Hard to believe it’s come to this: The word “antisemitism,” coined in the 19th century by a German journalist, is being weaponized by Jews against Jews. That tragedy-laden term, exploited for political gain, its power diluted like the boy’s repeated cries of “wolf,” has sparked a war of words among those claiming the exclusive right to redefine it.
Currently jostling for primacy in Jewish discourse and adoption by secular institutions are three texts, all with multiple distinguished supporters: the “working definition” created in 2016 by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), endorsed by 34 countries including the United States; the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA), released in March as a response to perceived shortcomings in the IHRA document; and the Nexus Document (ND), a project of the Knight Program at the Annenberg School, which pegs itself as “a guide for policymakers and community leaders as they grapple with the complexities at the intersection of Israel and antisemitism.”
My quarrel is not with these definitions per se but with Israel’s outsized role in them. Of the 11 examples of antisemitism offered by the IHRA, seven are Israel-centered. Ten of the 15 guidelines under the JDA definition focus on Israel-Palestine. And the ND is all about the nexus between antisemitism, Israel and Zionism. This although, other than on college campuses or after explosive clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, most antisemitic hate speech, vandalism or violence is expressed as personal or group animus toward Jews as Jews, without reference to the Jewish state.
Antisemitism is now a wedge to divide us, and Israel a bludgeon.
When the rabble-rousers in Charlottesville chanted “Jews will not replace us,” they meant Jewish Americans; Israel wasn’t on their radar. Proud Boys take no position on whether Zionism is racism; they just hate Jews. And the assassin who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue went there to find Jews. He didn’t care if they supported Likud, Labor, J Street or AIPAC.
Most Jews have no trouble recognizing antisemitism when we see, hear, sense or suffer from it. We don’t need an official definition. Those who do seem to be motivated, in large part, by the desire to conflate Israel with Jews and condemnation of Israeli policy with Jew-hating. Dartmouth Judaic Studies professor Shaul Magid, in a piece entitled “The Enforcers,” calls out Jews who condemn other Jews as “bad Jews, disloyal Jews, possibly not worthy of the name Jewish” if they don’t adequately support Israel: “If you are not pro-Israel, in the way they want you to be, it’s not that you aren’t a good Jew, in fact you are a kind of anti-Jew.” Thus has antisemitism, the one issue that used to unite Jews, become a wedge to divide us, and Israel a bludgeon.
But if you say it’s “racist” to subject Palestinians in the West Bank to military law while Jewish settlers are governed by civilian law, are you an antisemite or an advocate for equality? If I use the word “apartheid” to describe Israel’s system of separate roads for settlers and Palestinians, am I an antisemite or merely an accurate interpreter of international law? And if we acknowledge that the creation of the Jewish state, though a source of pride for us, was a nakba (catastrophe) for Palestinians, are we enemies of the Zionist enterprise or responsible historians and truth-tellers?
Case in point: Ben & Jerry’s announced that its ice cream will no longer be available in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Its Jewish founders stated explicitly in a New York Times essay that they support Israel and oppose BDS and that the company’s decision is not a rejection of Israel but of “Israeli policy, which perpetuates an illegal occupation that is a barrier to peace and violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian people who live under the occupation.”
Israeli leaders went ballistic. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the company should rebrand the product “antisemitic ice cream.” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid tweeted that the move was a “shameful surrender to antisemitism, to BDS and to all that is wrong with the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish discourse.” Gilad Erdan, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, asked 35 U.S. governors whose states have anti-BDS legislation to boycott Ben & Jerry’s due to its “de facto adoption of antisemitic practices and advancement of the delegitimization of the Jewish state and the dehumanization of the Jewish people.”
No such defamatory language emanated from Jerusalem when Donald Trump and his ilk trafficked in antisemitic tropes about globalists and dual loyalty. Or when the Philippines’ president compared his anti-drug crackdown to the Holocaust. Or when the Hungarian president called George Soros “an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base.” The gloves came off only when a company founded by a couple of liberal Vermont Jews used its economic muscle to protest injustice in the Jewish state.
Unless we stop crying “wolf,” I shudder to think what will happen to our tiny, disputatious flock when the real antisemites call the shots.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is currently at work on her 12th book, Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy.