Antisemitism: The Responsibility is Ours

Updated: Feb 7, 2019

Adam Bernstein, currently taking part on FZY Year Course, pens his thoughts on antisemitism in the UK, and on FZY's responsibility to tackle it.

As the oldest Zionist youth movement in the UK, the responsibility falls on us to weigh in on antisemitism. The fact that we have not already done so in any meaningful way, to my knowledge, is a great shame. Although it has increased recently, the issue of antisemitism is not new. It has been written about and studied for centuries. I am therefore unlikely to say anything revolutionarily new. However, of all the ways antisemitism can be understood — through its religious, political and historical contexts — I would like to focus on two methods of understanding antisemitism and then perhaps offer a way in which they might interact. Ultimately, I believe the religious context is the most meaningful way to understand antisemitism, but I do not believe I am qualified to convey it. It is for this reason I have attached numerous links to those much more qualified than me who I believe all contribute something to building a clearer picture of antisemitism, and indeed the world at large.

There often is an argument made that because we are Jewish, we are the experts on antisemitism and, crucially, we are the only people who can define antisemitism. This is wrong. Any attempt to play identity politics with antisemitism will end as badly as it always does.

Before understanding and defining antisemitism on a deeper level, an initial point must be made to avoid falling into a very common trap. There often is an argument made that because we are Jewish, we are the experts on antisemitism and, crucially, we are the only people who can define what antisemitism is. This is wrong. It is not simply because we are Jews and Zionists that we can define antisemitism. It may be that we should perhaps have a greater influence in the debate about defining antisemitism. But it must not be exclusively based on our identity. Just as it is wrong to suggest that only Muslims can define ‘Islamophobia,’ it is also wrong to suggest that only Jews can define antisemitism. We must have the intellectual capacity to accept opinions from external sources, including the many non-Jews who present valid information. Any attempt to play identity politics with antisemitism will end badly; it is a dangerous game to play, no matter how righteous the players think they are.

To have an honest and productive discussion, we must be open to hearing differing views from outside the community. It seems illogical to place more weight on the opinion of an average Jew, than someone like Paul Johnson, a non-Jewish academic scholar and author of The History of the Jews. Of course, if need be, we can prove an argument wrong when made by those outside of the community just as we can prove an argument wrong when made by those inside the community. However, we should do so because of the argument’s lack of correspondence with the truth, not because of the identity of the person with whom we are debating. Arguments are right because they are rational and based on facts. They are right no matter who makes them. We must not allow for, what Maajid Nawaz refers to, as the’ democratisation of truth’ when it comes to debating antisemitism. As Menachem Begin said, ‘truth is an absolute value. It needs not the confirmation of those who rebel against it.’

The first perspective is understanding antisemitism over time, through a historical lens. Exploring how antisemitism has evolved can help conceptualise how antisemitism might be fought today, and how it can be prevented in the future. It is through this lens that antisemitism has been spoken about as a ‘virus which has survived over time, by mutating.’ Three of these mutations of antisemitism — based on religion, race and nation — go to the heart of the debate about defining what it is to be a Jew. Thus, in the middle ages, antisemitism was often justified on the basis of religion, as seen in the persecution of Jews and in particular their Judaism in medieval Catholic Spain. The concept of ‘Moranos,’ whose etymology refers to ‘swine’ or ‘pigs,’ is a classic example of this religious antisemitism. Moranos were Jews in Catholic Spain who were forced into Catholicism yet continued practising Judaism in private. This religious antisemitism led to the famous expulsion of the Jews in Spain in 1492, on Tisha B’Av.

Later, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, antisemitism had mutated into a race-based hatred and hence, we saw the Holocaust. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which codified the criteria for persecution as having a Jewish grandparent, clearly demonstrate the race-based hatred towards Jews. Medieval Spanish Jews may have changed their religion, but European Jews during the Holocaust could not change their grandparents or their race. The result was the death of over one third of all Jews by 1945.

Over the last century, a new ‘mutated’ form of antisemitism was developed; the hatred towards the Nation-State of the Jewish people, Israel, through antizionism. This political hatred has been spread throughout the Western world and has accelerated since the State’s inception in 1948. Whereas other countries are inevitably criticised, Israel is the only state in the world targeted for extinction. Israel is also the only Jewish State in the world. Since the day after the State of Israel was created, Israel has been fighting for its mere survival. As former FZY member, Abba Eban said:

There is, of course, no difference whatever between antisem