Robert Wistrich, who died of a heart attack on May 19, 2015, was arguably the most important public intellectual of the past twenty-five years. He was, fittingly, about to address the Italian Senate on the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe. I met him only once, in January 12, 2012, when he addressed a group of twenty-three Australian educators at the International School for Holocaust Studies in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. The first part of his two-and-a-half hour presentation was titled “The Intellectuals and Rise of Modern anti-Semitism in Europe – 19th and 20th Centuries”, and that was followed by “Reflection on the Phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the Modern World (focus on Europe)”.
Wistrich would not be especially impressed by the “public intellectual” moniker, given that he placed much of the blame for modern-day anti-Semitism on – I quote from his lecture – “intellectuals, ideologues and second-rate journalists”, not excluding Wilhelm Marr, who first coined the term “anti-Semitism” in 1879 to differentiate his new-style anti-Jewishness, as outlined in The Victory of Jewry over Germandom, from traditional Christian anti-Judaism. In fact, Wistrich reminded us that the “intellectuals, ideologues and second-rate journalists” of almost every imperial, universalist or millennialist movement have identified “the Jewish problem” as an impediment to their would-be emancipatory projects. Each new rebellion and revolution in Europe, from Luther to Voltaire to Marx and beyond has somehow managed to “reproduce all the stereotypes of medieval Europe”.
In the aftermath of the Shoah, horrified Europeans wanted to turn over a new leaf, and except in the Soviet Empire – which, especially in the Brezhnev era, officially propounded anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli views – mostly did. Wistrich’s The Longest Hatred (1991) and film of the same name (1993) explored a millennium of European Judeophobia in intense detail and with rigorous scholarship. At the time, Wistrich’s lengthy undertaking seemed to mark the end of a very dark theme in European history. Yes, it had been a shocking story but, save a few Holocaust Deniers and assorted cranks, the nightmare was over.
Speaking to us at Yad Vashem in January, 2012, Wistrich had a much more confronting story to tell about European anti-Semitism – namely, it was back with a vengeance. In European anti-Semitism Reinvents Itself (2004), Wistrich argued that the ancient spectre of anti-Semitism had “returned to haunt the continent of Europe”. The narrative of the longest hatred had yet another chapter in it. “Once considered the preserve of reactionary clerics, conservative nationalists, fascist bigots and ultra-radical leftists,” he wrote, “Judeophobia has undergone a radical mutation in recent years.” Modern-day leftists, in league with “parts of the Muslim diaspora in Europe”, had formed a new “red-green alliance” that reviled “Israel and ‘Jewish-controlled America’ ”. Trendy progressives in Europe can deny that their anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic even as “conspiracy theories and modern, secular versions of the Christian ‘blood libel’ ” are commonplace in “supposedly enlightened and literate circles” under the guise of “criticising Israel”.
All in Wistrich’s audience on that day three years ago were Australian educators and most would have identified themselves as some version of “progressive” or “leftist”. None of us was a Holocaust denier, of course, but to what degree we were, to use Wistrich’s expression, “Holocaust inverters” is perhaps more problematic. The whole notion has troubled me so much that I eventually wrote an article about it, “The Ideology of Holocaust Inversion” (Quadrant, May, 2014). Every attendee of the 2012 Teaching about the Shoah and Anti-Semitism seminar had to write an educational unit when we returned to Australia and I did not feel I could construct one without at least a section of it relating to Holocaust Inversion.
Hearing Robert Wistrich speak at Yad Vashem also encouraged me to read his 2012 opus, From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel. In it Wistrich contrasts the derision and ambivalence of the Old Left (Kautsky, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky et al) for Zionism with the sharp enmity of the New Left (Said, Chomsky et al). Wistrich, being a genuine scholar, was careful to point out the exceptions to the rule. For instance, Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) acknowledged Zionism as an enlightened national liberation movement and Joseph Bloch (1971-1936) claimed that Zionism “was the perfect synthesis between European humanist universalism and the national ideals implicit in biblical Judaism”. Perhaps the saddest depiction in From Ambivalence to Betrayal is of Trotsky, the Russian Jew who tried to escape his heritage by embracing Marxist universalism before selling his soul to the Bolsheviks and ending up as “the arch-heretic of the Stalinist theocratic universe”, caricatured by Soviet propaganda in the most vicious Jewish stereotypes. I reviewed From Ambivalence to Betrayal for the November, 2012, edition of Quadrant (see “How the Left Became Anti-Semitic.”
As Wistrich pointed out, Jewish particularism, which now includes (for a second time) Jewish statehood, invariably involves an existential threat – or should I say scapegoat? – for other people’s imperial, universalist or millennialist ambitions, be it Pax Romana, medieval Christendom, Marx’s Utopianism, the Third Reich, the Soviet Empire, the New Left’s internationalism, a modern-day Persian Empire or a reconstituted caliphate. Wistrich ended his 2012 Yad Vashem address by saying that “Anti-Semitism is the problem of the anti-Semite” – self-evidently true but also a terrible Catch-22.
The most ineffective communicator in our seventeen-day programme at Yad Vashem used ninety-six PowerPoint slides in his presentation. Wistrich, the best public speaker I have ever encountered, had no props apart from a few jottings on a piece of paper for the duration of his spellbinding performance. The seven pages of condensed notes I took that Thursday afternoon have always enjoyed pride of place in my private library.
Daryl McCann blogs darylmccann.blogspot.com.au