Professor Robert Wistrich: “The Guardian is second to none when it comes to the delegitimization of Israel”

“When it comes to the delegitimization of Israel in the UK, the Guardian is second to none.” – Professor Robert Wistrich, June 16, 2011

For those not familiar with professor Robert Wistrich, he is perhaps the most prominent academic on the subject of anti-Semitism, is Head of the  Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, and the author of the book, “A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to Global Jihad”

His talk last night at Hebrew University’s Mt. Scopus Campus was titled, From Blood Libel to Boycott: Changing Faces of British Anti-Semitism.

Wistrich’s analysis, and historical overview, of British Jew-hatred was enlightening, and he made a point to note that nearly 20% of the more than 1100 pages of his book, A Lethal Obsession (which covers the entire history of anti-Semitism around the globe) is devoted merely to British anti-Semitism – a testament, he believes, to how central British society has been, and continues to be, to the spread of this historical hatred.

While Wistrich recounted in remarkable historical detail the British origins of the blood libel (in which the Jews of Norwich were accused of ritual murder after a boy, William of Norwich, was killed in 1144), the York Pogram of 1190, and other events leading eventually to the Jews’ expulsion in 1290 (as well as the literary history of characters within the traditional British literary canon inspired by anti-Semitic stereotypes – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, TS Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence, etc.) it was his commentary about modern expressions of British anti-Semitism which I was most curious about, given the focus of this blog.

Though I can’t do justice to his analysis of contemporary British anti-Semitism at his talk last night (his anecdote about meeting an up and coming Trotskyite named Ken Livingstone in 1979 is worth a future post) and, quite obviously, his lecture only touched the surface of the expansiveness allowed in his book, it was particularly interesting to hear Wistrich contextualize efforts to boycott and delegitimize Israel (the Jewish collective) as a form of exclusion from the community of nations not dissimilar from historical efforts to exclude the individual Jew from the communities where they resided.  

And, while it was not surprising to hear Professor Wistrich refer, in passing last night during the Q&A, to the Guardian as an institution “second to none” in sanctioning such delegitimization efforts in the UK, his unparalleled erudition on the subject clearly provides succor for those of us engaged in monitoring, exposing, and contextualizing the unambiguous enmity towards Israel present at the Guardian and Comment is Free.

While, of course, not all virulent criticism of Israel crosses the line into outright bigotry, and there are certainly many politically gray areas, it is important that we stand on solid intellectual ground as we continue to engage in the arduous and morally urgent task of noting where precisely that line is.

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