Page last updated 1 June 2021
A note on the spelling of “antisemitism”. Since there is no such thing as “semitism”, putting a hyphen in the word antisemitism makes no sense and we follow the recent convention of spelling it as a single word and concept. But we have not changed it in titles and quotes from others where a different spelling was used.
There is no doubt that what it is to be a Jew has been shaped over millennia by antisemitism, Jew-hatred, in religious, political and racist forms, particularly in Europe. Theodore Herzl’s Zionism, as is well-known, was predicated on the belief that antisemitism could not be eliminated until there was an independent state of the Jews. Antisemitism is a form of racism with its own, historically murderous, particularities. And, until relatively recently, there was no issue as to what antisemitism was. It was clear, encapsulated in laws and/or discriminatory quotas and openly expressed in social attitudes of hostility or contempt and, sometimes, open violence.
That kind of antisemitism is no longer prevalent in “the West” (though Jobbik in Hungary and Golden Dawn in Greece are reminders that a murderous, Fascist antisemitism has not vanished). And yet, there are Jewish – and other – voices, comparing the situation to Germany in 1938. What is going on?
Partly, following the Stephen Lawrence enquiry into the murder of a young black man in London which was not properly investigated by the police, there is a new awareness of what has been called “institutionalised racism”, the way in which discriminatory practices can be embedded in institutional structures without there being open expressions of hatred towards particular communities or individuals. These kind of accusations have surfaced recently in Britain e.g. with claims (dismissed in a court case) that the University and College Union was institutionally racist (this was in the context of the debate around calls for an academic boycott of Israel – see the section on BDS and also the latest UCU leaflet on Challenging Antisemitism).
But overwhelmingly the claim is made that individual antisemitism, directed at Jews, has been in some way replaced by a “new antisemitism”, a collective antisemitism, directed at Israel as the Jewish state. Slippages between the terms ‘Israeli’, ‘Jewish’,’ Zionist’ abound and many questions arise as to how to define antisemitism today and how much criticism of Israel is permitted before it veers into antisemitism.
In a recent report prepared for the UK All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Antisemitism, Prof David Feldman offered the following definition which is particularly helpful.
Specifically, I propose two distinct but complementary definitions of antisemitism. One definition focusses on discourse, the other focusses on discrimination.
1. When we consider discourse we focus on the ways in which Jews are represented. Here we can say, following the philosopher Brian Klug, that antisemitism is ‘a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.’ Accordingly, antisemitism is to be found in representations of Jews as stereotyped and malign figures. One such stereotype is the notion that Jews constitute a cohesive community, dedicated to the pursuit of its own selfish ends. It will be important to ask whether this or other malign stereotypes figured in public debate on Operation Protective Edge.
2. In addition to antisemitism which arises within the process of representation there is also antisemitism which stems from social and institutional practices. Discriminatory practices which disadvantage Jews are antisemitic. Taking a historical view, we can say that British society and the British state became less antisemitic in past centuries as Jews were allowed to live in the country, to pray together, to work, to vote and to associate with others in clubs and societies to the same degrees as their Christian fellow-subjects. Discrimination against Jews need not be accompanied by discursive antisemitism, even though in many cases it has been. If we apply this definition of antisemitism to public debate on Jews and Israel last summer and autumn we will need to ask whether any aspect of this debate threatened to discriminate against Jews.
Antisemitism most certainly exists in the world today. It is a scourge to be condemned and opposed. But its presence in the developed world is not as widespread as many supporters of Israel claim. Their views are only sustainable by taking all criticism of Israel, some of it admittedly sharp, sometimes even over the top and unfair, as expressions of antisemitism. Generally it is not. Some criticism of Israel might indeed by motivated by antisemitism or indeed simply be antisemitic but in our experience this is rare. Each case must be taken on its merits and there should be no presumption that such criticism is motivated by antisemitism. Supporters of Israel often claim that the Palestine solidarity movement is suffused with antisemitism, but in our experience this is not true, though the fact is that there can be issues which need to be (and are) addressed, as a few of the articles below highlight. Nor do we deny that there is a long cultural/religious tradition of antisemitism in Britain which has left its traces in popular culture and which surfaces from time to time. The answer is to challenge such manifestations, to probe what those who voice such ideas mean by them and challenge them, rather than simply to take it as evidence of widespread, unreconstructed – and irreducible – antisemitism in the wider population. A particular problem has been those few (mainly Jewish) supporters of the Palestinian struggle, who have taken their hatred of Israel so far that they consciously identify “Jewish power” and an “essence of Jewishness” as the root cause of the conflict. Gilad Atzmon, Paul Eisen and Israel Shamir are pre-eminent among these and the mainstream Palestine solidarity movement has long dissociated itself from them. They do not in any sense speak for the wider movement which refuses to have anything to do with them.
