- Interview by
- Daniel Finn
The question of how to define antisemitism has become a major political controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Israeli government officials and their supporters in Europe and the United States insist that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are two sides of the same coin. They have leveled accusations of antisemitism against groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch — and even against the ice cream makers Ben & Jerry’s — for their criticisms of Israel.
How did we reach a point where this kind of political discourse has become entirely routine? Antony Lerman has decades of experience as a researcher into antisemitism and a participant in debates about how to define it. He has recently published a book that examines the history of this controversy: Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? Redefinition and the Myth of the “Collective Jew.”
Defining the “New Antisemitism”
For those who make use of it in their arguments, what is the concept of the “new antisemitism,” and how does it differ from traditional forms of antisemitism, in their view?
The argument goes something like this. The old antisemitism was a hatred of the individual Jew or Jews as a group, living in societies where they were considered to be aliens, strangers, or unwanted. The new antisemitism is hatred of Israel, the self-styled Jewish state, conceived as the targeted, persecuted collective Jew among the nations. The state is the Jew personified, as it were.
The notion of the collective Jew is on one level quite simply a metaphor for Israel, the Jewish state. But there’s another way that I think is useful to understand and describe the concept of the new antisemitism. It encapsulates the conclusion that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
This was a highly contested view for many years in Israel itself, from the beginning of the state in 1948. For more than two decades, Israeli leaders saw opposition to Zionism as fundamentally political and not as race hatred. However, from the early 1970s through to the late 1990s, Jewish discussion of the notion of the new antisemitism intensified. Where once the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism was a question to be discussed, for the promoters of this redefinition, that relationship became unequivocally an equals sign.
What are the intellectual origins of the concept, and when did it begin to enter the political mainstream?
It only seriously entered the discourse in the way we understand it today in 1974, when it was used as the title of a book by the heads of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein. In that book, however, they were warning about dangers to come rather than explicitly focusing on antisemitic anti-Zionism as a present-day problem. One prominent reviewer, A. Roy Eckardt, felt that there was nothing especially “new” in what they were describing.
But after the United Nations General Assembly passed a very significant resolution equating Zionism with racism in 1975, discussion became common among academics and antisemitism experts about whether this anti-Israel, anti-Zionist sentiment was antisemitic. These discussions were often orchestrated by the World Zionist Organization and the office of the Israeli president.
I followed these discussions over time, and I write about them in in my book. As they developed, more and more people were shifting toward the notion that there was such a thing as the new antisemitism. Some of the people who were most prominent and influential in those discussions are still influential today. That includes people who were initially quite skeptical about the new antisemitism: for example, Yehuda Bauer, a well-known and highly respected Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Bauer eventually came around to the idea and promoted it very strongly.
Another very influential figure, who died in 2015, was professor Robert Wistrich, who became head of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University. Wistrich was one of the main promoters of the “eternalist” notion of antisemitism, according to which it had been essentially the same prejudice against Jews since antiquity. Like Bauer, he was somewhat skeptical at the beginning, but later fully embraced the notion of the new antisemitism and pushed it very hard at his talks and conferences around the world.
Irwin Cotler, originally of Canada’s McGill University, was also an important voice. Cotler became a Liberal MP and served as Canadian justice minister and attorney general in a Liberal government. He was particularly significant because he was the one who really popularized the idea of Israel as the collective Jew among the nations. In his own way, Cotler was pressing for the concept of the new antisemitism from an early stage.
One final example is Dina Porat, a professor at Tel Aviv University. Porat founded a research institution at the beginning of the 1990s that was initially financed by the Mossad. She played a very significant role in the redefinition of antisemitism.
By the turn of the century, that redefinition had firmly entered the political mainstream and indeed had become a new orthodoxy. It was soon to be codified in the form of a “working definition” drafted under the auspices of the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). However, it has remained a contentious and disputed notion.
What are the main problems with the concept of the new antisemitism, as you understand those problems to be?
To begin with, this concept relies on acceptance of the notion that Israel is the collective Jew. It’s a very seductive metaphor, but I argue that it fails on at least four levels. Firstly, on the philosophical level, I call it a category mistake, because a state cannot possibly have the attributes of a person. It sounds like a nice metaphor, but it is really a false one.
A state cannot experience antisemitism — it’s simply nonsense. The definition of a category mistake is that it ascribes a property to a thing that could not possibly have that property. The very notion of the collective Jew, which is integral to the theory of the new antisemitism, simply doesn’t stand up.
