Interview: Robert Wistrich

The historian, and author of a major work on antisemitism, feels the UK has much to be ashamed of

By Winston Pickett, August 26, 2010
Robert Wistrich says British Jews need to be tougher in exposing the failings in Britain’s record on the Holocaust and Israel

Robert Wistrich says British Jews need to be tougher in exposing the failings in Britain’s record on the Holocaust and Israel

Robert Wistrich, often described as the leading expert on the history of antisemitism, has a new book out on the subject - a 1,100-page brick of a book, in fact. Variously described as a "history" or "encyclopaedia", Wistrich's Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism From Antiquity to the Global Jihad is actually more a lengthy exposition of the ideas behind anti-Jewish hatred - their origins and particularly their cancerous spread through the contemporary world.

While the director of the Israel-based Vidal Sasoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemtism is happy to discuss this monumental tome, he is also aware of a supremely British irony: no amount of pitching will generate book sales in the UK. The publisher, Random House, bowing to the threat of British libel laws, has made the book available only via American outlets.

Wistrich has been asked by the Board of Deputies to be its keynote speaker next week as part of its 250th anniversary celebrations. This is itself an irony because in previous interviews he has ruffled a number of Anglo-Jewish feathers by characterising its leadership's response to antisemitism as being less than robust.

Such outspokenness comes with the turf. As the holder of the Neuberger chair for Modern European and Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1989, and as the son of parents born in Imperial Austria who landed in Britain in 1948 - victims of the destruction wrought by Nazism - his highly tuned antennae can be understood.

And as a former director of the UK-based Wiener Library, a post he secured after earning a doctorate from University College London, Wistrich's knowledge of British Jewry is as personal as it is historical.

Small wonder, then, that in the run-up to his Board speech that he wants to talk about Shimon Peres.


BORN: April 1945, Kazakhstan
EARLY LIFE: Came to Britain with his parents in 1948. Studied history at Cambridge and received a doctorate from University College London in 1974
CAREER: Director of research, Wiener Library until 1980. First holder of the chair of Jewish studies at UCL. Neuburger professor of European and Jewish history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem since 1989, and head of the university's Vidal Sassoon Centre for the Study of Antisemitism. Author of numerous books.

Earlier this month, the President of Israel gave an interview to historian Benny Morris in the e-magazine, Tablet. He was quoted as saying that Britain was "deeply pro-Arab… and anti-Israeli". He claimed: "In England there has always been something deeply pro-Arab… and anti-Israeli, in the establishment… They always worked against us. They think the Arabs are the underdogs."

The interview, which appeared shortly after Prime Minister David Cameron's description of Gaza as a "prison camp", was met with rebuttals by MPs, government officials and clarifications by some Jewish commentators that Peres was not branding all of the UK antisemtic. A few days later, Peres himself offered a partial retraction.

Wistrich thinks the retraction was a mistake. When it comes to illustrating the depth of antisemtism in the UK, he says that Peres's comments "go to the heart of the matter".

"Peres has been traditionally dismissive of the lessons of history," he says. "For once he was telling the truth."

For Wistrich, the truth comes in an unsentimental assessment of the role that Britain played -– or didn't play - during the Second World War, and how by restricting immigration into Mandate Palestine to a trickle after the war, it sent survivors of the Holocaust to their deaths.

"When I think of the years 1945-1948 when Britain was in effect forcibly deporting the survivors of the Holocaust - including the notorious case of the Exodus in 1947 - they had a highly prejudicial attitude towards the Jews."

In fact, "Attlee was on record comparing the Jewish immigrants coming to Palestine with the Nazi invasion of Europe.

"What disturbs me about the contemporary narrative about the period is its astonishing forgetfulness. Today there is a denial of the truth that Britain actually betrayed its own solemn promises and commitments under international law, including the League of Nations and its own Balfour Declaration."

Wistrich believes Britain, unlike America, has never taken a long, hard look at its failure to save more Jewish lives and instead chooses to paper over its own abandonment of them in favour of painting a rose-tinted historical narrative that characterises its "finest hour" as doing battle against the Nazis and their programme of mass extermination.

Other than 1940, he says: "It was not Britain's finest hour, and the Jewish story is painted out of the picture. Had there been open doors [into Palestine], who knows what would have happened."

Which brings us back to Shimon Peres. "It is essential that Israeli officials, statesmen and Jewish leaders in the diaspora spell out the truth and expose the double standards when it comes to other countries - especially when those other countries commit themselves on a systematic and permanent basis to indulge in demonisation of Israel," says Wistrich.

For him, the urgency to be both accurate and aggressive in Israel's defence is more than a matter of diplomatic intervention. He acknowledges that his view is coloured by the existential threat posed by an apocalypse-seeking Islamist regime in Iran which sees the destruction of Israel as the beginning of world redemption.

"The worst thing in the world is to show weakness in the face of anti-Jewish prejudice, especially when it comes to the fair treatment of Israel," he concludes. "Anglo-Jews will not get respect unless they are seen as vigorous as well as intelligent in utilising all relevant methods and resources for speaking the truth.

"UK Jewry could learn important lessons from the Americans in terms of the need for rapid response, arguing publicly and unabashedly the case for why Jews are getting a raw deal.

"There has to be now a much tougher response in that we remind the nations, including Britain, that their record is open to serious criticism - Jews should not fear the consequences of exposing that record."

Last updated: 2:59pm, August 28 2014