'Not everyone protesting the war in Gaza today hates Jews'

Has the term ‘antisemitism’ been overused – or overblown – beyond usefulness?

Historians criticize use of word as ‘super-category’ for all anti-Jewish discrimination — from antiquity through Hamas’s October 7 massacre in Israel and global surge in Jew-bashing

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: The phrase 'Zero tolerance for antisemitism,' drawn on a carton banner held by a girl at a rally. (Andrii Koval/iStock)
Illustrative: The phrase 'Zero tolerance for antisemitism,' drawn on a carton banner held by a girl at a rally. (Andrii Koval/iStock)

As Jewish organizations around the world sound the alarm about the surge of hate crimes since the Hamas massacre of October 7, scholars of Jewish history are questioning whether the term “antisemitism” accurately describes the situation facing Jews in Israel and elsewhere.

In their essay collection, “Antisemitism and the Politics of History,” editors Scott Ury and Guy Miron examine how the term antisemitism evolved from ancient Roman times through recent political debates about whether the definition should encompass opposition to Israel’s existence — as it does in the increasingly adopted International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition.

Acknowledging the global surge of antisemitic attacks since October 7 — the same month his book was published — Ury said not every vocal protest or angry argument about Israel should automatically be considered antisemitism.

“In the case of various Jewish organizations or Israeli government officials, over-emphasizing the place and role of antisemitism in today’s world can potentially lead them to misinterpret many of the pressing challenges that we face as well as their potential resolution,” said Ury, an associate professor of Jewish history at Tel Aviv University.

As an example of the term “antisemitism” being overused, Ury pointed to some of the activists protesting the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

“Not everyone protesting against the war in Gaza today is doing so because they hate or are hostile towards Jews. Some people are genuinely motivated by humanitarian concerns, and to paint our current social and political realities in such broad swaths falls into the very semantic, intellectual and political trap that the volume is designed to raise and probe,” said Ury.

Pro-Israel demonstrators protest against Ben and Jerry’s over its boycott of the West Bank, and against antisemitism, in Manhattan, New York City, on August 12, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

Pushing back against years of attempts to refine the definition of antisemitism, the editors in their introduction explain how the term has been used as a “super-category” to describe a sweeping range of “historical, religious, and social phenomena,” they wrote.

“One way of starting to deal with this larger sense of crisis and the accompanying anxiety regarding the state and future of Jewish society in 2024 is not to view everything through the somewhat reductive lens provided by one overarching explanatory factor, antisemitism,” Ury told The Times of Israel.

‘No one seems to have noticed’

Not all discrimination or persecution faced by Jews in one location is akin to the situation faced by Jews in another location, period, or context, said Ury.

“Ultimately,” said Ury, “this is the very question that we posed to almost 20 scholars from Israel, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States: How do you understand and implement the term ‘antisemitism’ in your research? What are the ramifications, both scholarly and contemporary, of your decisions?”

The essayists demonstrate how the definition of “antisemitism” has evolved since its advent in the late 19th century, including recent attempts to link antisemitism with Islamophobia, and other attempts to apply the term retroactively to earlier periods of history.

Historian Guy Miron. (Courtesy)

“As a result of these processes, the term ‘antisemitism’ not only loses its original meaning but also, at times, its very specificity and valence,” said Ury.

In his essay — which the editors called their book’s catalyst — historian David Engel wrote about eliminating the term antisemitism from his “professional vocabulary.”

After promising himself not to substitute another word — such as Judeophobia — for the term, Engel spent more than three decades keeping his vow.

“Instead, I would convey what I observed with as much specificity and with the most narrowly focused descriptors available,” wrote Engel. He began his experiment in 1990.

“In the interval, I have published a career’s worth of books and articles, most on relations between Jews and non-Jews in the modern era, many on the Holocaust,” wrote Engel. “No one seems to have noticed the absence of the word.”

The historian added he has not been criticized for “gainsaying” the term antisemitism in his scholarship or “for giving it short shrift,” he wrote.

“Many have asserted that ‘antisemitism’ is an imperfect term, but still must be used, for there is no alternative available,” wrote Engel. “The results of my experiment render that claim false.”

‘We have to take the long way’

At the heart of debates about the IHRA definition of antisemitism is whether equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism was a positive development.

Historian Scott Ury (Courtesy)

“As an Israeli I believe that one should make the distinction between the two,” said Miron, an expert on the rise of fascism in Germany, France, and Hungary.

“Whereas Jewish-non-Jewish relations have a long history, critiques and even rejection of Zionism (even by Jews) are relatively new phenomena in the long-term historical perspective. The Arab-Israeli conflict emerged as a territorial conflict and at least partly it is still so,” Miron said.

A caveat, said Miron, is that “a total separation between anti-Zionism and ‘antisemitism’ is not always correct as well. We have to take the long way — instead of automatically labeling every declaration or action as ‘antisemitic,’ we should analyze their specific setting.”

Some 43 countries have adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. Hundreds of regional and local governments have also adopted the resolution, including 33 states in the US.

Unlike Miron and Ury, most mainstream American Jewish leaders — including President Joe Biden’s antisemitism czar, Deborah Lipstadt — support the IHRA definition. The definition says that singling out Israel for demonization or using double standards against the Jewish state are modern forms of antisemitism.

‘It is ubiquitous’

‘Antisemitism and the Politics of History,’ by editors Scott Ury and Guy Miron (courtesy)

Not all expressions of hostility to Zionism and Israel are rooted in the same persecution faced by Jewish communities in the Middle Ages, said Ury.

In addition to Jews opposed to Zionism, “there are millions of Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and elsewhere who have a right not to be Zionists, just as there are many Jews in Israel and outside of the country who are hesitant to support or are opposed to Palestinian nationalism,” said Ury.

“To portray all of these Palestinians as being motivated by an irrational hatred of Jews (i.e., antisemitism) misinterprets a complex, yet critical part of contemporary Jewish life, whether we like it or not, and that’s our relations — past, present and future — with the Palestinians,” said Ury.

Lipstadt for her part believes antisemitism describes a phenomena that is unique among prejudices, ever since the term was coined in Germany about 150 years ago.

Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt speaks during an event on Capitol Hill in Washington, February 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

“There are certain unique characteristics to antisemitism that make it different from the other prejudices,” Lipstadt said.

Essentially, said Lipstadt, people who peddle the “conspiracy myth” of global Jewry as “wire-pullers” in certain realms of society have “given up on democracy,” she said.

Antisemitism is also unique for its ubiquity, said Lipstadt.

“It’s free-flowing, moving across every place on the political spectrum. It can come from left, right, center, center-left, center-right. It can come from Christians, it can come from Muslims, it can come from atheists, it can come from Jews. It is ubiquitous,” said Lipstadt.

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