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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 antisemitism and the denial of Israel's statehood. Classical antisemitism denies the equal rights of Jews as citizens within society. Antizionism denies the equal rights of the Jewish people to its lawful sovereignty within the community of nations. The common principle in the two cases is discrimination.



Another important aspect of antisemitism can be understood by tracing its justifications throughout history. In each period, antisemitism was justified through concepts which seem to be universally accepted during each period, at least in the West. So, in the Middle Ages, Western European society honoured highly the moral superiority of the values emanating from the Catholic Church as the ultimate, universal source of wisdom. Thus, antisemitism was justified on religious grounds and Judaism as a religion was attacked through forced conversions.


Similarly, when Jews were racially persecuted by Nazis to preserve their master race, part of their justification was based on the supreme authority of science, in particular, the apparently scientific study of race based on Darwinian ideas such as ‘survival of the fittest.’ Jews were seen as an inferior race to Aryans and therefore, in the name of science, the Nazis were justified in exterminating them. The argument was simple: if you do not accept the Nazi ideology, you are rejecting science.


Likewise in recent years, the universally accepted principle of human rights is used as a justification to attack Jews as a nation, through the State of Israel. It is heresy in the West today to suggest that one can support Israel and human rights; the two are allegedly antithetical.


It is heresy in the West today to suggest that one can support Israel and human rights; the two are allegedly antithetical.

To be clear, antizionism is antisemitism. Zionism, the belief in the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland, has been central to Jewish prayer for centuries. If one discriminates against the only Jewish state in the world, this is a double standard whose irrationality can only be described as antisemitism. However, (preempting the way this debate usually goes) of course, criticism of the State of Israel is not antisemitism. This is because criticism of the State of Israel is not antizionism. Criticism of the democratic government in the State of Israel does not and indeed should not preclude the belief that the Jews have a right to self-determination in their historic homeland.


This raises the question as to where the line is between legitimate criticism and antizionism. A good marker between what is legitimate criticism of the State of Israel and what is antizionism is the often-cited ‘Three D’s:’ demonization, delegitimization and double standard. Demonization usually includes criticism which refers to the government of Israel as Nazis or baby-killers or any such hyperbole which bears no resemblance of the truth. Like Satan in the western tradition, Israel is compared to a cancer in the world, responsible for all its problems. Delegitimization is simply the belief that the existence of the State of the Jewish people, the only such state, is illegitimate. Holding double standards is self-explanatory but perhaps the most accepted form of unjustifiable criticism and hence antizionism. As well as the numerous demonstrations of this more accepted form of antizionism in the mainstream media and academia, other examples might include the fact that the United Nations Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council have passed more country-specific resolutions condemning Israel than Iran, Syria, Crimea and North Korea.


Hence, through understanding antisemitism as a virus, mutating throughout history, we can understand the unpredictability of antisemitism both today and tomorrow. Further, the fact that it has changed so radically in practice yet remained constant in existence, suggests its irrationality: it is full of internal contradictions. After all, Jews have been hated for being both radical and archaic, for being both rich and poor, for their support for both capitalism and communism and for being both too segregated and too integrated. Another lesson is that we can understand that although its justifications may seem honourable, the result is the same.

The second perspective is contemporaneously understanding antisemitism across a spectrum of ideology. Despite being spoken of at length, these distinctions seem to be forgotten quickly when discussing antisemitism. This could be because of the political polarisation at the moment in which those debating feel they must defend ‘their side.’ The distinctions are, but not limited to, left-wing antisemitism, right-wing antisemitism, and Islamist antisemitism. Each one has unique features, yet they revolve around a similar conspiratorial discourse.

Right-wing antisemitism refers to an ethno-nationalist idea that an independent, segregated Jewish community is a threat to national identity. This idea suggests that a Jewish community that speaks about politics and engages in civil discourse is more threatening still. Most recently, this was reflected in the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history in the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in which eleven people were killed. According to these white-supremacists, Jews pick and choose when they want to be separate from society whilst making universal demands upon that same society. For example, they might argue left-wing immigration policies which promote a greater flow of migrants are not simply wrong, which could be justified, but are secretly controlled by Jews. They might argue that Jews are hypocrites for promoting such policies which do not affect them as a wealthy community. This type of antisemitism ostensibly traces back to the race-based antisemitism of the twentieth century.


Left-wing antisemitism seems to be, at the moment, much more mainstream in Western society than either of the other two in both the US* and UK. Like other collectivist political theories, left-wing antisemitism has its basis in ideas of hierarchy and exploitation between oppressive groups and victimised groups.** According to left-wing antisemites, Jews seem to have climbed political and economic hierarchies and therefore must have exploited others, their victims, in order to do so. This fits into a broader left-wing theory of intersectionality which suggests that a person’s opinion is relevant only insofar as he/she/they are members of an oppressed group and that all oppression is linked together through the collective status of ‘victimhood.’ As a result, we see groups in favour of minority rights (such as those for LGBTQ people) and in favour of Palestinian rights, whose support merely derives from the common status of oppressed groups, rather than any overlap in beliefs. Clearly, LGBTQ people in an imaginary Palestinian state would face less oppression and would receive greater individual freedoms if they moved to Israel.


