged in academic scholarship related to anti- Semitism, received a senior appointment at the Hebrew University, and is now recognized as the world’s foremost scholar in the field.

When we asked about why Antisemitism had persisted over two millennia, Wistrich replied:

Ultimately, Antisemitism exists because the Jews are considered a “chosen people,” an anomaly, and an exception that defies all the known “laws of history.” They should have disappeared but they did not; they are influential beyond their numbers; and they are God’s “special treasure.”  That arouses envy, perplexity, anger, hatred and sometimes even exaggerated love. Whether we like it or not, we’re struck with the label.

On the matter of persistent Anti-Semitism in the EU amidst rising émigré and native born Muslim populations, he said:

Antisemitism in Europe today is different from what it was 70 years ago. There is some continuity on the populist Right with the old-style racist/ultranationalist desire to exclude foreigners and Jews, but the hysteria about Israel has helped turn more liberals and leftists towards anti-Jewish ways of thinking; and Muslim resentments about the West as well as their own social alienation reinforce the long standing anti-Jewishness in their religion and culture.

On liberal Jewish alliance with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign isolated and delegitimizing Israel, Wistrich replied:

The BDS Movement is in my view exclusionary, discriminatory and anti-Semitic in its consequences – whatever the motivation of its advocates. So “liberal Jews” who support it are betraying heir principles as well as aiding and abetting an insidious form of racism and double standards!

On the threat of Islamization to the EU and America, Wistrich observed:

Islamization stands in flat contradiction to Western Civilization to Western Civilization today. If it expands, it would be a death –warrant for individual liberties, free speech, and freedom of criticism, democracy and the rule of law – all of which owe much to the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Wistrich drew attention to the dominance of the Organization of Islamic cooperation isolating Israel at the UN:

The causes are mainly political. There are 22 Arab States and nearly 60 Islamic states, but only one Jewish State. Ganging up on Israel at the UN is an easy way of avoiding the real issues of Human Rights; Anti-Jewish Bigotry at the UN carries no price and is a function of Israel’s isolation, the tyranny of the automatic majority and Third World resentments against the West.

Wistrich paid tribute to Bat Ye’or and other noted non-academic scholars of Islamic Anti-Semitism:

The scholars you mention have made a contribution by pointing to the darker corners in Islamic attitudes to the Jews which others sought to avoid. There is too much conformism in Academia when it comes to treating the record of Muslim Antisemitism.

Watch these ISGAP lectures and recent UN address by the late Professor Wistrich:

Click here to watch Professor Wistrich address students and community members at Columbia Law School in November 2014. 

Click here to watch Professor Wistrich inaugurate ISGAP’s program at the Sorbonne in December 2014.

Click here to watch Professor Wistrich address the United Nations in February 2015 on the global rise of Antisemitism. Wistrich noted that with the rise of deadly attacks against the Jewish community, the international community must join together to eradicate Antisemitism worldwide.