Defining Antisemitism: Part I – A Re-introduction

DYumna Afzaal, 15, left, Madiha Salman, 44, centre left, Talat Afzaal, 74, and Salman Afzaal, 46, right, were out for an evening walk when they were run over by a man who police say was motivated by anti-Muslim hate. The nine-year old son who was seriously injured is not in this picture.

Yesterday, I was in London Ontario. In that city, on Sunday evening at 8:40 p.m., a twenty-year-old in a black pickup truck, Nathaniel Veltman, ran down a family of Muslims out for an evening stroll waiting to cross the street at the intersection of Hyde Park Rd. and South Carriage Rd. in northwest London. A spontaneous memorial has popped up at the site around a lamp post. A vigil, in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Doug Ford and London mayor Ed Holder all attended, was held there last night to honour the victims. Others are welcome to send their condolences or sign a condolence book at the London Muslim Mosque at 151 Oxford Street, a five-minute drive away. The family attended that mosque and the father was an active member and attendee. The nine-year-old boy, who was not killed and who is in hospital in critical condition, attended Islamic school there.

The act was an unequivocal attack on the family because they were Muslims. This was Islamophobia plain and simple. Leaders of the Muslim community in Canada are calling not only for prosecuting the alleged killer to the fullest extent of the law, but to defining Islamophobia as a specific hate crime and launching a very pro-active program to combat Islamophobia. As Dr. Hassan Mostafa, a board member at the Islamic School, noted, the murder shattered the sense of safety and security of Muslims anywhere in Canada, particularly if they dress traditionally as Muslims. In a Quebec City mosque, six people were massacred in 2017.

Bernie Farber, chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, expressed the widespread response that the killings were “absolutely horrifying.” It is people’s worst nightmare when people are attacked for the manner in which they pray to God, their dress or how they look. For example, the Toronto chapter of the Chinese National Council compiled a list of 1,150 acts of anti-Asian racism last year and this year, there have already been 891 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate crimes as of mid-day 17 March, an almost 700% increase over the previous year. There was a 717% increase in Vancouver last year compared to the previous year. In Georgia recently, a man was charged with killing 8 people at a massage parlour in an act of gratuitous anti-Asian hatred.

Evidently B’nai Brith, which tracks antisemitism in Canada, had to counteract rumours that the killer in London was Jewish, thereby indicating that antisemitism was already compounding the horrific Islamophobic act. “The Jewish community and B’nai Brith want our Muslim brothers and sisters to know that we are with you in this struggle, and we will not be silent.” However, there is almost always a political dimension to hate crimes. There is the politics of the pandemic with respect to anti-Asian hatred. In the case of antisemitism, the connection exists between hatred of Israel, not just criticism of Israel which is definitely in itself NOT a hate crime. In the words of the columnist, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, the connection between politics and ethnic or religious hatred, is now inseparable. The emerging prospect of a one-state solution in the Mideast conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is not only blowing up the region, but “the Democratic Party and every synagogue n America.” “Unless we preserve at least the potential of a two-state solution, the one-state reality that would emerge in its place won’t just blow up Israel, the West Bank and Gaza; it could very well blow up the Democratic Party and every Jewish organization and synagogue in America.”

That is why Friedman argued, contrary to my blog yesterday, that more effort and energy should be put into reviving the two-state solution. “(W)ithout any viable hope of separating Israelis and Palestinians into two states for two peoples — the only outcome left will be one state in which the Israeli majority dominates and Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the West Bank will be systematically deprived of equal rights so that Israel can preserve its Jewish character.” I, on the other hand, have argued that now is the time for beginning with ensuring equal rights for Palestinians and Jews in Israel rather than depending on a political solution to have that consequence.

What then should be the connection between the politics of Israel and the age-old hatred of antisemitism? This is the question that the controversies over the definition of antisemitism have circled. Friedman anticipated that unless progress is made on the political front, “Anti-semitism will flourish under the guise of anti-Zionism.” (26 May 2021) This is the question over which I wrestled in almost ten blogs in April and May before being distracted by the recent Gaza War. This is the question to which I want to return today and in tomorrow’s blog.

The controversy has largely centred on the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism which is very widely being adopted by states and organizations as a guide to collecting data and developing policies to counteract such efforts. 200 academics signed a counter definition, the Jerusalem Declaration, as a replacement for and/or development of the IHRA definition to which they levelled a number of criticisms. In today’s blog, I will try to offer a fair summary of the position of two of those academics, my colleagues Derek Penslar and Michael Walzer, before clarifying my own position on the question tomorrow. Fortunately, the debate has been carried forward in a series of contending positions by eminent spokespeople in the journal, Fathom.  

