Redefining Antisemitism to Protect Israel From Scrutiny Won’t Make Jews Safer

Israel’s supporters have sought to redefine antisemitism so that the term primarily refers to criticism of the Israeli state. This effort has been a great boon for Israel’s diplomatic propaganda — but a disaster for anti-racist struggles in Europe and the US.

Over the past few decades, Jewish establishments in Israel and the diaspora have aggressively imposed a new definition of anti-Jewish racism as an orthodoxy. (State of Israel / Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past few years, antisemitism has become one of the most controversial political topics on both sides of the Atlantic. From Jeremy Corbyn to Rashida Tlaib and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, left-wing politicians have faced grave accusations of stoking up prejudice against Jewish people and communities. Yet some of those making such accusations have been willing to embrace figures like Donald Trump and the Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán, despite their record of promoting conspiracy theories about the Jewish philanthropist George Soros that are ominously similar to classic antisemitic themes.

Underlying this controversy is a bitter argument about the term antisemitism itself. The protagonists of the debate do not simply disagree about whether a particular charge of antisemitism is justified or not: there is no shared understanding of what evidence might justify that charge. One especially fraught question is whether and when criticism of Israel should be considered antisemitic.

Antony Lerman has stepped into this debate with his book Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? Redefinition and the Myth of the Collective Jew. Lerman, whose integrity and commitment to the truth, however uncomfortable, is long established, brings a valuable perspective to the table, informed by the author’s years of research into the Jewish communities of the world. The main target of his criticism is the concept of the “new antisemitism.”

This is a definition of anti-Jewish racism that Jewish establishments in Israel and the diaspora have aggressively imposed as an orthodoxy over the past two decades. However, it has been equally strongly resisted by progressive Jewish activists and scholars. The “Working Definition of Antisemitism” that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) promotes has become a major flashpoint for these debates.

Resisting the Far Right

In 1978, after three years abroad, I returned to a Britain that I didn’t recognize. The far right had proliferated in my absence. Racists and fascists, incited by mainstream newspapers and Westminster politicians, were running rampant through immigrant communities, terrorizing individuals going about their daily lives, smashing windows, and daubing graffiti. They were also making gains in local elections.

Over the decades since World War II, the far-right leader Oswald Mosley had put in a few short-lived appearances, and there had been outbreaks of street-level fascism that were beaten back, particularly by Jewish-led groups. But this 1970s resurgence was the most widespread. Politicians like Margaret Thatcher encouraged and validated it with claims that white British people were “being swamped by people of a different culture.”

Asian and Caribbean youth who were more confident than their parents of their right to a future in Britain organized to defend themselves and their communities under the slogan “Here to Stay! Here to Fight!” Local resistance coalesced, though not always smoothly, with broad-based anti-fascist activism into a huge popular movement in the form of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. A vibrant music culture combined with imaginative propaganda, political analysis, demonstrations, and street resistance attracted young people from all backgrounds, including many Jews.

As well as recognizing the persistent antisemitism woven through the politics of this new generation of fascists, many of the Jewish activists had grown up in families that were involved in the 1936 Battle of Cable Street in London’s East End. This was arguably the definitive prewar challenge to fascism in Britain, when Jewish East Enders, supported by non-Jews, especially Irish workers, defended their multicultural community against Mosley’s Blackshirts.

Like their Bengali successors in the area, the Jews of the East End were sufficiently assertive of their right to live without fear in this country that they defied the Board of Deputies of British Jews. On the eve of the march, the board’s leadership circulated instructions that were read out by rabbis in synagogues and published in the Jewish Chronicle, urging residents to stay at home, pull down the shutters, and not make trouble, instead of confronting Mosley and his followers.

Knowing this history, I shouldn’t have been shocked to read an injunction in the Jewish Chronicle at the tail end of 1978 for young Jews to stay away from the Anti-Nazi League. This time the justification was not that they should trust their leaders to make sure the British state would protect them. Rather, it was part of a campaign by the newspaper to keep them away from “extreme Left-wing elements” and critics of Israel.

One Chronicle article argued that “any collaboration with the Anti-Nazi League would associate the Jewish community with well-known individuals whose political aims are repugnant to the vast majority of the British public.” It added an implication that the behavior of Jews themselves caused antisemitism: “Such a connection could have the effect of encouraging antisemitic attitudes.”

Here we can see the embryonic form of an attempt to redefine antisemitism, which demonstrably came from the Right, as a problem that should be primarily attributed to the Left and that was characterized by opposition to Zionism. This conceptualization would eventually be labeled as the “new antisemitism.”

Redefining Antisemitism

For activists like those of us in the Jewish Socialists’ Group, the avalanche of accusations of antisemitism that contorted political debate when Corbyn stood for the Labour Party leadership in 2015 was, politically, on a continuum with the regular skirmishes we had engaged in with our communal leadership over the course of several decades. However, the scale, speed, persistence, and — above all — public profile of this row was new. It stunned us, along with the hundreds of thousands of people who glimpsed a chance for progressive ideas to be transformed into action for the first time in a generation.