Much of the recent debate has centred around a document published on the website of the European Union Monitoring Committee on Racism and Xenophobia in 2005. Despite being described as a draft, and put out for consultation without endorsement, it has acquired a certain quasi-official status, accepted quite uncritically in certain quarters (the UK All-Party Parliamentary Committee on Antisemitism, for example). European Jews for a Just Peace, among many others, immediately protested about the document, finding it “highly problematic”. There never was any consultation, the text never was reviewed, and the Fundamental Rights Agency, successor to the EUMC, has withdrawn the text from its website. But it seems to have a life of its own…
What we provide here is a guide to some of the literature surrounding this fraught subject. To what extent is Jewish identity in the world today bound up with, and inseparable from, the state of Israel? In the view of Shulamit Reinharz (Jewish Advocate, 14 Jan 2007), many Jewish critics of Israel, including Jacqueline Rose, Joel Kovel, Tony Judt, Marc Ellis, Tony Kushner and others, are antisemitic: “They seem to be respectable. Most would say that they are simply anti-Zionists, not anti-Semites. But I disagree, because in a world where there is only one Jewish state, to oppose it vehemently is to endanger Jews.”
At which point we come full circle. Jewishness/Israel/Zionism are fused as one and antisemitism becomes a weapon for imposing conformity on dissidents within the Jewish community. We simply reject these elisions and distortions.
Note: this was put very well by Richard Seymour (Facebook, 23 April 2016) commenting on a Zionist critique of the newly-elected President of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouattia. It was said that, whether she “likes it or not, support for Israel is integral to the identity of most British Jews, and therefore her anti-Zionism is antisemitic”.
Seymour remarks: Note the contradictions. For years, apologists for the state of Israel have argued, correctly, that it is antisemitic to conflate Jews with Israel. It is a racist chain-of-equivalence, because it involves not only treating Jews as a monolithic, univocal bloc, but also reducing them to the worst actions of a repressive state (while simultaneously ignoring the fact that Israel’s most numerous and powerful supporters are not Jewish, and are often not even very keen on Jews). Anyone engaging in such a conflation could not get away with the excuse that most British Jews identify with Israel, because that is precisely the logic of racists… And yet, “this very same conflation” is now being used by Israel’s supporters to denounce anti-Zionists as antisemites.
Directly relevant material will also be found on these associated webpages:
and in the Key Debates section Is criticism of Israel antisemitic? with its sub-sections:
At the same time, treating antisemitism as a form of racism means not ignoring other racisms, in particular Islamophobia, and the increasingly complex and often contradictory ways that racisms against both Jews and Muslims across the globe are stimulated by the ongoing events in Palestine/Israel. A series of inter-related articles on the topic were published in openDemocracy in Sep-Oct 2015. They are discussed in Section C below.
The material below is organised under these headings:
1. Sub-Report for the Parliamentary Committee against Antisemitism
David Feldman, Pears Institute for the study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck, University of London, 1 Jan 2015
A model of clarity, of exposition, making fine and necessary distinctions. Feldman’s definition of antisemitism is quoted in the introduction above.
2. Antisemitism and criticism of Israel not the same thing
JfJfP executive committee submission to the All-Party Committee on Antisemitism, 25 Nov 2014.
“Summary: Jews for Justice for Palestinians is an organisation centrally concerned with the Israel/Palestine conflict and any fallout from it. We believe there are signs that antisemitism, along with all other forms of racism, is growing in this country. There are clearly linkages to the conflict but it is vital not to fall into the trap of treating upset, and even outrage, at Israeli actions in the conflict as automatic evidence of antisemitism.”
