Part V: Antisemitism – Restarting at First Principles

I want to go back to the first principles of defining antisemitism and review the criticisms of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition in the light of a meaning context rather than a consequentialist one with the impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict foremost in mind. Most of the discussion has revolved around the examples used as illustrations differentiating those which relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those that do not. In my initial approach, I want to bracket anti-Zionism and the conflict with the Arabs.

Here is the original IHRA provisional definition offered:

“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.”

Note that antisemitism is defined as an emotion not as a breach of human rights. That emotion is hatred. It arises from a perception of Jews and is expressed both in language and in physical actions. The targets do not matter – they may be Jewish or non-Jewish – and they include individuals or community and religious institutions as well as the property or facilities occupied or belonging to either.

The JDA (Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism) is much simpler:

Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).

Notice that non-Jewish targets cannot be objects of the JDA definition of antisemitism. Secondly, the one mental attribute, “prejudice,” is cognitive, unlike hatred that is emotional. Hatred is a powerful aversion. Hostility is not as charged. Prejudice is a judgment, an adverse one, or a negative but ignorant opinion. Prejudice may be based in indifference to the Other while hatred is an intense dislike, much more powerful and stronger than prejudice. Third, hatred inherently places the responsibility for the negative emotion on the Other; the Other is threatening, ugly or distasteful and even evil. Hostility is more neutral. Prejudice makes a pre-emptive assessment and clearly implies that the judgment is based on bias and ignorance. Finally, when these emotions or attitudes are expressed in behaviour, the IHRA definition does not indicate or specify the forms of verbal or physical “abuse” the behaviour will take while the JDA very specifically asserts that it must be violent. Clearly, there is difference between bias and partiality rooted in ignorance and an emotional-deep-seated hatred.

The Nexus definition was developed by some California scholars in response to IHRA because the latter purportedly provided insufficient guidance re identifying antisemitism and to provide greater clarity and fine-tuning. That definition states that, “Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic or social life. As an embodiment of collective Jewish organization and action, Israel can be a target of antisemitism and antisemitic behavior. Thus, it is important for Jews and their allies to understand what is and what is not antisemitic in relation to Israel.”

Of the three definitions, the Nexus one appears to be the most complex and comprehensive.

TargetsJews qua Jews Systematic conditionsJews qua Jews Jewish institutionsJews and non-Jews Jewish institutions
CognitiveAttitude (anti-Jewish) Negative beliefsPrejudicePerception
EmotionsNegative feelingsHostilityHatred
BehaviourActionsViolenceRhetorical Physical

The IHRA definition is the only one in which non-Jews can be targeted with an antisemitic diatribe. Obviously, if someone thinks you are Jewish and aims antisemitic barbs your way, the behaviour is antisemitic even though the person may not be a Jew. It is not at all clear why JDA and Nexus dropped this aspect of the IHRA definition. Further, the Nexus definition picks up the institutional side of the equation, but with almost a singular focus on Israel. This seems to be too narrow to apply to the instances recognized as antisemitic.  

As far as the cognitive state entailed, an attitude is a settled mindset or emotional response normally directed at behaviour. Why did the Nexus definition conflate cognitive approaches and emotions? Further, why the focus on behaviour, the usual focus of attitudes when antisemitism may really have nothing to do with actual behaviour for we know of whole groups which are antisemitic but have no knowledge of Jews? When the character, Clever, in the Australian TV series Rake, refers to Red (a Jewess) as being afflicted with the curse of her people, a deep sense of guilt, it is quite clear that he is not antisemitic but is merely generalizing for sarcastic purposes where the joke may have a grain of truth. Negative attitudes need not be antisemitic. They may just be an expression of a viewpoint about another’s frame of mind.

A prejudice is not just anti-Jewish but a biased and ignorant perspective, whereas a perception which is antisemitic merely states that any anti-Jewish way of seeing the world which view Jews in a negative light is antisemitic. (If a person asserts that Jews are pushy (and perhaps Chinese even more so), this may be a loose generalization which may or may not be true, but it does not seem to add up to antisemitism. Calling antisemitism an anti-Jewish perception seems much too weak in characterizing the cognitive dimensions of the definition as well as far too broad. Antisemitism would seem to be a perspective and a mental inclination in viewing Jews, even negatively, but that in itself does not constitute antisemitism. Nor does the Nexus definition focused on negative beliefs. The categories seem both too broad and too general. In the case of the JDA definition, which more specifically focuses on prejudice, a preconceived opinion based on ignorance rather than actual experience, knowledge or reasoning, the definition suggests that any prejudice directed at Jews is antisemitic.

However, the proponents of the existence of antisemitism generally contend that antisemitism is not just one expression of prejudice, but a particularly virulent one, more incorrigible and deep-seated, more persistent and more lethal than most other prejudices, except perhaps racism. The bigotry is more unbridled. Whether that is actually the case is another matter. The JDA definition lacks clarity and focus on this dimension.