It is through this lens that the Middle East and the world at large is viewed not within the framework of good and evil, but of oppressor and oppressed. Accordingly, antizionism overlaps with left-wing antisemitism through movements such as BDS (Boycott Divest and Sanction), whereby Israel is viewed as the superior power in the Middle East, and therefore acts as an oppressive force over its victims, the Palestinians. From Bolshevik revolutions to Islamist terrorism, this view so often leads to the justification of violence and terrorism for the oppressed group who are merely acting out of apparent resistance.


Islamist antisemitism is perhaps the most difficult for some to speak about. This could be due to a commitment to religious tolerance. I would argue it does much more damage to religious tolerance to ignore debates of this importance for fear of causing offence. On a deeper level, it could be difficult to speak about because it seems to undermine supposedly Western multiculturalist assumptions such as the view that each belief system has equal value in society and can thus coexist harmoniously. This is because, from a multiculturalist perspective, the morality of a belief system is merely relative to the society in which it operates and there is no transcendent or objective morality which determines a belief system as superior or inferior. This antisemitism is also possibly the most traditional form, similar to the antisemitism of the Middle Ages which targeted Judaism as a religion.


Radical Islam, as an ideological source of global terrorism and an existential threat to Western civilization, is a particular threat to Jews. For example, in the United States, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan referred to Judaism as a ‘gutter religion’ and synagogues as ‘houses of Satan.’ More directly, in March 2018, there was the brutal murder in Paris of Holocaust survivor Marielle Knoll, 85, by two Muslim migrants shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ as they stabbed and burned her. She had survived the darkest period in European history only to be stabbed, burned and murdered in her home in Paris in 2018 for being Jewish.


This complex type of antisemitism combines a religious hatred with both the antizionism seen in left-wing antisemitism, but also the racial hatred of right-wing antisemitism. For example, this year, the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani referred to Israel as a ‘cancerous tumour’ in the Middle East and children’s books under the control of the Palestinian Authorities depict Jews as pigs, representing their racial inferiority. The overlap between Islamist antisemites and left-wing antisemites whose common enemy, Israel, could be in part explained in the saying, ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ Further, this relationship between Islamist antisemitism and left-wing antisemitism arguably contributed to the greater debate about the ‘Jewish problem’ in the Labour Party. An example of the relationship is demonstrated in Corbyn saying he has ‘friends from Hamas and Hezbollah’ or him laying a wreath for the Palestinian terrorists who murdered eleven Israelis during the Munich Massacre of 1972.

Like all political ideas, these distinctions are dynamic, fluid and based to an extent on generalizations. However, they do help to both explain the different ways in which antisemitism has materialized and clarify the similarities and differences between each ideology. In identifying the complexities of antisemitism, we are much more likely to fight it effectively.

To members of FZY, which exists as a federation because of its commitment to intellectual diversity and because of the pluralistic nature of its members’ values and ideas, it is inevitable that other members will be of differing political and religious persuasions. It is indeed this aspect of our movement which makes it interesting and allows for important debates to be had. However, we must therefore commit to fighting antisemitism in all its forms, whether it is convenient or not for each of us, or whether they fit our own political narrative.


Our political and religious opinions are individual, but our fight against antisemitism is a collective one. To be against one form of antisemitism and not others is to devoid oneself of any responsibility altogether. Part of being in a Jewish community — and in particular within FZY, whose constitution explicitly refers to this communal responsibility in the phrase ‘כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה - Kol Yisrael Arevim Ze LeZe’ — means that all Jews are responsible for each other, and therefore all Jews are responsible in fighting antisemitism.

Our political and religious opinions are individual, but our fight against antisemitism is a collective one

As young British Jews, whilst at universities, whose moral compass seems to have shattered, we must remember what is important and what we must stand for. In doing so, we must also remember what we stand against. As Zionists, living seventy years since the creation of the state of Israel, it is our duty to fight antisemitism and defend the Zionist tradition of collective Jewish self-determination in our historic homeland. Further, as Jews, living less than eighty years after the darkest period in our history, another responsibility falls upon us. We must be the link in the chain of memory between generations and pass on the message of what happened in Nazi Germany. Unlike other generations in this chain of memory, we face the additional responsibility of passing on this message, inevitably, without living proof to help us.


Finally, a simple message to the antisemites: Whether left, right, Islamist or miscellaneous, whatever your justifications, manipulations, intentions or excuses, your irrational hatred is well documented and history is not on your side. You will join a long list of antisemites who have stood, fought and lost before you.



Adam was a madrich on Ofek 2018.



* As well as the well the documented Democrat support for antisemite Louis Farrakhan through members like Keith Ellison, highly popular and recently elected Democratic members of Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have all announced their support for the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement which singles out Israel as the oppressor in the Middle East.

**These ideas trace back to Marxist theories of the dialectic between the oppressed proletariat and the oppressive bouregiouse who fix the capitalist economy and the state in their favour.

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