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Anti-Semitism: A Lethal Obsession

Yonoson Rosenblum

Professor Robert Wistrich, perhaps the foremost historian of anti-Semitism in our generation, has built an irrefutable case to expose the true face of “Islamofascism.” In this exclusive interview with Mishpacha, Professor Wistrich traces Islamofascism’s ignoble birth; how the sickness has intensified as a result of classical and Nazi-era anti-Semitism; and how the relative ignorance of Western society enables it to flourish. And he offers the one and only remedy the Jewish people have to battle it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Due to ongoing renovations at the Hebrew University’s Vidal Sassoon Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism, my conversation with the center’s director, Professor Robert Wistrich, took place in a small academic conference room. But Professor Wistrich had no trouble establishing an air of intimacy in the somewhat austere setting, and our talks extended over several hours.

Our discussion eventually took us beyond the confines of his newest book, A Lethal Obsession, to central questions of Jewish identity and the search for a perspective on the endlessly erratic nature of anti-Semitism.

Though A Lethal Obsession is densely packed, it is far more than a brilliant academic study. It has vital implications for many of the most pressing issues affecting Jews around the world, and especially those living in Israel.

Our talk began with some personal history, as I tried to gain a feeling for the author behind the book.


You hold appointments in both European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University. So I gather that your academic interests were not initially confined to anti-Semitism, no matter how broadly defined.

That’s true. My doctoral thesis at University College London was on socialism and the Jews in Germany and Austria, and I’ve written several books on subjects connected with Central Europe, including The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph, which won the Austrian State Prize for History.


What brought you to the study of anti-Semitism? Was it something in your own personal history?

My parents were forced to flee Krakow for the Soviet Union when the Germans invaded Poland. I was born in the Muslim Soviet republic of Kazakhstan in 1945. After the war, we moved to London, after spending several years in Poland and France.

My parents were modern, Polish-speaking Jews. My father was a member of HaShomer HaTzair. But my mother’s father was a strictly observant Jew. I have warm childhood memories of accompanying him to Munk’s shul in Golders Green and of the family Sedorim he conducted.

However, I would not say that personal history was the most important influence pushing me towards the study of anti-Semitism. In 1974, after completing my doctorate, I was appointed director of research at the Institute of Contemporary History in London, which housed the Wiener Library. Alfred Wiener was a Prussian Jew from Potsdam, near Berlin, who was very active in Jewish self-defense organizations in Germany. He assembled an extremely impressive collection of documents concerning Hitler’s Nazi Party, which he managed to take with him when he fled Germany. Subsequently, his collection provided much of the crucial documentation used in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders after the war. It was while working with these documents that my research began to focus more on anti-Semitism.


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