May 30, 2024
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Robert Wistrich: Recapping the Conference at the UN: “The World Did Not Take Hitler’s Threats Seriously Enough and We See the Result”

Professor Robert S. Wistrich believes that when somebody shouts “Allah is great,” as he’s about to behead an innocent victim, in Syria, Iraq, the streets of London or France, we can’t say that it has no connection in his mind with Islam.

“What planet are we living on? What kind of stories are we telling ourselves?” he asked rhetorically in a conversation with JLNJ. “We cannot deny what they (the terrorists) themselves say,” and talked about the speech he gave at the UN last week during the special session on antisemitism. He was asked to speak by the American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power.

Antisemitism has been a driving force in the life of Robert Solomon Wistrich since 1945, when he was born in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. His parents were Polish Jews who moved to Lemberg (Liviv, now) in 1940 to escape the antisemitism in the region before the Nazis turned on Stalin. In 1942 they fled to Kazakhstan, where Wistrich’s father was imprisoned twice by the NKVD. His parents returned to Poland to a post-war environment that was dangerously antisemitic, so they moved to France, and from there to England where he grew up, and at 17, won a scholarship to Queen’s College in Cambridge, where he excelled. As a student he founded the literary and arts magazine, Circuit. From 1969 to 1970, while on what we now call “the gap year” in Israel, he became the youngest editor of New Outlook, a left-wing monthly in Tel Aviv, founded by Martin Buber.

Wistrich, author of 29 books, holder of the Neuberger chair for Modern European History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism spoke to JLNJ just a few days after the conference and told us what points he wanted to get across during the session and some of what he took away from it.

“Many of the delegates to the United Nations had made a mistake to bracket antisemitism with racism, with intolerance of a religious kind, bigotry and whole list of other prejudices.” While they have been faced by every nation and every religion in the world, he said they are not similar or identical with antisemitism.

Wistrich told the other panelists that antisemitism has been around for more than 2,000 years. “In terms of its longevity, in terms of its relative ubiquity, it’s persistence, its ability to rise time and time again like a phoenix from the ashes, even after Auschwitz, even after the establishment of the State of Israel, there is something unique about it.”

For one, he says, “What happens to the Jews is an indicator that things will get worse for everybody.”

Wistrich, referencing the importance of 70 in the bible, he said 70 years after the Nazi Holocaust, “The world did not take Hitler’s threats seriously enough… Antisemitism is not history, it’s current affairs,” and it exists in every country in the globe. He said we need to understand it to neutralize its lethal aspects, “because we won’t get rid of it.”

Wistrich said if antisemitism could be reduced to the everyday level of prejudice that all ethnic and religious confront at some point or other “we would have achieved a great day.

“All the delegations made reference to what is happening in Europe, particularly in France.” However there have been worse attacks before that. He said last January while in France he witnessed a protest against the government turn into an antisemitic demonstration. “It was a year before the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket. There were cries of ‘Mort aux Juifs’ death to the Jews, which had not been heard, not like that in the streets of a capital city in Europe since World War II.”

Wistrich said it was writing on the wall of what is to come. “In fact that writing on the wall has been there for much longer or care to recall.”

Wistrich said since the beginning of the 21st Century we’ve entered into a new era of a globalized antisemitism. He said the libels are digitally spread around the world. It’s not bigger than it was but its amplification has grown and its toxic and dangerous quality has increased.

“Governments themselves, despite their best intentions, may no longer have the capacity to control things except in semi-totalitarian societies that they used to have.” He said despite the sentiments of France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls, there is little reassurance because despite the security measures and action plans put into place, the core problem now runs so deep it will take the coordinated efforts of all the governments of Europe pooling information and providing education in the long-term, which could take two decades to have an impact.

“This will not easily solve the immediate problems of the Jewish communities of Europe who live in fear of their personal security… Even going to a synagogue has become a problem, or attending community centers or leading a normal life as Jews, let along wearing a kippah when they go out in the street. This Europe in 2015. This is the progressive and forward looking society that vowed to put an end to all forms of bigotry and discrimination and prejudice and instead the hatred is stronger.”

Wistrich said Moslems must come to understand that this is their problem as much as it is everyone else’s problem. “Only the teachers and the authorized representatives and the scholars and ordinary Muslims themselves have the means, have the tools have the capacity from within their own communities to find an answer to this.”

Cherif Kouachi, Said Kouachi, Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddiene were all born and educated in France so that is a French responsibility,” said Wistrich. “They carried out their atrocities against Jews and against non-Jews in the name of a religion, which they perverted, which they distorted, which we can call Islamism,” a very toxic version of Islam.

Wistrich said there have been too many euphemisms in dealing with this. “The time has come to be more honest, to be more straightforward, to name things as they really are.”

This is not the only form of antisemitism, it’s just one of the more deadly ones he said.

“There’s a left-wing antisemitism, a far-right antisemitism, a neo-Nazi antisemitism, a liberal enlightened antisemitism. There are antisemitisms masquerading under the cover of anti-Zionism and hatred of Israel…This cannot be allowed to stand.”

After the conference, Wistrich made a final point: “It is critical any declarations and points made in this session are followed through quickly and concretely, otherwise this was nothing more than a self-congratulatory propaganda session.”

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

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