What is anti-semitism?

The Definition of Antisemitism

Antisemitism is a form of racism: hatred, hostility, discrimination or prejudice against Jews because they are Jews. It may be manifested in violence; denial of rights; direct, indirect or institutional discrimination; prejudice-based behaviour; or verbal or written statements. Such manifestations draw on stereotypes – characteristics which all Jews are presumed to share.

1. Stereotypes

Racism commonly stereotypes groups as inferior in ways that enable discrimination against them. Such stereotypes function by scapegoating a targeted group. By holding its members responsible for society’s problems blame is deflected from their real causes. Antisemitic stereotyping has historically been used to dehumanise Jewish people, giving licence to treat them in ways not otherwise acceptable.

2. Examples of antisemitism

Certain words and phrases that refer to Jews in a derogatory way are unquestionably antisemitic. Terms which associate Jews with malevolent social forces clearly fall into this category. Extreme examples are the blood libel (that Jews kill Christian children to use their blood in religious ceremonies), and the claimed existence of a powerful but secret Jewish cabal that controls the world.

Seemingly neutral or positive terms can also be used in antisemitic ways. Assertions that Jews are unusually clever or especially ‘good with money’ make the unwarranted assumption that all Jews share similar characteristics. Commonly, there is also a negative, antisemitic edge to such views.

3. Degrees of antisemitism*

Antisemitic attitudes are not held with uniform intensity: some people may be deeply antisemitic, others less so. Yet others whom it would be unreasonable to class as antisemitic may nevertheless hold certain attitudes, in dilute form, which have the potential to make some Jews uncomfortable. This understanding of antisemitism should inform decisions about whether a case should be considered one of antisemitism, and if so whether discussion and education, rather than a formal disciplinary approach, is more appropriate.

* See Institute of Jewish Policy Research report.

4. Terminology

Jews, Israelis and Zionists are separate categories that are too frequently conflated by both supporters and critics of Israel, and this conflation can be antisemitic. Holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli government is antisemitic. Many Jews are not Zionist. The majority of Zionists are not Jewish but fundamentalist Christian Zionists. Over 20 percent of Israeli citizens are not Jewish.

5. Political discourse

Free speech is legally protected. Within these legal limits political discourse can be robust and may cause offence. However, there is no right not to be offended. The fact that some people or groups are offended does not in itself mean that a statement is antisemitic or racist. A statement is only antisemitic if it shows hatred, hostility, discrimination or prejudice against Jews because they are Jews.

Consider the terms ‘Zionism’ and ‘Zionist’, which describe a political ideology and its adherents. They are key concepts in the discussion of Israel/Palestine and are routinely used, approvingly, by Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel. Campaigners for Palestinian rights, however, identify Zionist ideology and the Zionist movement as responsible for Palestinian dispossession. Criticising Zionism or Israel as a state does not constitute criticising Jews as a people.

There have been claims that any comparison between aspects of Israel and features of either pre-war Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa is inherently antisemitic. Drawing such parallels can undoubtedly cause offence; but potent historical events and experiences are always key reference points in political debate.  Whether such comparisons are antisemitic must be judged on their substantive content, and on the inferences that can reasonably be drawn about the motivation for making them, rather than on the likely degree of offence caused.

This distinction is not applicable to holocaust denial. The fact of the murder of millions of Jews (and so many others) is so well documented that the implication of antisemitic intent is inescapable.

6. Boycott, divestment and sanctions

A common focus for allegations of antisemitism is the campaign for boycott,  divestment and sanctions (BDS) targeted on Israel. The three elements of BDS are internationally recognized as legitimate and non-violent strategies for securing political change when other routes are closed off. So advocating for BDS could only be antisemitic if accompanied by evidence that it is motivated by racially-based hostility towards Jews.

7. When Antisemitism Is Alleged

As with any allegations of racism, accusations of antisemitism must be taken seriously and investigated. But principles of natural justice must be respected: the person accused should be accorded the normal presumption of innocence until the case is resolved. Allegations do not constitute proof.

A charge of antisemitism carries exceptional moral force because of the negative connotations rightly attaching to the term. It is illegitimate to make such claims to discredit or deter criticism or to achieve sectional advantage. To do so is to devalue the term.

8. Overview

This definition of antisemitism reaffirms the generally understood meaning of the term antisemitism. A restatement has become necessary as a result of attempts to extend the term to apply to criticisms often made of the state of Israel, or to non-violent campaigns such as BDS. To be clear: words or actions are antisemitic only if they manifest ‘hatred, hostility, discrimination or prejudice against Jews because they are Jews’.

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