Photo Credit:
Robert Wistrich (z"l)

{ Note: Robert S. Wistrich, head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and widely considered the world’s leading scholar on anti-Semitism, died of a heart attack last week at age 70. He was in Rome ahead of a scheduled address to the Italian Senate on rising anti-Semitism in Europe.}

Professor Robert Wistrich, a”h, was our leading historian of anti-Semitism who published important books in other fields of history as well. The combination of his intellectual depth and prolific authorship reflected his expertise in many aspects of the anti-Semitism field.

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His presence was most important in an area where the number of scholars has unfortunately not caught up with the recent explosion of hatred and its mutations, from despising the Jewish religion and Jewish people to the defamation of the Jewish state.

Robert was a spokesman and a representative of the Jewish people, roles to which he stayed fully committed. The many projects he led included a joint exhibition of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and UNESCO on “Book, People, Land – The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People With the Holy Land.”

A very different matter was his membership of the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, established in 1999, which reassessed Pope Pius XII’s role in the Second World War. Robert did not let his integrity become affected by pressure from Church sources, which eventually contributed to the premature suspension of the Commission’s work.

Decades ago, I read a publication of the World Union of Jewish Students. Among the many articles written by the student authors was one that stood out by far above the rest. That was how I came across Robert’s name for the first time.

Anti-Semitism studies became a field of research thanks to the French scholar Léon Poliakov (1910-1997), who wrote many of the fundamental works in the field. However, it required the development of a high-level institute to cover the field in greater scope, and Robert was instrumental in this endeavor. He held the Neuberger chair for Modern European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. When Robert took over as head of the university’s Vidal Sassoon International Center in 2002, he transformed it into a leading force for the publication of a broad array of anti-Semitism scholarship, covering many countries and subjects.

Robert was not only a skillful writer but a sophisticated speaker as well. Born of Polish Jewish parents in the Soviet Union, English was not his mother tongue but one among the several languages he mastered. This and his encyclopedic knowledge allowed him to gain deep insight into various cultures.

It is impossible to review all of Robert’s works unless one writes a lengthy essay, so I will focus on some of his more recent publications. His magnum opus, A Lethal Obsession, subtitled Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad, came out in 2010. Its individual chapters can be read as self-standing essays.

Extreme masochistic trends, including psychological self-flagellation, regularly occur among Jews. In this book, Robert devoted an entire chapter to “Jews against Zion.” He covered the history of Jewish self-haters, beginning with the apostates in Christian Spain after the massacres of the Jews in 1391. He referred to a statement by the 19th century Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler: “Anti-Semitism did not succeed until the Jews began to sponsor it.”

Many scholars look away from the widespread anti-Semitism emanating from Muslim states and from parts of the Muslim population in Western countries. Despite the inevitable backlash, Robert remained outspoken when his post-9/11 essay on Muslim anti-Semitism, originally published in English, was updated and republished in German in 2011. Therein, Robert claimed that the hardcore anti-Semitism in the Arab and Muslim world is comparable only to that of Nazi Germany.

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