What speech or action qualifies as antisemitic? And is this different than hatred of Jewish people? An expert on contemporary antisemitism and the curator of Moment‘s Antisemitism Monitor, Ira N. Forman delves into the clear and the gray areas.
How do you define antisemitism?
First, I think it is important to acknowledge that when it comes to classifying speech as antisemitic there is a significant amount of gray area. One of the reasons I believe the International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism is so useful is because it acknowledges that there are gray areas. Moreover, speech that may not be antisemitic can often be justly criticized as false, irresponsible and even dangerous.
There is a fair amount of false or questionable charges of antisemitism out there. For example, an article about pro-Palestinian activism on campus that does not include any outrageous charges against Israel—such as charges of genocide—and that does not make any references to Jews, is not necessarily antisemitic. However, do I think many of the founders and leaders of BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] are antisemitic? Yes. That doesn’t necessarily mean they personally hate Jews, by the way.
On the other hand, there is a tendency for some on the left to always fall back on the ridiculous claim that any time they criticize Israel they are universally tagged as antisemitic and their freedom of speech is being curtailed. I hear some folks on the left, saying, “Oh, my God, I’ve spent my life fighting racism. I can’t be antisemitic.” Or, “I’m a Jew. I can’t be antisemitic.” Both statements are not necessarily true.
What’s the difference between hating Jews and being antisemitic?
Can you honestly say that you know what most people think about Jews—that inside their heart of hearts they really hate Jews? People like Hitler, okay, they tell you they hate Jews. But they don’t have to consciously hate Jews to be antisemitic. When Jeremy Corbyn was still Labor leader, Tony Blair said, “Jeremy Corbyn is an antisemite. He just doesn’t know it yet.” Corbyn might respond that his life has been devoted to anti-racism, and antisemitism is just another form of racism—therefore, of course he isn’t an antisemite. But then he expresses support for a mural that’s got all these people of color on their knees and on their backs is this big table. And three quarters of the people that are sitting at the table have got grotesque noses, pinky rings and are smoking cigars—all Jewish antisemitic stereotypes.
So antisemitism is more about a behavior or the social context, rather than someone’s motivation?
It’s behavior or language that has a negative impact on individual Jews or the Jewish people. There’s a lot of gray area here. Again, that is one reason why a useable definition of antisemitism is so important. The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which was designed in 2020 as an alternative to the IHRA definition, is almost as long as War and Peace. It’s so large it is unusable. It is an attempt to make a comprehensive delineation of every instance when speech or action is antisemitic and when it is not. Not casting any aspersions on the Declaration’s authors or their motives, but that attempt is a fool’s errand. By contrast the IHRA definition says criticism of Israel, like criticism of any other country, is not antisemitic. It also lays out types of criticism of Israel that “could” be antisemitic “taking into account the overall context…”
There are two types of people who do damage to the IHRA definition and by extension hinder the righteous fight against antisemitism. The first kind are those who complain they are martyrs for free speech because when you criticize Israel for any reason, you are labeled an antisemite, your speech is censored and your pro-Palestinian activism is criminalized. Yes, anytime you exercise your right to free speech you may be subjected to criticism. However, that is far from censorship. It is far from criminalizing all pro-Palestinian activism.
The other type are those who abuse the IHRA definition by ignoring all its nuance. These are a small number of folks who do say that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic—who essentially say Israel can’t be held to the same standard as other nations. If some kid on campus says “I support BDS,” nothing more, do I want to call that kid an antisemite? No. I can call him uninformed. I can criticize his rhetoric. I can say he is factually incorrect or even that his words are hurtful—all valid criticisms. But I don’t have to undermine the importance of the charge of antisemitism by overusing the term.
So as I put out Moment’s Antisemitism Monitor each week, I try to be as objective as I can be— trying to avoid making decisions of what goes in and what stays out based on my own bias. I try to avoid left-wing and right-wing propaganda. I try to avoid opinion pieces and stick to news stories. I do periodically pick a good analysis piece to illustrate what antisemitism looks like in a certain country. Sometimes I put in an outrageously stupid charge of antisemitism just to show our readers what false charges of antisemitism look like.
I must admit, however, that I find certain stories particularly disturbing. Late last year I came across a statement from the Barnard College chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace that claimed that Zionism, “a settler-colonial project,” has resulted in the “genocide of millions of Palestinians.” This is antisemitic. If you don’t know it’s simply false, shame on you. You’re supposed to be an educated individual. Don’t make a charge of genocide when you haven’t researched the charge. That’s totally irresponsible. Moreover, don’t cry that “anytime I say something pro-Palestinian, I’m called an antisemite,” when you say something that’s essentially a blood libel.
Here’s another example. I was at George Washington University a few years ago on a panel about antisemitism. Students for Justice in Palestine were there. One of the SJP students gets up, and says, “What do you say, Mr. Forman, about the 200,000 Ethiopian Jews who have been sterilized by Israel?” I said to him, “Oh, my gosh, I know nothing about that. I’ll go research it and get back to you. But let me ask you a question. How many Ethiopian Jews are there in Israel?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “Well, there are maybe more than 100,000, maybe not. So what you’re telling me is that every man, woman and child has been sterilized not just once but twice? He said, “Well, then it’s tens of thousands.” I said, “Can you cite a source for that charge?” “Well, I don’t know, even if it’s one, isn’t that bad enough?” I said, “There you go. You said it all. That’s irresponsible. You don’t know.” Essentially, he was making classic antisemitic charges. One just can’t throw heinous accusations around without being sure of your sources.