Vale Robert Wistrich: 1945-2015

wistrichRobert 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  

7 thoughts on “Vale Robert Wistrich: 1945-2015

  • Keith Kennelly says:


    In that lecture were ‘The Enlightenment’ or the occupation of the West Bank, suppression and forceable dispossession of the Palestinian’s mentioned?

  • markhobart@people.net.au says:

    Imagine “arguably the most important public intellectual of the past twenty-five years” saying you are an anti-semitic Christian blood libeler if you dare criticise Israel. I’m surprised Quadrant would publish such one-sided drivel.

    • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

      Mark, yourself and Keith should get together for a good chinwag about your shared topics and resolve never to read Quadrant again. May I suggest The Guardian or even The Independent as a suitable substitutes to match your shared world view.

      • markhobart@people.net.au says:

        Thank you for commenting on my comment. I like most Quadrant articles. This one was very one sided however so I commented.
        You may be interested in this article to give you a more balanced picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict however it may conflict with your “world-view” http://www.haaretz.com/blogs/a-special-place-in-hell/.premium-1.655059

        • bemartin39@bigpond.com says:

          Thank you for the link Mark. From there I went and downloaded “How we fought in Gaza”. That being rather long, I don’t have the time to read it right now but I definitely will. In the meantime, a couple of points.

          First, the term ” Palestinian” is a recent invention. There was always a region called Palestine and there were Arab tribes living there, but there were no people or groups of people called “Palestinians”. That term was only coined when Israel was established by the UN and many of the Arabs were forcibly removed from parts of Palestine. By the way, a two-state solution was rejected by these Arabs early on and on a later occassion, they wanted all or nothing then as they do now. At least the leadership does. Arabs of all persuasion simply want Israel to cease to exist and they make no bones about it.

          Second, I have no doubt that Israeli soldiers committed unforgivable acts in Gaza. That is an unfortunate fact of any action of war. It is also very well documented that Hamas used their civilians as human shield, often forcing them to remain where they were despite Israeli warnings of impending action. While all atrocities are condemnable, those committed against your own civilians is by far the most despicable.

          Finally, concerning my world view, hopefully it is one as free of bias as is humanly possible.

          Bill Martin.

  • markhobart@people.net.au says:

    I notice my comment is still under moderation. I think my comment is fair. If you like you could substitute it with this:

    Unless I am mistaken Daryl Mccann implies that “arguably the most important public intellectual of the past twenty-five years” is saying you are an anti-semitic Christian blood libeler if you criticise Israel. This is made worse because he links this with MP Tony Burke. As far as I know Tony Burke is a respectable person and I certainly would be surprised if he was anti-semitic, let alone blood libelling Jews. I expect high standards from Quadrant otherwise I would not have subscribed. Articles in Quadrant should reflect that.

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