3. The collective Jew: Israel and the new antisemitism
Brian Klug, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 37, No. 2, Jun 2003
An outstanding and thought-provoking article, teasing out the meanings of antisemitism, old and new. An early contribution to discussions around the “new” antisemitism, it remains essential reading. Though be warned – it is long.
4. No, it’s not anti-semitic
Judith Butler, London Review of Books, 21 Aug 2003
A careful dissection and refutation of President of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers’ declaration in September 2002 that calls for divestment from Israel and a series of other protest actions were “anti-semitic in their effect, if not their intent”.
“Here, it is important to distinguish between anti-semitic speech which, say, produces a hostile and threatening environment for Jewish students – racist speech which any university administrator would be obliged to oppose and regulate – and speech which makes a student uncomfortable because it opposes a particular state or set of state policies that he or she may defend. The latter is a political debate, and if we say that the case of Israel is different, that any criticism of it is considered as an attack on Israelis, or Jews in general, then we have singled out this political allegiance from all other allegiances that are open to public debate. We have engaged in the most outrageous form of ‘effective’ censorship.”
5. Sense on antisemitism
Antony Lerman, Prospect Magazine, Aug 2002
Antony Lerman was executive director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research from 1991 to 1999. In this article, dating from 2002, he provides a careful assessment of the arguments and evidence that antisemitism is on the increase. Clearly acknowledging the reality of such incidents as do occur, he attempts to places them in a broader context:
“To look at Europe today, whether west or east, and to see antisemitism as the determining factor in Jewish life is to ignore the broader context. There is no mass discrimination against Jews, no state sponsored antisemitism, no suppression of Jewish culture in the communist bloc, no antisemitism encouraged by the hierarchies of either the Protestant or Catholic churches. Jews are experiencing unprecedented freedom and success. Since the end of the second world war, a legal framework, at national and international levels, has been created designed to punish racists and antisemites….
“The dangers of exaggerating the threat of antisemitism, even if the motive is just (though that is not always the case), are serious – you devalue the currency…”
6. A Tsunami of Confusion: Antisemitism and the Arab-Israeli conflict
Tony Klug, JfJfP Jul 2006 (not a web-page, the file downloads)
An abridged version of this article appeared in Prospect magazine in August 2006
“[T]o the extent that Arab antisemitism is a by-product of a contemporary political conflict, it may start to dissolve as a natural consequence of the settlement of the wider problem. But time is of the essence.”
7. Fear and Loathing
Lucy Michaels, New Internationalist, Oct 2004
A personal account of working “within the Palestine solidarity community, and the broader anti-globalisation/anti-war movement, [and] about the difficulties I have experienced speaking and working, as a Jew, within that movement. And to name that experience: anti-Jewish racism, or Judeophobia.”
8. Antisemitism and the left
Brian Klug, Red Pepper, Jan 2006
A thoughtful analysis of the arguments about left antisemitism.
A classic – and highly controversial – book-length intervention, directed at a left that was perhaps more hierarchical and insensitive to cultural/identity questions then than it is today. Perhaps.
Cohen argued that the left systematically underestimates antisemitism, seeing it “merely” as a tool to divide, rather than as something that “exists in daily life. It does not need a conspiracy of the bourgeoisie to convince people. Anti-semitism may be, in Marxist terms, ruling class ideology, in that it arguably serves the interests of any particular governing class. However, it has also developed a relative and extremely strong autonomy over the last two millennia. It is genuinely believed by all classes.” Much food for thought…
10. Jewish Self-hatred: Myth or Reality?
Antony Lerman, Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2008
“The concept of the ‘self-hating Jew’ strengthens a narrow, ethnocentric view of the Jewish people. It exerts a monopoly over patriotism. It promotes a definition of Jewish identity which relies on the notion of an eternal enemy, and how much more dangerous when that enemy is a fifth column within the group. It plays on real fears of anti-Semitism and at the same time exaggerates the problem by claiming that critical Jews are ‘infected’ by it too. And it posits an essentialist notion of Jewish identity.”