Secondly, the idea of the collective Jew reduces Jews to a singularity, implying that they are all the same, which is quite simply an antisemitic trope. Thirdly, it puts the Jewish state beyond criticism as being, like the individual Jew, wholly and intrinsically innocent. The most extreme example of antisemitism is the case of an individual Jew standing in front of the gas chambers. There is, in my view, a kind of resonance involved in comparing that with people saying nasty things about Israel, which puts the Jewish state beyond criticism and makes it an object of worship.
The final point about the idea of the collective Jew is that it presents Israel as the climax of Jewish history — something for which there is no basis in Jewish teaching. The conservative American Jewish theologian, Abraham Joshua Heschel, a very well-known and well-respected figure, wrote that Judaism is not a religion of space and does not worship the soil, so the state of Israel is not the climax of Jewish history.
I also want to quote Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Israel Prize Winner and a very orthodox Jewish public intellectual. He was a scientist and a prolific writer on Jewish thought and Western philosophy who became very well known — particularly because he referred to what was going on in the West Bank as being conducted by “Judeo-Nazis,” which didn’t win him many supporters! Leibowitz said that holding any state as a value in itself was inherently fascist, and sanctifying any piece of land, including Israel, was a form of idolatry. When it comes down to it, I argue that there is no form of speech about any state that can be justifiably prohibited.
The second main problem with the notion that anti-Zionism is antisemitism is that it drains the word “antisemitism” of any useful meaning. In order to qualify as an antisemite, it is sufficient to hold any view, ranging from criticism of Israeli government policies to denial that Israel has the right to exist as a state, without having to subscribe to any of the tropes that historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic worldview. While promoters of the new antisemitism concept say that criticism of Israeli governments is legitimate in theory, they effectively proscribe any such thing in practice.
Although the emphasis in the term “new antisemitism” is placed on the word “new,” almost all of those who support it actually subscribe to the “eternalist” view of antisemitism, which I mentioned earlier in relation to Robert Wistrich. It essentially validates the idea that “they have always hated us, and they always will.”
In this framework, anti-Zionism and antisemitism are often made to look as if they are two points on a continuum, which would make them organically connected, with some undefined, disputed point at which anti-Zionism slides into antisemitism. I would argue that they are in fact completely different phenomena: there is no continuum between them.
Finally, it has become crystal clear that the Israeli state and leading “anti-antisemitism” organizations see the Palestinians as the main promoters of antisemitism and the main repositories of antisemitic sentiments, simply because they want to tell the truth about the ethnic cleansing and dispossession that they have experienced, demanding justice for the wrongs that have been done to them. The redefinition of antisemitism in the form of the new antisemitism has produced a racist charter against Palestinians based on the prohibition of free speech. Antisemitism is being defined as what it is not.
“New Antisemitism” in the Twenty-First Century and the IHRA Definition
What was the significance of the abortive Camp David talks, the outbreak of the Second Intifada, and the 9/11 attacks in the United States with the subsequent “war on terror” for the development of the discourse about Israel and antisemitism?
I would add one other significant event to that list — an anti-racism conference held in Durban in 2001, which was seen by many at the time as an anti-Israel hate fest. Together with the events you’ve already mentioned and the escalation of suicide bombings from 2001 onward, it constituted a turning point in the debate about the new antisemitism, and in the commitment of Israel to take the lead in what was increasingly defined as the “war against antisemitism.” Opinion shifted decisively at that turning point in favor of accepting the concept of the new antisemitism.
This was contested at the time, but if you read the newspapers and magazine articles from that period, it’s quite clear that what I call a moral panic set in, which Israel exploited for its own purposes. Its government began to see the diplomatic advantage of framing its internal crisis in terms of antisemitism.
It was also able to link its own troubles with the US experience of jihadist terrorism and win sympathy by putting itself at the forefront of George Bush’s ill-judged declaration of the war on terror. These events helped set the stage for moving from a consensus on the new antisemitism to formalizing what it meant.
What role did the Israeli state and its leaders play in shaping the conversation around the concept of the new antisemitism?
In the 1980s and ’90s, Israeli state institutions and Israeli governments encouraged the conversations around the new antisemitism, but from a backseat role. It was left to Jewish academics and public intellectuals to promote acceptance of the notion. In similar fashion, the Israeli authorities left it to the major Jewish representative bodies around the world to take the lead, especially groups in the United States, such as the ADL and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and their counterparts in Europe.
