Antisemitism has a long and terrible history amongst Christians. From the earliest days, since Christianity had grown out of Judaism, it defined itself in opposition to Judaism.
Sadly, while generally far more tolerant of Jews than Christians, over the centuries Muslims have also sometimes been guilty of antisemitism. It is also found amongst atheists, reaching its apotheosis in the Holocaust; while many Nazis were practicing Christians, much of the leadership was I believe primarily anti-religious.
If you are going to counter something, you need to be clear what it is.
That is why much effort has been spent over the last decade or so seeking to come up with a definition of antisemitism. The latest incarnation is the definition from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) which has been officially adopted by the UK Government, amongst others.
I also support the IHRA definition, and recently wrote a short article about it in an article on ConservativeHome which is reproduced below.
Since I wrote the ConservativeHome article, I have realised that the most important paragraph in it is the one reproduced immediately below, because I see so much misunderstanding of the definition, some of which may be wilful.
The definition has been consistently attacked by self-described “Anti-Zionists” as attempting to shut down criticism of Israel, when it does no such thing.
Conversely, it is also occasionally misused by particularly staunch supporters of Israel for precisely that purpose, to label some critics of Israel as antisemites when it is clear from other evidence that they hold no hostility towards Jews.
Both groups fail to read the definition properly.
Below that, I address an argument I encounter from time to time: "Arabs cannot be antisemitic, since they are Semites also." I also look at how the word should be spelled, and at some comments from Parliament's Home Affairs Select Committee.
Mohammed Amin is Chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum and Co-Chair of the Muslim Jewish Forum of Greater Manchester. He is writing in a personal capacity.
Some things get a quite incorrect reputation for being controversial. One of these is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, a definition which the UK Government has adopted and which I also support unambiguously.
The definition has been consistently attacked by self-described “Anti-Zionists” as attempting to shut down criticism of Israel, when it does no such thing. Conversely, it is also occasionally misused by particularly staunch supporters of Israel for precisely that purpose, to label some critics of Israel as antisemites when it is clear from other evidence that they hold no hostility towards Jews. Both groups fail to read the definition properly.
The issue matters because it often poisons political debate in our country. Now that the Runnymede Trust has published a new definition of Islamophobia (which I will write about separately) we can expect similar misguided argumentation of what is or is not Islamophobic.
The IHRA definition is quite short:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Antisemitism is something inside a person’s mind: “a certain perception of Jews” or “hatred toward Jews.” As we cannot yet read people’s minds, we can only decide if they are antisemitic by evaluating their rhetoric and their physical actions. One is seeking to determine from their words and actions whether a person hates Jews.
That is it. The definition stops there, and I have not found any controversy surrounding the definition. All the controversy comes from some helpful guidance (and in my view it is genuinely helpful) that the IHRA publishes in the same document to assist people seeking to apply the definition.
"Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic." [Emphasis added by me.]
The word “might” clearly indicates that sometimes such targeting will be evidence that the person hates Jews, and sometimes it might not be. When a person “bangs on” (to use David Cameron’s memorable phrase) about Israel, one has to assess what they are saying, and also what they are saying and doing in the rest of their activities, to decide whether or not they hate Jews.
The IHRA goes on to give some more useful help.
"Contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to:" [Emphasis added by me.]
The above words are followed by a list of 11 illustrative examples. People tend to dive straight into the list, while failing to do what the above text requires, namely “taking into account the overall context.”
To show how one should think about the examples, take the following:
"Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust)."
There is universal agreement amongst all serious historians about the basic facts of the Holocaust. Accordingly, when someone seeks to argue that six million Jews were not deliberately killed by the Germans, but say only 500,000 died because Eastern Europe was a combat zone, it is overwhelmingly likely that they are arguing this because they hate Jews, and not because they are seeking to do serious history.
Several of the eleven examples relate to Israel. The key point about critics of Israel is that some of them are antisemites, and some are not. You have to look at what they say and do about Israel, and what they say and do about Jews, and then form an overall assessment taking into account the overall context. I wrote about this in Jewish News shortly after the IHRA definition was first published, in my piece “When is being anti-Israel evidence of anti-Semitism?”
People really do say this to me from time to time. They do so because they are committing the etymological fallacy.
Arabic and Hebrew are both correctly called Semitic languages.
It is also accurate to use the word Semites to refer to both Arabs and Jews, since Semitic peoples are peoples who speak Semitic languages.
