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The definition of antisemitism and when does anti-Zionism become antisemitism

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism is excellent but widely misunderstood by both sides of the Israel / Palestine dispute.


Presented on 11 September 2023. Posted 5 November 2023

Liberal Democrats for Peace in the Middle East is one of the many organisations within the Liberal Democrats that I belong to. I serve as one of its Vice-Chairs.

On 11 September 2023 I gave a talk over Zoom which was publicised with the following blurb:

What is antisemitism and what is not? What can you say about Israel without being antisemitic? When does anti-Zionism become antisemitism? How do you spell the word?

My talk and subsequent discussion were both recorded. The talk can be watched below, and the discussion can be watched on the LDfPME YouTube channel.

My talk

Presentation slides

You can download the PowerPoint presentation I used if you want to read the slides more easily.



Additional material

I have written about the subject before. See the pages listed below.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Antisemitism
The IHRA definition of antisemitism has been adopted by the UK Government, amongst others. Many, on both sides of the Israel / Palestine dispute, think the definition labels all criticism of Israel as antisemitic. It does not. I wrote an article about the definition on ConservativeHome and have reproduced it on this page. The page also explains the etymological fallacy committed by those who argue Arabs cannot be antisemites. It also explains why "antisemitism" is the preferred spelling.
When is being anti-Israeli evidence that you are antisemitic?
An antisemite is a person who hates Jews. Hatred is a mental state. Deciding if someone is antisemitic requires evidence in the form of words or deeds. What the person says about Israel may be such evidence. However such utterances need to be assessed alongside other evidence to determine whether the person hates Jews. Assertions denying one is antisemitic will not displace the conclusion drawn from words or deeds, if those clearly evidence antisemitism.
When does anti-Zionism become antisemitism?
When Israel is criticised, its defenders often contend that the critics are motivated by antisemitism. The accusation is made even when the critics are Jews. I encountered the argument that anti-Zionism is always antisemitic for the first time a few years ago. However once you define your terms carefully, the question ceases to be controversial.


While presenting slide 7, I offered to share a funny story about bananas during the discussion if anyone asked. Nobody did. However I am sharing it here since the incident has stayed with me for over 50 years.

As background, as well as fields (mentioned on slide 7), mathematics contains many other things with names that might confuse non-mathematicians, such as groups, rings, fibres, fibre bundles, sheafs, and my favourite, Killing vectors. (Killing vectors are not lethal — they are named after the German mathematician Wilhelm Killing.)

When I was an undergraduate at Cambridge University reading mathematics, I went to a book sale with a fellow mathematician friend. In the sale, the books were jumbled up, rather than being sorted by subject. Each of us looked at a book, where we could see only the spine, with the title "Bananas." I pulled it down, and it was about the cultivation of the yellow fruit we all eat.

However, before pulling the book down, my friend and I had each been thinking the same thing. "What is this mathematical structure called a banana?" Such is the effect of specialisation!


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