What clearly sets the IHRA definition aside from the others is characterizing antisemitism as a hatred and not just the milder term, “hostility” or the even mushier “negative feelings.” Though the Qur’an has much that is positive to say about Jews, it seems to have much more that is negative and characterised in such a way that “hostility” seems far too weak a term to characterize the assessment of Jews as “inveterately evil” and determined to undermine the well-being of Muslims. Jews

  1. do not keep their promises (2:100)
  2. are disputatious and quarrelsome (2:247)
  3. are rebellious (2:55)
  4. break the sabbath (2:63) and, for that, they morph into dogs and pigs
  5. are heartless (2:74)
  6. are fabulists and fabricators (2:79)
  7. are self-interested and do not respect the teachings of Muhammad (2:87)
  8. wallow in the misery of others (3:120)
  9. mislead people (3:78)
  10. use trickery to take the wealth of others (4:161)
  11. slander Islam (4:46)
  12. do not obey God’s commands (5:13)
  13. are arrogant (5:18)
  14. are lovers of lies (5:41)
  15. do not regard God, Allah, as all-powerful, but weak and prone to err (5:65)
  16. are unremittingly sinners (5:79)
  17. are cursed by Allah (9:30)
  18. are cowards (59:13).

Hostility and certainly negative feelings are far too weak to capture the flavour of these negative characterizations of Jews. At the same time, none of the above entails violent treatment of Jews aimed at individuals or Jewish institutions, but they certainly are not antidotes to violence. And, contrary to the JDA definition, violent behaviour is not the most frequent expression of antisemitism. Linfield University in Oregon fired a Jewish tenured professor, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner (DPP), for “serious breaches of the individual’s responsibility for the reputation of the institution. DPP had accused the trustees of sexual misconduct (DPP was the faculty-elected trustee) and President Miles K. Davis, who is Black, was accused of making antisemitic remarks. There was no review of whether Davis in fact had made remarks about Jewish noses and added negative comments on the Holocaust. The firing took place without a “statement of charges” being made as required by established university processes before an “elected faculty hearing committee” with the right of the accused to be represented by counsel.

Thus far, this is an accusation concerning antisemitism without proof and without indicating either a prejudice towards Jews and likely no hatred. The conflict probably revolved around silencing critical faculty but may have escalated to generalizations about Jewish troublemakers.

When Judith Taylor wrote a newspaper column about inordinate wealth acquisition accompanied by photos of the late Barry Sherman and his wife Nancy who had been murdered, with Prime Minister Justice Trudeau and Mayor John Tory of Toronto wearing kippahs at their funerals, this depiction alongside the photos was widely regarded as antisemitic, even if the columnist may not have had any deep-seated hatred of Jews. The newspaper apologized for the use of an antisemitic trope, but neither hatred nor even prejudice may have been at work here, just an ignorant falling into antisemitic rhetorical devices.

In another case, Peter Beinart, editor of Dissent and currently a radicalized critic of Israel, blamed the arrest of dissenters in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) because Israel sold the surveillance technology to the UAE. He was widely criticized but not accused of antisemitism. His rationale:

  1. Israel was once offered peace by the Arab states in return for recognizing an independent Palestinian state.
  2. In rejecting that offer two decades ago, Netanyahu “forced Arab regimes that want peace with Israel to sell the Palestinians out;” [Beinart truly did claim that Bibi forced the UAE to sign the normalization agreement and betray the Palestinians.]
  3. That betrayal of the Palestinians and the repression of the intense popular opposition required the UAE government to use extreme repressive measures.
  4.  Israel provided the technical surveillance equipment to carry out that repression.
  5. Hence, Israel bore a direct responsibility for the repression, in providing the provocation for the protests and then the equipment to carry out the repression.

The analysis may have been a surprising indication of Peter’s ignorance. There were clearly UAE citizens who identified with the Palestinians and agreed that their government had committed an act of betrayal. But the internet was also full of praise for Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed, perhaps manipulated, for signing the normalization agreement with Israel. He was dubbed “the man of peace.” Others welcomed the agreement for now they would be able to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque. Still others rejected making Palestinian nationalism a priority over UAE nationalism.

Polls clearly indicate that the normalization of relations with Israel is not generally regarded negatively. Over the last twenty years, the Arab world in general has displaced the Palestinian national cause from a centre of concern to a more peripheral position and even a negative response as undermining national interests. But Peter’s ignorance and prejudice in analysis does not amount to antisemitism. Peter may reveal himself to be very biased in favour of the Palestinians to such an extent that it distorts and deforms his analysis, but such intellectual deficiencies and biases with a negative view of Israel do not amount to antisemitism whatsoever. And I know of no one who makes such a claim.

In sum, none of the definitions above are adequate. Each of them stresses different aspects and characteristics. The fault may be that equivocal terms like “antisemitism may have a range of applications wherein the extremes at either end of the range bear no resemblance to each other. The fault may be the presumption that a univocal definition is a prerequisite for attacking the problem, both in collecting information and employing pedagogical and legal means to combat it.

However, the definitions all reveal they use a similar quadrant of categories to depict antisemitism: the target; the cognitive dimension; the emotional one; and the behaviour consistent with antisemitism.

To be continued.


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