11. Gilad Atzmon and Jewishness and Atzmon denounced as racist and immoral by Palestinians, JfJfP 4 and 14 Mar 2012; Jewish Power by Paul Eisen on his own webpage, which discusses Israel Shamir approvingly and Joel R. Finkel’s detailed rebuttal in A Response to Paul Eisen’s “Jewish Power”, originally posted on Not in My Name (Chicago JVP), 2004
For those who wish to follow up the arguments and the critiques of those for whom there is no distinction between what Israel does and what Jews, in essence, are…
12. Zionism and the ‘self-hating’ Jew
Mick Finlay, 2004
(this article is a summary of a more detailed paper subsequently published in the British Journal of Social Psychology, 2005)
“The notion of self-hatred and anti-Semitism among Jews began to be discussed by German writers such as Theodor Lessing, Fritz Wittels and Otto Weininger in the first decade of the 20th century (Baron, 1981; Gilman, 1986). This was followed by a number of German publications on the subject, culminating in a book by Lessing in 1930, Der judische Selbsthass (Jewish Self-Hate). In 1941 (republished 1948), Kurt Lewin wrote an account for an English-speaking audience. This article critically reviews Jewish self-hatred as a psychological concept, examining in particular the criteria used to identify its presence in individuals. A lack of clarity over this issue means that the term is often used rhetorically to discount Jews who differ in their lifestyles, interests or political positions (particularly with respect to Israel) from their accusers.”
In 2005 the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) produced a Working Definition of Antisemitism (the url under which it was published ended “AS-WorkingDefinition-draft.pdf”) which the September 2005 conference of European Jews for a Just Peace found “highly problematic”. It responded with an Open Letter to the EUMC, to which the Director of the EUMC, Dr Beate Winkler replied at the end of November 2005. The letter to the EUMC is here, the reply here.
At the end of 2005 an All-Party Parliamentary Enquiry into Antisemitism was set up under Denis MacShane MP. JfJfP submitted a statement to it on 6th February 2006. The Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism (Sep 2006) recommended “that the EUMC Working Definition of antisemitism is adopted and promoted by the Government and law enforcement agencies” (para 26), a recommendation fortunately not taken up.
1. Hue and cry over the UCU
Richard Kuper, Open Democracy, 1 Jun 2011
An attempt to unpick the fraught and devious history of the production of the Working Definition document. It was in clear opposition to an earlier EUMC report which had distinguished sharply between antisemitism and legitimate opposition to Israel and which it was supposed to be elaborating. But those responsible for the earlier report were shut out from the redrafting and the new so-called “working definition”, in no way “in line with the theoretical arguments” of the earlier report, changed the whole tenor of how criticism of Israel was viewed. A political coup, but an intellectual mishmash.
The use of this document creates a climate of suspicion in which the onus is on critics to somehow demonstrate that they are not antisemitic.
2. When an anti-semite is not an anti-semite
Arthur Neslen, Comment is Free, Guardian, 5 Apr 2007
“What do Einstein, Mahatma Ghandi, Ehud Olmert and myself all have in common? We could each be censured for racism according to the European Union Monitoring Centre’s ‘working definition of anti-semitism’ which was last week adopted by the National Union of Students as official policy… So it’s actually a bit shocking to discover that the new definition was largely drafted by a pro-Israel advocate who gives talks on how to elide the distinction between anti-Zionism and hatred of Jews.”
3. In March 2021, two progressive, Jewish groups create new definitions of antisemitism
Two progressive, Jewish academic groups have created definitions of antisemitism intended to counter the faulty, biased IHRA “Working Definition”. We could disagree with some of the formulations in each one, but they are both sound and fair-minded documents. They differentiate logically between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. They also support the legitimacy of BDS, anti-Zionism and making historical comparisons with settler colonialism and apartheid.
They are the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism and the Nexus Group Definition. The Jerusalem definition comes from a large, international group and is academic in tone. The Nexus definition comes from a small group of American academics and social NGO people, many from California, and is practical in tone.
The huge political significance of both definitions is that they come from progressive but not radical groups. That creates a much better chance of them being adopted by political establishments than definitions created by radical groups such as JJP, sound though they may be.