The word "antisemitic" clearly derives from the word "Semitic." However the etymological origin of a word does not determine its modern meaning. What determines its meaning is how it is used, and in the case of words that have a formal definition, the definition itself normally determines how people use the word.
In modern English, the word "antisemitism" is never used to refer to hatred of both Arabs and Jews. It is only used to refer to hatred of Jews. If in doubt, search the usage in printed English texts, now easily done with electronic tools. That applies even before one considers formal definitions such as the IHRA definition.
Some Arabs may consider it unfair that although they are Semites, the word "antisemitism" does not cover hatred of them. However, that is the simple fact of what the word means. Antisemitism is "hatred of Jews", even if the structure of the word leads one to think that it should mean "hatred of Semites."
Many people spell the word as "anti-semitism" (including the editor of ConservativeHome) or as "anti-Semitism" (including the editor of Jewish News.)
Microsoft Office's British English dictionary approves of the spelling "anti-Semitism" but rejects "anti-semitism." While my own computer accepts the spelling "antisemitism", that is only because I have specifically added "antisemitism" to my Custom Dictionary.
The reason why "antisemitism" is the preferred spelling is concisely explained in the piece "Should Anti-Semitism Be Hyphenated?" The article quotes the late John Marschall, a retired professor of history at the University of Nevada:
"Throughout my book “Jews in Nevada: A History,” and in other articles on Jewry and Judaism, I have chosen to use the spelling ‘antisemitism’ rather than ‘anti-Semitism.’ I agree with authors [of books on the subject], like James Parkes, A. Roy Eckardt, Leonard Dinnerstein and James Carroll, that the latter implies a hostility toward some imagined ‘Semitism,’ whereas the former means hostility specifically toward Jews. Thus, it is possible for other Semitic groups, such as Arabs, to be antisemitic — but not anti-Semitic. My Webster’s dictionary and Microsoft spell checker, however, reject my logic, and ‘anti-Semitism’ continues to be the most common spelling in most publications."
As someone who has had to struggle with computers trying to reject "antisemitism" I can sympathise with his last sentence!
I first became aware of the issue when I was referred to the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) working definition of antisemitism, which I recall explained the importance of getting the spelling right, along the same lines as above. The EUMC working definition was provisionally used for a while by the European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), which superseded the EUMC, but the FRA a few years ago dropped the working definition from its website.
However the IHRA has written a detailed page "Spelling of antisemitism" explaining why "antisemitism" is the preferred spelling. The page makes the same point as I do above in my section on the etymological fallacy: "The term has, however, since its inception referred to prejudice against Jews alone."
My page "Koran, Qur'an or Quran and Moslem or Muslim?" contains links to several important style guides. Most of them do not address this spelling issue.
However the Guardian style guide does. It states unambiguously:
no hyphen: it does not mean “anti-Semitic”
The Home Affairs Select Committee issued a report on "Antisemitism in the UK" in 2016 which, amongst other matters, considered the defintion of antisemitism.
Paragraphs 23-25 reproduced below discuss the IHRA definition, and the question of criticism of Israel.
23. It is clear that where criticism of the Israeli Government is concerned, context is vital. Israel is an ally of the UK Government and is generally regarded as a liberal democracy, in which the actions of the Government are openly debated and critiqued by its citizens. Campaigners for Palestinian rights have informed us that they would expect similar standards of conduct from the Israeli Government as they would demand from the UK Government. It is important that non-Israelis with knowledge and understanding of the region should not be excluded from criticising the Israeli Government, in common with the many citizens of Israel who are amongst its strongest critics, including human rights organisations in that country.
24. We broadly accept the IHRA definition, but propose two additional clarifications to ensure that freedom of speech is maintained in the context of discourse about Israel and Palestine, without allowing antisemitism to permeate any debate. The definition should include the following statements:
- It is not antisemitic to criticise the Government of Israel, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.
- It is not antisemitic to hold the Israeli Government to the same standards as other liberal democracies, or to take a particular interest in the Israeli Government’s policies or actions, without additional evidence to suggest antisemitic intent.
25. We recommend that the IHRA definition, with our additional caveats, should be formally adopted by the UK Government, law enforcement agencies and all political parties, to assist them in determining whether or not an incident or discourse can be regarded as antisemitic.
I have no objection to the suggested caveats. They should avoid some people who are particularly pro-Israeli from misinterpreting the definition, but I am not convinced that they are strictly necessary.
In my view any reasonable reading of the IHRA definition and its illustrative examples must inevitably involved applying caveats of that nature.