However, after 2000, the Israeli state apparatus as well as pro-Israel advocacy and lobbying groups engaged in shaping the conversation in a major way, albeit somewhat haphazardly at first. For example, there was a group that had been set up in 1988 called the Israel Government Monitoring Forum on Antisemitism. That was replaced by a new body: the Global Forum on Antisemitism. The Israeli government granted a major role to the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, a new ministry that was set up to be engaged in the fight against antisemitism.
Israel consolidated its leadership in this area through its backing of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) as an organization. At the same time, there was a shift of the center of gravity of Jewish life toward the Jewish state. Although this process was contested in many Jewish communities, it nonetheless proceeded at pace, allowing Israel to claim legitimacy for its leadership role.
How did the formally codified definition of antisemitism that has become known as the IHRA definition take shape, and what are the issues that you have with that particular definition?
The IHRA definition started life as the EUMC working definition in 2005. It was published on the EUMC’s website in January of that year. In many ways, it was a product of the new antisemitism concept becoming the orthodoxy at the turn of the century.
The alleged spike in what was called “global antisemitism” was largely attributed to anti-Israel sentiments and attacks on Jewish targets by Muslim youth. Bodies like the AJC and the ADL began informally holding discussions with Israeli academics, civil society groups, and governmental bodies around the idea that a new definition of antisemitism was required to take these developments into account.
One Israeli government minister at the time, a former Soviet Jewish dissident called Natan Sharansky, was first out of the blocks, in a sense. In 2004, he came forward with a definition that became known as the “three Ds”: delegitimization, demonization, and double standards. Wherever those three things were applied to Israel, that was supposed to be evidence of antisemitism. This was followed in the same year by Kenneth Stern, the antisemitism expert of the AJC, who had already drafted a new definition of his own.
This definition was taken up by one of the key officials of the AJC, Rabbi Andrew Baker, who had very good relations with the EUMC. Baker exploited a crisis that was facing the EUMC at this time over a suppressed report on antisemitism in Europe. The report purported to show that a lot of the antisemitism in Europe was coming from Muslim sources. The EUMC board felt that the report wasn’t rigorous enough and shouldn’t be published. However, it was leaked, and the whole episode angered European Jewish leaders.
This enabled the AJC to bring pressure to bear on the EUMC to sponsor a discussion on a new antisemitism definition, based on the draft by Stern. This resulted in the EUMC working definition being posted online in January 2005. It was touted as being the product of objective antisemitism experts. In fact, it was a political project almost exclusively involving Jewish bodies. Although some changes were made, it was remarkably similar to Stern’s original draft.
The main difference concerned the eleven examples of what constitutes antisemitism. The EUMC wording said that those examples could be antisemitic, depending on the context. Stern did not include this reference to context in his own definition: he simply said that the examples were antisemitic. He objected to the examples being made conditional, but the director of the EUMC and her advisors pressed very strongly for it.
This text was never formally adopted by the EUMC, let alone by the European Union. It had an initial impact of some note, but it also faced strong criticism from the very beginning. When the EUMC was replaced by another body called the Fundamental Rights Agency, partly because of the furor that engulfed the EUMC over the leaked antisemitism report, the new body more or less disowned the working definition and initially dropped it from its website.
All of the bodies and individuals involved in the EUMC effort were very unhappy about the state of affairs. Before long they began — understandably from their point of view — to seek ways of reintroducing it into the public domain. The AJC and the Simon Wiesenthal Center were most influential in this effort, using the IHRA as their vehicle.
The IHRA is a body with thirty-five member-states at present, almost all of which are European. It has been used largely by European states for the purpose of virtue signaling. It adopted a slightly amended version of the EUMC text in 2016, in very controversial circumstances.
There are several problems with the working definition. First of all, it simply doesn’t qualify as a definition. It is not a precise statement of the essential qualities of a thing. Since the eleven examples are all conditional, the definition is not definitive.
Secondly, seven of the eleven examples of what might qualify as antisemitism are related to Israel and Zionism in one form or another. Most of those examples simply involve the denial of free speech, such as not being able to say that Israel is a “racist endeavor,” for example. You might disagree with that statement, but there’s no basis for saying that it is antisemitic. To outlaw such arguments is simply a case of chilling free speech.
The IHRA definition states in its opening lines that it is not a legally binding document. However, this caveat has been widely ignored. The definition is being made in effect legally binding in various countries: state legislatures in the United States are doing so, for example, and the UK government is bringing pressure to bear on universities, forcing them to adopt the IHRA definition or have their funding cut.
It is being used as a quasi-legal document. Even Ken Stern, the original drafter of the definition, now strongly criticizes the way it is being used to limit free speech about Israel on university campuses.
The concept of the new antisemitism, as codified in the IHRA definition, is underpinned by the premise that anti-Zionism is the principal form of antisemitism. In practice, this makes the IHRA definition a charter for pursuing a racist agenda against Palestinians, chilling freedom of speech, denying them their inalienable rights, and doing them immeasurable harm. Meanwhile, it makes Jews no safer from real antisemitism.
Left Politics and the Politicization of the “New Antisemitism”
Organizations like the ADL in the United States, for example, or the Board of Deputies of British Jews in Britain, argue that Jewish communities and their organizations are the ones who should take the lead in defining antisemitism, on the grounds that minority groups should be the ones who have the right to define their own oppression. How do you respond to that line of argument?
I respond to that with the deepest skepticism. There’s absolutely no doubt that the first people one should listen to about racism are the people who are experiencing it. There’s no justification at all for them being ignored when it comes to discussion of what racism means and what to do about it. The experience of groups on the receiving end of racism must be listened to and respected.
However, if every group fighting racism was given carte blanche to decide what constitutes the racism they experience, it would make a nonsense of the law. It would already have been predetermined that such a thing was a racist incident and against the law, so the law would have no role in deciding it. The legal system must surely be the supreme authority making the judgment as to whether an incident is racist or not, if required.
I think definitions of racism, especially for legal purposes, must be the product of objective discussion and judgment among experts, including experts from the groups affected. Their input is essential. Sadly, we already have a kind of hierarchy. If we look at the situation in the UK, where you have so much attention being paid to the IHRA definition, equivalent attempts to adopt a definition of Islamophobia have simply been brushed aside by the government. Some discussions went on, but they didn’t come to any agreement.
It seems to me intolerable that there should be so much attention being paid to the Jewish case but not to the Muslim case. I don’t want to establish hierarchies of racism, but I do want to understand that some groups experience racism much more severely than others. I would say that Muslims in the UK are in that position, and for them not to be given the same respect as Jews is simply unacceptable. But I don’t think it is right that Jews or any other ethnic or religious group should be able to unilaterally determine for themselves what is and what is not the racism that they experience.
The left-wing forces that have emerged in the UK and the United States over the last decade have been dogged by some very serious accusations of antisemitism against figures like Jeremy Corbyn, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. What is the substance behind those accusations, in your opinion?
I have been quite engaged in discussions around Corbyn and his alleged antisemitism, and I have tried to keep up with what has been said about Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, although I’m not an expert on the precise circumstances of the American situation. Nevertheless, I don’t see a shred of evidence supporting the accusations against those three politicians.
In the cases of Tlaib and Omar, as far as I’ve read, the accusations relate to Israel, its discriminatory treatment of the Palestinians, and US support for an Israeli government that has instituted an apartheid regime in the occupied territories and within the Green Line. I would relate all that I’ve seen of what they have said to direct concern about those things, with some strong language used. But at no time, in what I have read, do I think that the line has been crossed. I think we are dealing with false accusations here.
I deal with some of the accusations against Corbyn in my book, in a chapter on the use and abuse of antisemitic stereotypes and tropes. Taken together with the accusations leveled at Omar and Tlaib, they all contain the same basic failures, I would argue, to understand the nature of antisemitism. They all see antisemitic tropes and the endorsement of those tropes where there are none. This failure is not inadvertent — it is willful.
In one core example related to Corbyn, there were antisemitic tropes in a street mural that was reproduced in a Facebook post that he commented on. But there is no evidence that he even looked at the mural image in the first place, and his comment said nothing about it.
The visual tropes themselves, of two apparently Jewish bankers, were ambiguous. They were touted in the press by many “anti-antisemitism” warriors as being images straight out of the German Nazi newspaper, Der Sturmer, or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Yet if anyone set the images in the mural alongside Nazi images of Jews, they would find hardly any relationship between the two.
That is not to say that the images in the mural were not antisemitic, because the person who painted the mural later confirmed that was the thinking behind them in a statement that he made. But this is a complicated issue that has been treated as if it was very simple — the notion of what is or is not a trope.
Another example that I discuss in the book occurred at a press conference to launch the report of an inquiry into antisemitism and racism in the Labour Party by the lawyer Shami Chakrabarti. Marc Wadsworth, a black Labour activist who was in the audience, directed words at a Jewish Labour MP called Ruth Smeeth and a journalist from the Telegraph, a conservative newspaper, accusing them of working together “hand-in-hand.” These words were immediately taken to imply that Wadsworth believed there was Jewish control of the media, and Smeeth stormed out of the press conference.
Corbyn, who was on the podium with Chakrabarti at the time, hadn’t heard the comments and didn’t have a clue what was going on. This event was being broadcast live, and I watched it. It wasn’t Corbyn who had uttered the words directed at Smeeth. It was Marc Wadsworth, who later said he had no idea that she was Jewish. Moreover, he hadn’t said anything about “Jewish control of the media.”
Interpreting all of this as being antisemitic was bizarre. But within minutes, this fictitious antisemitic incident was all over social media and rolling news bulletins, with Corbyn said to be responsible. It was even cited as evidence of his own supposed antisemitism.
In all of these cases, you’re looking at the misuse, often deliberate, of the idea of antisemitic tropes and stereotypes by people setting out to politically harm their opponents. When it comes to antisemitism, the public space is so highly charged and so influenced by individuals and groups policing what can and what cannot be said, in effect reading from the IHRA definition playbook, that objectivity about antisemitism doesn’t get a look in.
In several countries today, including Britain and the United States, mainstream political debate concerning antisemitism is dominated by an understanding of what it means to be antisemitic that you consider to be fundamentally flawed. If that is the case, then what steps, if any, can we take from this point to shift the terms of the debate in a more positive and constructive direction?
This is the $64,000 question! I won’t shy away from it, because we cannot understand how we got to where we are today, with the sense of crisis and confusion around antisemitism, without being fully aware of the historical context of what has happened.
I feel that my personal experience of that history makes me uniquely qualified to provide that context, because I have been at the academic and political coal face of this issue for forty years. People must judge my book for themselves, but I think I am in a unique position here of being able to play both of these roles. Very few other people have had that experience. I feel that I have been able to turn that experience into something very useful, because I can more fully understand what has gone on against the historical backdrop.
We have to recognize that what we are facing is a structural problem that cannot be countered incident by incident. A lot of the pushback against the IHRA definition and against false accusations of antisemitism has involved going into the minutiae of what happened in a particular incident. Some of that work is excellent — I’m not criticizing it per se. But so much time is spent on detailed refutation while the other side controls the wider narrative.
I don’t think the time spent on detailed refutation has an impact on that narrative. We have to understand what the academic Esther Romeyn calls a transnational field of racial governance that serves to perpetuate the new antisemitism framework. That field must be continually exposed and criticized. It is dominated by heavyweight institutions that cannot be dismantled. Uncovering that structure and criticizing it is crucial.
But I believe that the narrative can be dismantled and replaced by relentless exposure of the falsity of this discourse, with its reliance on the myth of Israel as the collective Jew. It also relies on what I call the eradication discourse. So many of the meetings and demonstrations that have been held by Jewish organizations and others, demanding the complete eradication and defeat of antisemitism, are effectively demanding the impossible.
I don’t think any serious student of racism and antisemitism believes that you will ever fully eradicate those prejudices. Of course, there is a lot that you can do to fight and push back against them. But that language of eradication merely paves the way for the continuity of complaint. You can keep on having a go at your political enemies by making a demand that can never be satisfied.
We have to explain the fraudulent nature of this political project. The IHRA definition has redefined antisemitism as exercising the right to free speech on Israel/Palestine. If you’re going to go to war against free speech, you are ensuring that you will never successfully fight antisemitism.
Moreover, we must not allow Israel to set the agenda and dominate the narrative. You cannot fight antisemitism with Zionism, nor can you claim any moral authority to lead the fight against antisemitism when you give a free pass to authoritarian leaders like Viktor Orbán, who love Israel but who tolerate and even promote antisemitism at home.
To try and move out of this mess we are in, it is essential to cooperate with others in dismantling real antisemitism and racism, not by privileging antisemitism, but by recognizing different levels of racist harm, with Jews by no means in the forefront of that harm. Cooperation on this with other groups is essential.
State institutions, right-wing and center-right political parties, and even some so-called left-wing parties seek to divide us all by giving credence to the experience of racism of some groups but not others. We must not allow that to happen.