Robert Wistrich: In Memoriam
For scholars, students, policy analysts, and the rest of us who struggle daily to understand the phenomenon of anti-Semitism, the death of Robert S. Wistrich yesterday hit hard. Anyone privileged enough to have experienced him or knew his deep scholarship on what he termed ‘the longest hatred,’ can only react with deep loss and the attendant fear of the future now that one of the world’s clearest voices on the subject has been stilled forever.
That fear, however, may be misplaced. The legacy that Robert Wistrich has left will only be appreciated in the years to come. The sheer volume of his writing and the people he has taught and inspired will live on in ways that those of us still in mourning may not be able to fully comprehend.
To be sure, soon the public will be inundated with an appreciation for his academic achievements and the towering intellect that he brought to the field. For me, the gap between the loss and the eulogies to follow are best filled with a desire to offer a personal tribute.
I first met Robert Wistrich as part of the editorial team working on a 2003 publication called A New Antisemitism: Debating Judeophobia in 21st Century Britain. Robert had been asked to contribute an essay, which he readily provided along with other authors. I also submitted one – a minor contribution to what would become, in the wake of the Second Intifada and 9/11, a torrent of analysis seeking to understand the violent, miasmic reappearance of a Jew-hatred that so many thought had been buried in the ashes of Auschwitz.
Yet in discussing my essay with him and in a relationship that developed via a series of conversations, interviews, exchanges, and personal contacts, I encountered a spirit of generosity and appreciation that was remarkable for an intellectual of his caliber.
I sensed that for those who took anti-Semitism seriously and chose to engage with it in a systematic way, Wistrich had all the time in the world. The extent of his research and the voluminous citings of the works of others in page after page of footnotes and bibliographies are testimony to that fact.
When experiencing Robert Wistrich one had that sense that because he was so cognizant of the ability of anti-Semitism to adapt, transmogrify, and recombine throughout history – that he wasn’t prepared to come up with any quick fixes. His task was to forensically examine the disease. It would be for others to find the cure.
In person, ironically, he conveyed a sense of how important it is also to stand back and look at the contradictory, preposterous, and wholly irrational nature of the phenomenon with a veritable eye towards irony and the absurd.
This may explain why a conversation with Wistrich rarely yielded a feeling of a man possessed. His most comprehensive volume on the subject may have been A Lethal Obsession, but he rarely seemed obsessed himself, except with a need to make clear how complex and dangerous Judeophobia actually is.
In fact, his ability to laugh and a mordant wit only added to Wistrich’s approachability and, along with it, perhaps the resultant recognition of how many others were touched by his infectious spirit of inquiry.
This, too, in time, will live on.
And yet, when it came to his scholarly approach, he sought to bring the highest caliber of academic rigor to bear not only with his own writing but in the institution that he led – the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at Hebrew University.
Once, when I was researching a paper on the academic study of anti-Semitism – a relatively new field that for many years took a back seat to the study of racism and Holocaust studies – Wistrich recounted some of the struggles he had while trying to bring academic respectability to the subject – even, or particularly, in Israel, where in a spirit of nation-building and a psychological need to move on, the study of Jew-hatred may have seemed retrograde at best and post-traumatic at worst.
“I made sure that with every publication, every monograph, every lecture that the highest rigors of academic research would be applied – and equally made sure that copies were distributed throughout every department at Hebrew University,” he said.
Thus while he is credited with having coined the term ‘longest hatred,’ it is important to remember that at that time anti-Semitism appeared to be in remission. Meanwhile he would painstakingly help build an institution, write books, and teach others to recognize that when seeking to counter anti-Semitism, one needs to take the long view.
For this reason alone, his endurance at spending so much time immersed in Jew-hatred was remarkable. How was it, I once asked him, that he was constitutionally able to spend virtually every hour of his waking day on what Howard Jacobson once sardonically referred to as “five thousand years of bitterness”? What sustained him? To what did he attribute his resilience?
“Israel,” he responded simply. “This is the only place where I could ever carry out this work.”
And indeed, if one looks carefully in his writings and public statements one can see just how deep his Zionism ran. For even as he knew – and as others have analysed and continue to be awakened to for the first time — that while Israel may the object of anti-Semitism, it also is its living contradiction and ultimate refutation.
Not satisfied, however, I chose to probe deeper. I told him that I couldn’t help but notice that in his treatment of the ‘religious’ grounds or rationale for anti-Semitism – traceable from the beginnings of Christianity, though the Middle Ages and into the most toxic strains of Muslim anti-Semitism – one can detect an appreciation for Judaism’s strength to empower Jews to survive and thrive through millennia of hatred.
“Yes,” he said succinctly. “There’s that, too.”
And then I went out on a limb:
“Is it possible that the study of anti-Semitism – if coupled with an equally serious and source-based appreciation of the Jewish ability to resist and transcend it spiritually and existentially – might just offer us the key to our contemporary survival?”
His answer was classic Wistrich. “You may have something there,” he said. “You should write it up.”
I never did. Until now.
Thank you, Professor Wistrich, for arming us with understanding and for making us better Zionists, better Jews, and ultimately better human beings.
Zichrono l’vracha. May his name forever be a blessing.