Derek Penslar. Michael Marrus and Janice Stein, all colleagues of mine from the University of Toronto, all also very highly esteemed academics covering Jewish intellectual history, the Holocaust and international politics respectively, edited and published a landmark volume focused on one of the world’s “most ancient and diffuse hatreds,” Contemporary Antisemitism: Canada and the World back in 2004. They then noted the reappearance of antisemitism “in disturbing new ways and in unexpected strength.” They inquired into the strength of the resurgence, its character and the appropriate response. Since then, the debate has grown both more widespread and more intense.

In April of 2021, Derek Penslar wrote an explanation of “Why I Signed the Jerusalem Declaration: A Response to Cary Nelson.” Derek acknowledged the resurgence of antisemitism and the link between hatred of Jews and hostility towards Israel. His arguments and criticisms of the IHRA definition can be summarized as follows:

  • The IHRA definition was developed for data collection, not policy formulation.
  • The IHRA definition has been invoked to “restrict the free and open exchange of ideas beyond the necessity to protect public safety and prohibit discrimination and harassment.”
  • IHRA sections on the nature of antisemitism lack clarity.
  • Judgments on critical discourse with respect to Israel “assumes guilt rather than innocence.”
  • The criticism of the application of double standards to Israel is misplaced.
  • IHRA carries a strong implication that highly critical but factually accurate statements about Israel are antisemitic.
  • An appropriate definition requires a distinction between conspiratorial fantasy and demonstrable reality, unhinged versus fac-based critiques.

Does the JDA more clearly distinguish between speech critical of Israel that is not antisemitic versus that which is? The definition must make clear that proponents of the boycott against Israel, of alternatives to the two-state solution and fact-based evidence of Israel’s past performance are not antisemitic. For Derek, “combating antisemitism should be part of a general commitment to protect civil liberties and act against racism.” Derek favoured “decentering, not replacing, the IHRA definition.”

Michael Walzer, a highly esteemed philosopher, has for many years also written on antisemitism. In October 2019, the wrote an essay published in Fathom on “Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism” in which he charged anti-Zionism with being very bad politics but was not in itself antisemitic. Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Further, anti-Zionism was historically a position of many Jews. Their ideological rigidity and moral insensitivity should not be mistaken for antisemitism.

Walzer took the position that, “You cannot separate religion from politics; you cannot set up a ‘wall’ between church or synagogue and state, if you don’t have a state. Zionism was from its first days an effort to begin the process of disentanglement and to establish a state in which secularism could succeed.” He offered three versions of Jewish anti-Zionism:

  1. those who insist that Jews who are secular supporters of Israel are not Jewish;
  2. those who deny that there is a Jewish nation and claim that non-religious Jews are simply mistaken;
  3. Jews should not become nationalists because such nationalism deforms the soul.

However, Walzer in his wide-ranging attack on anti-Zionism, is not being antisemitic himself in declaring that Jews holding this position are also not antisemitic. Within that frame, he does argue that Jewish anti-nationalism, focused only on Jewish nationalism, is also not antisemitic as much as he considers such a position to be both politically flawed and hypocritical. Only then does he get to the heart of the matter – the declaration that amongst nationalist movements, Israel is a colonialist settler state that necessarily displaced over 700,000 Palestinians. In other words, Jewish nationalism is illegitimate because its success depended on both the cover of colonialism and the displacement and replacement of indigenous Palestinians. But is that position antisemitic?

Following his trenchant criticisms of anti-Zionist Jews and others, particularly on the left, Walzer then levels his own extensive critique of the behaviour of contemporary Israel much more than the founding of the Jewish state. For current state policies discriminate against Israeli-Palestinians in housing, education, infrastructure, and engage in lawless settlement activity in the West Bank, violence against individual Palestinians and, perhaps worst of all, the use of anti-Arab incitement to consolidate right-wing rule.

Finally, Walzer turns his intellectual guns on the critics of Israel and accuses them of engaging in the application of double standards, the very basis of criticism that Derek Penslar sees as illegitimate. What is clear is the even greater irony of it all, a historian (Derek Panslar) employing largely conceptual arguments and a philosopher (Walzer) largely relying on arguments rooted in actual history. Walzer, in criticizing the defenders of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, uses that frame to launch a wide-ranging attack on both theoretic and concrete critics of Zionism without declaring that they are antisemites. Pensler concentrates his barbs on the defenders of the IHRA definition.

In my defence of the IHRA definition, however imperfect, against these very different arguments and approaches, I will argue that, with all their bluntness, both the Penslar and the Walzer positions ignore analysis of the core central issue in the debate – whether the depiction of Israel as a colonial settler apartheid state engaged in ethnic cleansing is or is not antisemitic. And how is antisemitism akin to Islamophobia and anti-Asian racism, but also distinctly different?

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