Robert Solomon Wistrich, who died in Rome on May 19 of a heart attack at age 70, was more than an eminent historian of anti-Semitism. As Neuburger Professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and head of its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, Wistrich drew on his own early experiences as a target of prejudice. He was born in Lenger, the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, in 1945 to a Polish Jewish family which after wartime travails, tried to return to Poland before discovering the murderous postwar hatred against Jews there. His family eventually relocated to England, where Wistrich, if no longer in mortal danger, soon acquired more grist for his future scholarly specialty. In 2012, he told the video interviewer Lowell Gallin that as a 1950s schoolboy in Northwest London, he noted that the “bulk of our teachers, who were non-Jewish, were either latent or overt anti-Semites, and in those days there was no Race Relations Act, there was no political correctness, so they expressed their views about Jews very freely and openly, so you could be in no possible doubt where they stood.”
These teachers, “despite having fought in a war against Germany, their views in some cases about Jews showed a distinct sympathy with Fascism and even with Nazism in some cases. So one could have no illusions in those days; anti-Semitism of all kinds existed in Britain.” Wistrich differentiates this social anti-Semitism rampant in Britain of the time, with the sharp upswing in political anti-Semitism in more recent years. In 2013, Gallin re-interviewed Wistrich about his appearance in the documentary “My Herzl.”. Wistrich added that as a twelve-year-old, he experienced a positive epiphany when two representatives of the English Zionist Federation appeared at his family home in Kilburn, northwest London. They wished to put a plaque on their house, “where modern political Zionism was born.” In that very house, Theodor Herzl had visited the noted English Jewish novelist Israel Zangwill, to drum up support for his ideas. The two men spoke in a room which later served as Wistrich’s boyhood bedroom. As Wistrich recalled: “The name Herzl resonated for the first time…It was an astonishing feeling retrospectively to think that I had actually been living in this house and working as a child on my homework in the same room where this historic encounter with Theodor Herzl, a turning point, a really huge historic turning point [occurred].” This striking coincidence impressed the youngster, even after the plaque was taken down by future occupants of the house in the 1960s, when anti-Israel sentiments in the UK caused it to be defaced and then destroyed.
Destiny impeded by enmity is a recurring theme of Wistrich’s more than twenty books. “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews, and Israel” (2012) followed the massive “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad” (2010), termed by the Enlightenment historian Jonathan Israel a “splendid work of history. A masterpiece.” With such exhaustive and exhausting work, Wistrich delved into the contrary of enlightenment; his field was a dark, and indeed darkening, area of study where murderous violence and fury never seem to end. In February, Wistrich taped an appearance on “Head to Head,” a discussion program on Al-Jazeera broadcast last month, where the host Mehdi Hasan, a Shia Muslim of British Indian background, repeatedly and aggressively interrupted him during the course of the program. This stressful encounter was surely not the healthiest choice for an academic who had reached emeritus age.
Yet Wistrich was dauntless in pinpointing reasons for anti-Jewish hatred. His “Laboratory for World Destruction: Germans and Jews in Central Europe” (2007) explained that cultural contributions made by German and Austrian Jews were banished by modern-day Fascism due in part to the “social psychology of envy.” “Hitler and the Holocaust” (2001), a useful short history, delves into the heart of evil, as does “Weekend in Munich: Art, Propaganda and Terror in the Third Reich” (1995) and “Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred” (1992).
Earlier books contained larger doses of affirmative Jewish experience, such as “The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph” (1989); and “Revolutionary Jews from Marx to Trotsky” (1976). The need for pugnacious combat against growing forces of hatred activated Wistrich’s expository writing in recent years, especially his journalism. Last year’s “Judeophobia and Marxism” and 2013’s “The Changing Face of Anti-Semitism”, both articles from “Commentary,” cannot be called optimistic. Nor can “Is Germany Normal?” published in “American Interest” in 2009. Wistrich’s work reminds us of the need for valiant, carefully researched explications of such grim subjects. Just as Wistrich provided an example of what paths to pursue, he was also explicit about what not to do; in a 1996 review of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners,” he granted some value to the book, while observing: “Goldhagen’s argument raises many questions, not least on account of the radical form in which it is presented: cast as a relentless indictment of Germans as a whole, it offers an interpretation of the Holocaust in which anti-Semitism is the sole motivating factor. The book is written, moreover, in an angry, polemical style, contains little in the way of doubt, nuance, or qualification, and is marred by endless repetitions of its key points, a tone of scarcely concealed self-gratulation, and pointlessly disparaging remarks about previous scholarship on the Holocaust. Perhaps most damaging of all, the book is fundamentally ahistorical in its method.”
Remaining historically acute despite incendiary subject matter, Wistrich’s books are a model for writers with the courage to follow in his footsteps. “Straddling the Public and Scholarly Spheres,” the subtitle of a 1998 tribute to Wistrich by Michael Berkowitz in “The Journal of Modern History,” can be a perilous activity.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.