Prof Robert Wistrich, one of the world’s leading experts on antisemitism and the Head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, died of a heart attack on May 19 2015. He died in Rome on a trip to address the Italian Senate on the rise of antisemitism in Europe. A few days earlier he had delivered a key note address to the Global Forum to Combat Antisemitism. That address is below, and included four main ideas, the second of which we provide an extract of below.
His first idea was that “the primary vector through which antisemitic ideas, sentiments, actions, are expressed” is antisemitism directed against “the state of Israel as the embodiment of collective Jewish existence, of the Jewish people and what it represents, and the return of the Jews” to the histroic Jewish homeland in Israel. His second point was that radical Islam was the “the spearhead, the driving force, of Israel hatred and Jew hatred around the world”. He went on to make clear the need to tackle radical Islam without fear, while also making it plain that he was not speaking about Islam in general but about a “perverse distorted version of Islam that has to be combated if we are to get to the roots of the most radical form of anti-Jewish hatred”. He went on to speak of a third issue, that of Holocaust inversion, and a fourth issue, the meaning of Jewish peoplehood.
The following, on his second point about radical Islam, is almost entirely in Prof. Wistrich’s own words, but includes some ommissions and reorganisation to reduce the length and improve readbility:
The driving force, the spearhead, of Israel hatred and Jew hatred around the world, is radical Islam. I don’t think we are going to get anywhere as long as we feel, for political or other reasons, that we have to circle around this with a kind of excess caution because we might just conceivably upset somebody’s feelings. Because we might be accused, as we are all too familiar, with the charges that are made so casually, and so immediately, of racism, Islamophobia, of stigmatisation, of other minorities or majorities, on the grounds that we are attacking a religion. We are not attacking a religion. It should be clear, and I am sure it is clear to everyone in this room, that the problem is not Islam as such, as a religion, as civilisation, as a code of morality, the problem is and has been now for many decades, Islamism. The problem is the misuse, the abuse, the exploitation, even the hijacking, of one of the great universal faiths, for purposes of holy war, of Jihad, with all of the horrific excesses that we read about every day.
We cannot ignore the nexus, the connection that exists, certainly in recent decades, between the most murderous lethal forms of antisemitism being driven by an Islamist form of hatred. It has spilled over into Europe. It is a culture of hatred that has emerged, one that we have to tackle, but we can’t do it alone. That’s why I welcome, and I think it was a very important move to invite here, Muslims, people who are engaged in the inter religious dialogue, because although that in itself is no solution to this problem, it can, in the right circumstances, become part of a solution. Muslims themselves, the silent majority of Muslims, who no doubt are as appalled and horrified by what is happening in their name, should not be made to take responsibility for what is done by others, but at the same time, they cannot also simply shirk it off, it is no good simply to say “this has nothing to do with Islam”. It comes out of a perverse distorted version of Islam that has to be combated if we are to get to the roots of the most radical form of anti-Jewish hatred.
We believe this was critical contribution to the discussion on tackling not only antisemitism, but the risk to all peoples from radical Islamist extremism. During the conference, the Working Group on Antisemitism on the Internet and in the Media requested a copy of his speaking notes, noting that the points he raised had particular relevance given the use of Internet technology by radical Islamist groups to spread both antisemitism and extremism. He appologied at the time that this was not possible as this keynote address was delivered without notes. In light of that we are very please this important controbution was recorded, and is now able to be shared with the world at large.
In the Australian context, particular in light of the rise of “Reclaim Australia”, the clear distinction Prof. Wistrich made between the religion of Islam which he respected, and the perversion of radical Islamism which he spoke out again, needs to be highlighted. Those who rightly want to take action against radical Islamism, but wrongly choose to incite against Muslims, or attack Islam generally, are not only missing the point, but potentially pushing more people towards extremism. Our national response to counter violent extremism should keep this distinction in mind as well.
We mourn Prof Robert Wistrich’s passing, and acknowledge the deep impact his life work has had on both the study of antisemitism, and the efforts to combat it around the world. His full speech can be seen below.