Defining antisemitism

The IHRA definition of antisemitism demands recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish ethnic state. That shuts down legitimate argument about Israel’s past, present and future.


I started this series by stating my own understanding of what antisemitism is. In fact, the very question of how to define antisemitism has become a highly contested one. The controversy centres around the Working Definition of Antisemitism, a “non-legally binding” definition promoted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), and adopted in different forms by a number of countries, including the UK, and also by the British Labour Party. The IHRA‘s definition of antisemitism itself is rather vague:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.

This definition is so lacking in content that it becomes critically dependent on the included list of examples of what it considers antisemitic attitudes, and this is where the controversy begins. It’s striking that some classic antisemitic tropes, such as that Jews are tight-fisted or dishonest, are missing from the list. What’s even more striking is that seven of the eleven examples refer to Israel in some way; here’s Example 7:

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.

This statement begs a lot of questions. First of all it assumes that Jews globally make up one people, with its own right of self-determination, rather than an ethnic category within a number of different nations, with its own rights within those nations. This whole question has huge implications, and has been highly controversial in the past. In fact, up until the Second World War many Jewish organisations rejected Zionism on the grounds that it might compromise the rights of Jews within their nation of birth or residence. Moreover, Example 7 claims the general right of “the Jewish people” to self-determination, but the concrete example that it gives implies that self-determination means statehood, when as Peter Beinart has argued that is only one possible form that self-determination can take. Where ethnic groups are intermingled as they were and are in Israel/Palestine then the right to self-determination may have to take different forms.

Example 7 goes on to link that right of self-determination to “a State of Israel”. Does it mean the principle of a Jewish state? If so, why not say a “Jewish state”? Or does it refer to the State of Israel? If so, there’s a further logical leap from stating that the Jews have a right to their own state in principle, to saying that the State of Israel as it is constituted is legitimate and that any accusations of racism against it are antisemitic. In practice the distinction between “a” State of Israel and “the” State of Israel is liable to disappear; for example, during the conflict over antisemitism in the Labour Party, the Guardian cited Example 7 as follows: “claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour” [emphasis mine].

There are several ways in which you could characterise the state of Israel as racist, starting with the assumption by the Zionist founders that the Jews had a claim to Palestine that took precedence over that of its majority Arab inhabitants. You could point to the mass expulsions of Palestinians in 1948 and the continued exclusion of the refugees and their descendents. You could also refer to all the ways in which Israel discriminates against its Palestinian citizens and denies rights to the Palestinians in the occupied territories, all in the name of preserving the Jewish ethnic character of the Israeli state. It may not fit into the typical imperial-colonial context of racism because Israel’s history is unique, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a form of racism.

So in fact there are three contestable assumptions within Example 7: that Jews constitute one nation with its own right of self-determination, that self-determination necessarily implies statehood, and that the State of Israel is the legitimate expression of Jewish statehood. Anyone who doesn’t accept this chain of logic is condemned as an antisemite. Certainly the question of the best long-term exit from the conflict over Israel/Palestine is a difficult one, with arguments for and against two-state or one-state solutions, but such an accusation just closes down thought.

I’ve focused on Example 7 because it’s the part of the IHRA definition that has the widest political significance, but other parts of the definition can be criticised on similar grounds (see for example Stephen Sedley’s critique in the London Review of Books). The point is, the IHRA definition in general and Example 7 in particular is so ambiguously drafted that it could be used to suppress a wide range of criticism of the Israeli state’s history, law and practices, way beyond what could reasonably be considered antisemitism. Indeed one of the original drafters of the definition, Kenneth Stern, has himself expressed concern about the way that it is being exploited to suppress legitimate debate in American universities.

Antisemitism may motivate some criticism of Israel, but what we know about antisemitism is that it can be quite subtle in its manifestations; a simple checklist approach to defining antisemitism is always likely to be a blunt instrument. The IHRA definition is a very blunt instrument. It seeks to constrain criticism of Israel so that any challenge to the way that Israel is constituted is ruled out of bounds. By conflating antisemitism with legitimate arguments about Israel it actually makes it harder to think about antisemitism rather than easier.

Thinking about the Labour Party and antisemitism

You can’t make sense of the conflict over antisemitism in the Labour Party without delving into the deeper issues.

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing about antisemitism and the Labour Party. Initially I bristled with suspicion about the motives of those who attacked the Corbyn leadership for being antisemitic: the antisemitism conflict has divided the party fairly clearly between right and left (unlike Brexit), and the issues of principle seemed to be getting lost in the factional struggle. Moreover, the issue has become (inextricably?) entangled with the question of Israel and the Palestinians, a subject that is highly emotionally charged, deeply polarised and very complex. What if I made a mistake? What if I lost my temper and wrote something that I would regret? Since then I’ve been reading and thinking, and I realise that the subject raises deep and important questions about a host of issues that are well worth the risk of exploring.

Even the definition of antisemitism is contested, so it seems best to begin with what I understand antisemitism to be at this point. I see it from a social-psychological point of view: as in all forms of racism I think that there’s a underlying antisemitic fantasy (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit). This fantasy sees the Jews as a single powerful global force, a massive conspiracy, that uses its money and hidden channels of influence to manipulate the world to its advantage. In this worldview the Jews are cunning and arrogant and enjoy special privileges. This fantasy is charged with a sense of inferiority and resentment as well as hate; this is what gives antisemitism its emotional power.

Antisemitic beliefs can find expression in the form of cliches or “tropes”. For example, when U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted that support for Israel in Congress was due to spending by pro-Israel lobbyists (“It’s all about the Benjamins baby” – a line from a Puff Daddy song referring to the picture of Benjamin Franklin on the $100 note) I think she was evoking the antisemitic trope that Jews use their money to corrupt politicians (Omar did apologise subsequently, referring to her ongoing education in the “painful history of anti-Semitic tropes”). Another less explicit example comes from Hungary. There the ruling Fidesz party have used posters showing George Soros, a Jewish financier, at the centre of the leaders of the opposition. The image isn’t explicitly antisemitic, but the history of antisemitism in Hungary is long enough for most Hungarians to get the hint: the Jew Soros is pulling the strings behind the scenes. It’s like a “dog whistle” that’s only audible if your hearing is sensitive enough.

I’ve deliberately chosen examples from both the left and the right to make the point that antisemitic tropes are culturally pervasive: the left can’t assume because of its opposition to racism that it is immune to antisemitism. Because antisemitism (like other forms of racism) can be quite unconscious and buried in people’s way of thinking, people can be convinced that they’re not antisemitic even though their thinking betrays antisemitic tropes; reason alone to proceed with caution. The conflicts around Israel and Palestine add another whole layer of difficulty.

It doesn’t seem profitable to me to spend much time on the ding-dong of accusations and counter-accusations around antisemitism in the Labour Party at a local level, and at headquarters: there is a mass of detail that I can’t hope to form an independent judgement about, and the only thing that’s clear to me is that there has been a bitter internal conflict between the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and his opponents. What I feel I can do is look at the bigger issues, touching on a few prominent cases for which (much of) the evidence is public, and drawing some conclusions. That’s what I intend to do in future posts.