Jerusalem Declaration website here
Nexus website here
International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance
Working definition of antisemitism
“On 26 May 2016, the Plenary in Bucharest decided to:
“Adopt the following non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism: “
Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
To guide IHRA in its work, the following examples may serve as illustrations: Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.
Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for “why things go wrong.” It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action, and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits. Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:
Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.
Antisemitic acts are criminal when they are so defined by law (for example, denial of the Holocaust or distribution of antisemitic materials in some countries).
Criminal acts are antisemitic when the targets of attacks, whether they are people or property – such as buildings, schools, places of worship and cemeteries – are selected because they are, or are perceived to be, Jewish or linked to Jews.
Antisemitic discrimination is the denial to Jews of opportunities or services available to others and is illegal in many countries. “
eds. Nira Yuval-Davis and Jamie Hakim, openDemocracy, 28 Sep – 1 Oct 2015
A series of articles from the “Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms and Palestine/Israel” project which arose through shared concerns over the increasingly complex and often contradictory ways that racisms against both Jews and Muslims across the globe were being stimulated by the ongoing events in Palestine/Israel.
An introduction by Yuval-Davis and Hakim gives a detailed account of the intellectual origins of the project as well as the issues raised at the two conferences held to explore them.
Antony Lerman critiques the concept of The ‘new antisemitism’, in which anti-Zionism is understood as a covert form of antisemitism. He explores the historical origins of this idea arguing that it is not all that new and concludes by thinking through the ways that it exacerbates both anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racisms in the present moment.
In Varieties of ‘Islamophobia’ and its targets, Sami Zubaida explores the relationship between Islamophobia and what he calls “Umma nationalism”: a discourse that different Muslims across the globe invest in, act out and contest with different intensities in different historical moments.
In The undeniable overlap: right-wing Zionism and Islamophobia, Hilary Aked explores how Zionist organisations are funding Islamophobic propaganda, analyses the different funding streams of the pro-Israeli lobby and offers a persuasive analysis of the undeniable overlap between this lobby and the anti-Muslim media content, found primarily in the news feeds of our social networking sites.
In Internal and external factors in intra-Jewish conflict over Israel and antisemitism, Keith-Kahn Harris explores how different events, groups and ideologies stimulate internal conflict within UK Jewry. He notes that British Jews are not nearly as united over Israel as is commonly believed and worries how Israel/Palestine is being used by external agents to cause conflict within the community.
Jan Rybak and Helga Embacher looked at some of the issues taken up across the project, with a specific focus on Austria and Germany in Anti-Semitism in Muslim communities and Islamophobia in the context of the Gaza War 2014: Austria and Germany. They take the media representation of different anti-Israel demonstrations in these countries during the Gaza War in 2014 as a case study, and argue that the apparent emergence of ‘Muslim antisemitism’ is not as straightforward as it first appears.
In To speak about Jews and Palestinians, we need a non-racist space for criticism, Stefano Bellin weaves together the thoughts of Erno Traverso, Hannah Arendt and Edward Said, in order to imagine how we might construct a non-racist space in which we can critique current thinking around Jews and Palestinians, in relation to the conflict.
In The idea of Jewish anti-semitism and recuperating the ‘Semites’, Annabelle Sreberny looks at how best anti-racists might have responded to the Charlie Hebdo events in Paris in 2015. She argues that rather than the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ slogan that became a global meme on social media, we might be better served by ‘We are all Semites’ – thereby re-appropriating the racial category ‘Semite’ as the basis of solidarity of Arabs and Jews in the face of violence towards both.
Finally, in Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim racisms, and the question of Palestine/Israel, the editors “flesh out the intellectual positions that we have taken in order to frame what we set out to do, and include some of the points raised at our conferences that have not made it into the articles we are publishing.”
The Other Arthur Balfour ‘PROTECTOR OF THE JEWS’
Brian Klug, Being Jewish and Doing Justice: Bringing Argument to Life, London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2011, pp. 199-210
“There appears to be a conundrum about Arthur Balfour. On the one hand, his name is inseparable from the Declaration he signed as Foreign Secretary on 2 November 1917, which read in part: ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object …’ On the other hand, as Prime Minister he brought in immigration controls aimed specifically against Jews from Eastern Europe. So, which was he: friend of the Jews or foe?”