The denunciations have kept on coming, from the failed 2016 challenge to Corbyn’s leadership by hostile Labour MPs, despite the support he enjoyed among the party membership, to the 2017 and 2019 UK general elections and right up to the present. Over time, incredulity has turned to anger, frustration, and division. It has diverted us from fighting for equality, democracy, and fundamental rights — issues that, unbeknownst to us at the time, would soon become a matter of life and death on a huge scale.

However, it is not the question of antisemitism itself — attacks or offenses against Jews (in a straightforward definition of the term) — that has preoccupied and distracted us. What deflected our campaigning and fogged up our vision were the maneuvers by elements within and beyond Jewish community life in Britain to reconfigure our conception of antisemitism.

This project made it necessary to redefine the targets of antisemitism, conflating Jewish people and Jewish ways of life with Israel, Zionists, and Zionism. It also had to redefine its perpetrators, placing opponents of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, along with people on the so-called far left and opponents of capitalism, in the same category as neo-Nazis.

A Watershed Moment

In Whatever Happened to Antisemitism, Antony Lerman traces the development of the concept of the “new antisemitism,” which presents the state of Israel as the “collective Jew” and seeks to give Israel the authority to represent all Jews throughout the world. He maps the process through which this concept took shape in extraordinary detail, documenting the debates, factional conflicts, and negotiations that drew the key Jewish establishment institutions in the diaspora into line with increasingly hawkish and right-wing Israeli governments. At the same time, he assesses the clash of perceptions and narratives between the self-proclaimed Jewish leadership and Jews who have rejected Israel’s claim to rewrite their experiences.

Lerman writes about this subject from a unique vantage point. Born in Britain, he can look back over decades of scholarship as director of the Institute of Jewish Affairs, which later became the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. Despite his status, members of the Jewish establishment in Britain attacked Lerman for his commitment to truthful analysis based on rigorous research and for dissenting from the Zionist ideology that it claimed was central to Jewish identity.

He identifies the tentative first steps that were taken down this path in the 1970s. As Lerman shows, the prevalence of antisemitism and the campaign to redefine it were both influenced by cataclysmic world events over the period that followed. Having begun with a shared understanding of antisemitism, albeit one that was argued over, we saw aggressive efforts to impose a single fixed definition, both legally and institutionally, for which there was no consensus.

For Lerman, the turn of the millennium was a watershed, with several key events clustered around this time. First, the peace process of the 1990s came to an end with the collapse of the Camp David talks. The second Palestinian intifada, which began in September 2000, “was followed by attacks on Jewish property, especially in European countries with large Muslim and Arab minorities.”

During the first week of September 2001, there was a United Nations World Conference Against Racism in the South African city of Durban. The NGO Forum that preceded it branded Israel as a “racist, apartheid state” that was guilty of “war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing” in its final declaration. As Lerman notes, the forum also included what many participants, Jewish and non-Jewish, considered to be “antisemitic attacks on Israel.”

Immediately after the Durban conference, the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington generated a spate of antisemitic conspiracy theories that claimed that Jews working in the World Trade Center had advance warning of the attack and stayed safely at home. As George W. Bush declared an open-ended “war on terror,” the Israeli government ratcheted up its repression of the Palestinians, which in turn was followed by a spate of attacks on synagogues in Europe.

Working Definitions

It was in the fraught political context of this period that the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) posted a “working definition” of antisemitism on its website in 2005. The text of the “working definition” codified the disputed concept of the “new antisemitism.”

Many people strongly criticized the wording of the definition when it first appeared, and the EUMC’s successor organization later downgraded its official status. However, it laid the groundwork for the Working Definition of Antisemitism that the IHRA adopted in 2016, with a wording that was almost identical.

The ideas contained in the overlapping EUMC/IHRA definitions emerged from debates in the upper echelons of the Israeli and diaspora Jewish establishments. Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and Israel’s minister for Jewish diaspora affairs between 2003 and 2005, developed what he called the “Three Ds” test to illustrate when criticism of Israeli policies crossed the line into antisemitism, so far as Sharansky was concerned. The Three Ds were “demonization,” “double standards,” and “delegitimization” (“when Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied, alone among all peoples of the world”).

The Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer summed up a related line of argument that holds that Israel has become an isolated, pariah state because of its Jewish character: “The pariah position peculiar to the Jews in medieval Europe is still occupied by Israel in the United Nations, despite the resumption of diplomatic relations between Israel and most of the world’s countries.”

