There are a few biographical details about Professor Robert Wistrich that people tend to overlook when evaluating the work of someone who is arguably the world’s foremost authority on antisemitism.
They offer a key to explaining why — just two years after writing his 1,000-page magnum opus, A Lethal Obsession: Antisemitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad — Wistrich has now produced a 623-page tome with the auspicious title, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel.
The first salient fact is that the 67-year-old historian was born in Kazakhstan at the height of Stalin’s power after his family fled Krakow during the Second World War. Add to that the cultural/political milieu in which he was raised — Wistrich’s father, despite having been a member of the illegal Polish Communist party, was rewarded for his fidelity with imprisonment by the NKVD (the secret police). His family, Wistrich has reflected, consequently had “no allusions about Soviet mendacity after the war and the cruelty of a totalitarian system that ruthlessly crushed all individuality”.
And yet, as a young intellectual, there was still the allure of leftist thought. Growing up in Britain in the 1950s Wistrich recalls becoming “radicalised at grammar school”, and later spending “two years of study and radical protest” at Stanford University in California as well as being present at the Paris student riots of 1968 opposing “capitalist alienation and the racism and militarism of the West”.
During that same period, however, after grappling with classic Marxist theory and its ambivalence towards the Jews as a student at Cambridge and researching his doctorate on “Socialism and the Jewish Question” at University College London, Wistrich found himself debating against pro-Palestinian leftists on British campuses, where he detected an inescapable “sharp edge to anti-Israel sentiment which went beyond theory”.
Why, he wanted to know, had “so many on the new Left turned against the Jewish State with such vehemence?”
Forty years later Wistrich has returned to this question — only this time, his pursuit of an answer is aided by four decades of research and exhaustive scholarship.
Reading his book is not an easy journey — unless the reader is already familiar with the original arguments of leftist luminaries the likes of Karl Marx, Fredrich Engels, Rosa Luxembourg, Bernard Lazare, Karl Kautsky and Leon Trotsky. Some of Wistrich’s conclusions are familiar, the product of eight years as director of research at the Wiener Library before ultimately becoming head in 2002 of the Vidal Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University, where he he holds the Neuberger chair of history.
But this is the first time his analysis has been synthesised into one volume. And then there is the title — From Ambiguity to Betrayal. Do his personal details explain why he chose such an emotive term? Is the “betrayal of the Left” in any way personal?
“No”, he says flatly. “I stopped regarding myself as a man of the Left over 40 years ago.”
Instead, as he sees it, the “betrayal” is a matter of first principles. “Much of the contemporary Left has abandoned its own Enlightenment legacy as well as its broad-based humanist social project,” he says.
“Instead, it has become disproportionally and irrationally obsessed with the ‘sins’ of Israel, which it holds responsible for virtually all the problems in the Middle East and even beyond.”
The second layer of betrayal comes from what he calls “the anti-Zionist Left”, who have “reneged on the universality of the principal of national self-determination” — a principle that seems to exist for everyone else except the Jews — and at the same time embraced radical Islam.
The final layer finds its home in the radical Left and parts of the liberal mainstream, for whom, Wistrich says, antisemitism does not exist unless it can be laid at the doorstep of the extreme Right.
Yet what baffles Wistrich more than anything about the contemporary Left and its antisemitic impulses is its incoherent nature. “Today’s ideology of the Left is a boutique of fragments — what I call the ‘debris of dead Marxist galaxies’.” But all the fragments are linked by a baseline animosity to Jews and Israel. It is what unites such disparate worldviews as those of Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
One of Wistrich’s most startling discoveries was what he thought was a Soviet antisemitic trope turns out to have originated from the British Labour movement at the turn of the last century.
“What struck me quite forcefully when researching this book was how much Great Britain is responsible for its own, indigenous – and contemporary – antisemitic traditions.” Among them are the widespread theories of Jewish world conspiracy manipulated by the British Left during the Boer War of 1899-1902.
Wistrich argues that that war — as contentious and polarising as any in the modern period — saw the emergence of a radical anti-war movement which coined conspiracy terminology such as “Imperialist Judaism” to describe how prominent Jewish financiers in South Africa allegedly plunged the British Empire into a disastrous conflict. These ideas would resurface with the emergence of Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, who accused Jews of dragging Britain into a war with Germany, and again with the radical anti-Iraq War movement and its accusations of “Jewish cabals”, neo-conservative conspiracies and claims of “Zionist imperialism”.
Worse still, says Wistrich, was his discovery that the virulent notion that Zionism is a form of Nazism had emerged within the British Foreign Office as it sought to restrict survivors from Hitler’s Europe from entering the country. In the 1950s that notion would enter mainstream public opinion via the renowned historian Arnold J Toynbee whose Study in History indicts the Zionists as “disciples of the Nazis” – an allegation that became a mantra of the British Left, and was behind the notorious Zionism Equals Racism United Nations resolution of 1975.
If all of this paints a bleak picture, Wistrich nevertheless holds out a ray of hope in his view that the British Left “is ideologically impoverished and the level of its argumentation truly pitiful”.
He adds: “If my book helps to restore some sanity to the increasingly toxic discourse surrounding these issues today, I’ll know I’ve made a dent.”
This post first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle.