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  • When Does It Make Sense to Call Hostility Towards Jews Antisemitism and When Does It Not?A Historical Perspective on Contemporary Debates
  • Steven Beller (bio)

Wherever one turns these days, it looks as though the scourge of antisemitism is on the rise. What concerns many people is that, while nationalist antisemitism on the political Right was always something to monitor, the recent jump in antisemitism appears to be coming from the political Left. The Labour Party in Britain seems to be riddled with it, even though for years it was seen as a bastion defending British Jews from antisemitism. Here in the United States the farleft of the Democratic Party, represented by people like Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, are also accused regularly of being antisemitic. Furthermore, there is deep concern among many American Jews and their friends and allies about the support for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement on college campuses, whose leaders are frequently assailed as being antisemitic because of their opposition to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and for their criticism of Jewish supporters of the Israeli government, as well as for their support of a secular democratic state replacing what is currently Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. Appearances can, [End Page 115] however, be deceptive. It is debatable whether most, if any, of this behavior and rhetoric is really something that deserves to be called antisemitism.

The IHRA "working definition," which is the most well-known definition of antisemitism today that has been adopted by many organizations in Europe, America, and elsewhere, would say that much of the Israel-related rhetoric and behavior on the Left could be antisemitism, depending on the context and the interpretations of the various examples given as a gloss on the IHRA definition. The rather short core IHRA definition is fairly anodyne, but the devil is in the details of the examples, which many of its advocates now assert are part of the definition, even though the phrasing of the IHRA document does not indicate so. It is in these examples that so many interpreters of the IHRA definition have transformed possibility into certainty. By a "hermeneutics of suspicion," what the IHRA definition states could be antisemitic has been turned into something that is definitely antisemitic, or at least merits watching, and exhorting against: hence the condemnation of the Left as hopelessly riddled with antisemitism.

Yet this says more about problems with the IHRA working definition and its abuse by so many organizations, including the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) itself, than it does about how prevalent antisemitism is on the Left today. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), while better in some respects, also has major flaws, and in both cases the reason is the confused, often self-contradictory ways in which antisemitism is defined, especially when it comes to attitudes toward Israel and Zionism. A word like "antisemitism" should not be bandied about carelessly and without thorough consideration. It is far too emotive, and even explosive, a term to be as irresponsibly handled as it has been of late in politics and the press, on both sides of the Atlantic. What follows are some observations based on the history of the term and of, indeed, the phenomenon, political movement, and ideology that attempt to explain why it should be handled with much more care. [End Page 116]

At the beginning of my book Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction, I discuss the vagaries involved in talking about antisemitism, even when trying to define it. Part of the argument in this book was that using the term "antisemitism" to simply mean hostility to, or hatred of, Jews did not get us very far in understanding the phenomenon. This is because antisemitism was not just some psychological state of mind, but a modern ideology and political movement based on modern cultural, economic, and social resentments, with its own modern logic and worldview, which had major consequences in the Holocaust. As such, modern antisemitism—the antisemitism that we should all condemn without reserve—differs in crucial respects from what so many call antisemitism when they want to describe something somewhat different that would be more accurately termed Jew...