The Canadian legal academic Irwin Cotler put forward his own description of the “new antisemitism” as “the denial of the right of the Jewish people to live as equal members of the family of nations.” Cotler, who went on to serve as justice minister and attorney general in the Canadian federal government, insisted that this was a modern variation on a very old theme:

All that has happened is that there was a move from discrimination against the Jews as individuals to discrimination against the Jews as a people. . . . But it is the Jewish people in its collective sense, where Israel has become a word — the Jew among the nations — in which this new anti-Jewishness finds expression.

There are so many holes that one can identify in these arguments — not least Cotler’s remarkable assertion that antisemitism down the ages could be reduced to the phenomenon of “discrimination against the Jews as individuals.” Of course, individual discrimination has always been one manifestation of antisemitism. However, it would be absurd to claim that the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazi Final Solution — to pick two especially notorious examples — did not target and persecute the Jews as a people.

Tracking the Debate

Lerman unpicks, with an almost obsessive attention to detail, the debates, institutional allegiances, and internecine conflicts that have us led to today’s situation. We now have attempts in several different countries to impose what was originally supposed to be a nonlegally binding “working definition” of antisemitism on bodies such as universities, political parties, and even states.

The chapters that Lerman devotes to documenting this story are an important record of material that would otherwise be lost, although the wealth of detail can make it hard to follow, even for someone familiar with Jewish community structures, the history of Israel/Palestine, and the complexities of how Zionism has affected the Jewish diaspora. It might have been better to include some of this material in an appendix. In the concluding chapters, however, Lerman does pull together the threads to clarify the historical and political trajectory of a politically motivated campaign that is having such far-reaching effects.

There are also moments in the book — such as when the author lists antisemitic incidents in Europe that followed Israeli actions against Palestinians without explicitly questioning the justification for attacks on Jewish targets — which appear close to arguing that Israel’s behavior is causing antisemitism. As well as absolving antisemites (including those on the Left) of responsibility for their racism, this line of argument is also a mirror image of the Zionist claim that Israel does stand for all Jews the world over.

This may arise because Lerman attributes the political drive to establish the concept of the “new antisemitism” entirely to the state of Israel and its Zionist supporters and emissaries in the diaspora. This focus overlooks longstanding aspects of the domestic politics, needs and priorities of different diaspora communities. While the concerns of their leaders may overlap with those of Israel, they are not the same, and in some respects, there may even be a conflict between them.

Nurturing Alliances

For thousands of years, Jews have lived almost continuously as minority communities among other peoples across the world. This state of affairs is normal for Jews, not an aberration, and Jewish culture has developed to reflect and serve this complex and often ambiguous situation. There have always been arguments and debates about how we define ourselves and understand our relationship to the wider society and the world beyond.

Indeed, it is the very recent establishment of a Jewish nation-state that is anomalous. This has thrown up questions that have made it harder for us to use and develop the cultural resources we have always drawn upon as a diaspora people. One of the most important of those resources has been an understanding that neither we nor other minorities can fight racism alone.

As I discovered in the 1970s when the Jewish Chronicle was raising hell about young people joining the Anti-Nazi League, the long exercise of redefining antisemitism and controlling our responses to it is not just about protecting Israel from criticism. It is also about undermining those progressive alliances in the diaspora, ironically making it harder for us to fight the antisemitism we have no problem identifying and defining — which emanates mainly from the political right but requires action wherever it occurs, including on the Left.

The aggressive attempt to redefine antisemitism so that it is centered on Israel rather than on all its victims across the world has not only stifled discussion about Zionism, the occupation, and the Palestinian struggle for justice. It has also failed to have any impact on levels of antisemitism. In fact, some of the governments that have endorsed the IHRA Working Definition — those of Austria, Hungary, Lithuania, and the United States, for example — have averted their eyes from homegrown antisemitism and in some instances led or encouraged it.

The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, launched in 2021, is a more encouraging initiative. While the text of the declaration is not perfect, it has been drafted in good faith and is intended to be open ended, discursive, and predicated on universal rights. One of its authors was David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck in London. Feldman summed up the situation we now find ourselves in.

The starting point . . . is our present confusion over what antisemitism is. . . . When it comes to antisemitism many of us literally don’t know what we’re talking about and are happy to admit it. And as for the rest of us who think we do know what antisemitism is, we are congenitally unable to agree among ourselves.

Lerman’s book raises complex and hugely important questions that we urgently need to address. His courage in daring to ask “Whatever happened to antisemitism?” and his persistence and rigor in pursuing the answers have provided us with a valuable resource. It will help us understand the political purposes behind the attempt to relocate responsibility for anti-Jewish racism and redefine Jewish people and communities themselves.

Antisemitism is always wrong and must always be challenged. Lerman points to the damaging consequences of the move to impose a distorted definition of antisemitism on both Jewish people and our natural allies in other minority communities. It has served to divide and weaken those much-needed alliances. We must stop being distracted and put our energy into nurturing such alliances instead.