The changing character of antisemitism

This is a guest post from Lesley Klaff, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism (JCA). This post was published as an editorial introduction to JCA Vol. 2.1, available now. For information about subscribing to JCA, see here.

Dr. Klaff will also publish a volume co-edited with Jonathan G. Campbell, Unity and Diversity in Contemporary Antisemitism: The Bristol–Sheffield Hallam Colloquium on Contemporary Antisemitism, this fall.

It was the late distinguished historian and antisemitism scholar, Professor Robert S. Wistrich, who famously described antisemitism as “the longest hatred.” Antisemitism has appeared throughout history in various guises and degrees of intensity and continues, unabated, to the present day. It frequently masquerades as anti-Zionism, sometimes expresses itself as hatred of Jews qua Jews, and may still manifest itself in genocidal form, as the recent tragic murder of Jews at prayer in the Tree of Life Synagogue, Pittsburg, and the Poway Synagogue, San Diego, demonstrate.

The changing character of antisemitism and the changing motivations behind it have made it notoriously difficult to define and categorize, although today we have the benefit of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which recognizes the continuities between the “old antisemitism” and “contemporary antisemitism” in the form of certain, although not all, criticism of Israel.

Critics of Israel, however, insist that there is no such thing as “contemporary antisemitism” as anti-Zionism or anti-Israelism is qualitatively different from antisemitism. This has led to an on-going debate. There are some who argue that Israel is an imperialist colony with aggressively militaristic and racialist policies. Others respond that while criticism of Israel is not per se antisemitic, there are some instances when criticism of Israel crosses the line from fair to foul and becomes antisemitic. Until recently, it was not clear where that line ought to be drawn but the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism 2016, like the earlier European Union Monitoring Centre (EUMC) Definition 2005 on which it is substantially based, has provided direction. The IHRA Definition recognizes the continuities between the old antisemitism and contemporary antisemitism by giving as possible examples of antisemitism the replication of classical antisemitic tropes, such as the blood libel and the deicide libel, in criticism of Israel, conceived of as the “Jewish collectivity.” It also gives as possible examples of antisemitism Holocaust denial, the claim that Zionism is a racist endeavor, the claim that Israelis behave like Nazis in their treatment of the Palestinians, and the use of double-standards when unfairly singling out Israel for criticism. I say “possible” examples of antisemitism because the IHRA Definition makes it clear that whether certain expression is antisemitic or not depends on context. In each case, a political judgment has to be made, and this requires an understanding of antisemitism. While the IHRA Definition has been widely adopted by the European Union, seven EU countries including the Great Britain, and the US State Department, among many others, it remains controversial and has been rejected by anti-Zionists on the grounds that it infringes the right to freedom of expression and censors criticism of Israel.

Despite the near universal adoption of the IHRA Definition as a guide to education and training, antisemitism is reportedly on the increase worldwide. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the United States has witnessed the largest year-on-year increase since the organization started collecting data in 1957; while The Community Security Trust announced a record high of 1,652 antisemitic incidents in 2018 in the UK. This was an increase of 16% over the previous year. In December 2018, the European Union’s Fundamental Rights Agency reported that antisemitism pervades European life. A survey of twelve EU countries found that 90% of Jews believed that antisemitism had increased in their country, with 85% considering it to be a serious problem. In January 2019, the French writer and intellectual, Bernard Henri-Levy declared that “Antisemitism is back. Everywhere. Openly” and added that the need for “resistance and counter-offensive has returned for the Jews of Europe, the United States, and the world.”

One means of counter-offensive is to use the law to fight antisemitism. In the UK, the law has been used to successfully prosecute Holocaust denial, disrupt the funding of NGOs linked to terrorist organizations, ensure equal treatment of Israelis in international sport, counter a wide range of BDS activity, ensure the adoption of the IHRA Definition by the judiciary and certain local councils, counter anti-Israel propaganda, defend supporters of Israel against false allegations, counter discrimination against sup-porters of Israel in employment, and counter antisemitism on campus. In America, the law has also been used to successfully counter antisemitism, including BDS and other anti-Israel activism, on college campuses and the New York based Lawfare Project has used its network of American, British, and European lawyers to successfully overturn forty-six city council BDS resolutions in Spain, challenge Kuwait Airways’ refusal to fly any passenger with an Israeli pass-port, and is currently seeking a ruling from the European Court of Justice that the European Union’s 2015 binding regulations that require all member states to explicitly label products originating in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan as “Made in Israeli settlements” as discriminatory and illegal. These are just a few examples of the use of the law to effectively counter antisemitism in recent times.

In addition to the law, Henry-Levi stressed that a particularly good strategy for countering antisemitism lies in “an accurate analysis of antisemitism—its nature, its sources and the way it operates,” and this, indeed, is the aim of the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism. Under its newly appointed editorial team there will be two issues of the Journal per annum, each dedicated to the analysis of antisemitism in the contemporary world from a variety of ideological, political, and religious perspectives; and we are very excited about this, our first issue.

In his article, “Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories & Violent Extremism on the Far Right: a Public Health Approach to Counter Radicalisation,” Bradley Byington, an independent scholar and graduate of King’s College London, considers the role of antisemitic conspiracy theories in violent right-wing extremism, establishing that these narratives and their psychological antecedents are central to understanding the movements, motivations, and behaviors of far-right actors. A survey of right-wing extremist case studies is conducted in order to explore how these narratives manifest in a variety of ideologies across the far-right domain. The article then looks at a public health approach framework based on this analysis and suggests that it promises to improve counter-radicalization outcomes.

In “Israel and Antisemititism,” Bernard Harrison, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, at the Universities of Utah and Sussex, distinguishes two related but distinct types of antisemitism: “social antisemitism,” which is an emotional disposition involving contempt and dislike towards individual Jews because they are Jews; and “political antisemitism,” which is not an emotional disposition, but a delusive pseudo- explanatory political theory concerning the Jewish collectivity and its supposed power to dominate world affairs. He argues that the specific beliefs concerning Israel that are identified as antisemitic by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Definition are of a piece with traditional doctrines of political antisemitism and display the same absence of contact with reality. Far from amounting to rational criticism of Israel, therefore, they amount to mendacious defamation of Israel, and as such, no more deserve the protection of freedom of speech laws than any other instance of libelous mendacity.

In the “Re-Emergence of the Jewish Question,” Shalom Lappin, Emeritus Professor of Computational Linguistics at King’s College London and Professor of Computational Linguistics at Gothenburg, addresses the disturbing rise in antisemitism and its seepage into mainstream politics over the past twenty years. He argues that this process has under-mined some of the comfortable assumptions that formed part of the postwar liberal consensus concerning the integration of Jews in Europe and America, as well as Israel’s place in the world, and that it is important to under-stand these developments in historical terms. It is also necessary to situate them within the context of the larger developments that are driving rapid social and economic changes, as these are producing a response that threatens democratic institutions in many parts of the world, creating a dislocation that is generating a strong anti-globalist reaction. This reaction, he suggests, is instantiated by the rise of chauvinist far-right governments and parties, the increasing popularity of militant far-left groups, and the spread of radical Islamist ideologies. All of these movements are strongly anti-globalist and backward looking in their perspectives, and antisemitism and the criminalization of Israel are central elements of their respective programs. In many cases Jews in the diaspora and in Israel are also responding to these events by reprising solutions of the past. He concludes that to formulate a more effective and appropriate approach to the formidable challenges that both Jews in the Diaspora and Israel now face, we must see past obsolete political models and address the challenges of a new era.

In “Global Levels, Trends and Correlates of Antisemitic Attitudes Through the Prism of Modernization Theory: Insights from the Pew Research Center and World Values Survey,” Dr. L. Daniel Staetsky, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the European Jewish Demography Unit at the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, addresses unfavorable attitudes to Jews around the world. He claims that today, the most fundamental understanding of what stands behind the differences in the volume of antisemitic attitudes between different countries is limited, while the awareness of the trajectories of change in quantitative indices of antisemitic attitudes is rudimentary. His article attempts to fill these gaps, its principal objective being to map and explain unfavorable attitudes to Jews on a global scale. The mapping of them is now possible both cross-sectionally and longitudinally, and is carried out on the basis of the surveys of global attitudes conducted by the Pew Research Center. Dr. Staetsky pro-poses an explanation of the observed patterns of attitudes to Jews with reference to the existing research on the global evolution of social and political attitudes, embodied by the modernization theory of Inglehart and Welzel.

In “Antisemitism in Political Parties (AIPP)—Aims and Methodology,” Joe Glasman, who is Head of Political Investigations at the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) provides an account of the research he undertook for CAA on the incidence of antisemitic discourse among UK politicians. He explains that in the period following the 2014 Gaza war and the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party, the reporting of cases of public antisemitic discourse being disseminated by officers of political parties in the UK was perceived to have increased. The CAA recognized the need for an evidence-based public record of such incidents, their outcomes, and the subsequent responses of all political parties to be formally catalogued and analyzed in relation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Definition of Antisemitism. Mr. Glasman’s study aimed to produce both a sustainable public record, and an assessment of how British political parties deal with incidents as they occur.

In “Conversations with Robert: ‘Jews as Jews’ and the Critique of the Critique” Dr. David Seymour, Senior Lecturer in Law at City Law School, University of London, provides a moving tribute to the late Robert Fine, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Warwick University, who died on June 9, 2018 at the age of seventy-two. Professor Fine was a leading scholar on the history of social and political thought, and a scholar in other fields, including contemporary antisemitism. His last book, co-written with Philip Spencer, was Antisemitism and the Left: The Return of the Jewish Question, published by Oxford University Press in 2017.

In “Conversations with Robert,” Dr. Seymour recounts how he came to know Professor Fine some twenty-five years ago and how his work continues to be influenced by the Professor’s thinking to the present day. This influence is present in the substantive parts of the “Conversations with Robert” essay, which is a critique of the concept of “the Jews” as it appears in critical theories of antisemitism. Brian Klug’s recent reflections on the antisemite’s presentation of “the Jews” serves as a starting point for a consideration of the difficulty thinkers have in gaining the necessary critical distance between their own conception “the Jews” and its appearance in the antisemitic imagination. The works of Adorno and Horkheimer, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Alain Badiou and Hannah Arendt are also considered.

David Seymour’s tribute is followed by a short essay written by Robert Fine in 2013, which has remained unpublished until now. “Ten Reasons Why I Oppose Boycotts Against Israeli Academics (And Why You Should Too!),” gives the reader the opportunity to not only gain an insight into the late Professor’s thinking on the issue of the academic boycott, but also to be reminded of his intellect and his accessible writing style.

The issue closes with two book reviews. In the first, independent scholar, Alexander Traum, considers the continuing appeal of Daniel Goldhagen’s 2013 book The Devil that Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism; and in the second, Andre Oboler, Law Lecturer at La Troube University and CEO of the Online Hate Protection Institute, provides a detailed and skillful review of Abraham Foxman’s and Christopher Wolf’s Viral Hate: Containing Its Spread on the Internet.

I, and my team of dedicated editors at the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism, hope very much that you will enjoy reading this issue.