Pro-Jeremy Corbyn protestors gather outside Labour Party headquarters in London ahead of a National Executive Committee vote on whether to adopt, in full, the IHRA definition of antisemitism, September 4th, 2018.
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Adopted in 2016, the controversial definition of antisemitism used today by mainstream Jewish institutions, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition,” is relatively young. But this definition—which classifies some criticism of Israel as antisemitism and which critics say can lead to the chilling of anti-Zionist speech—has its roots in a longer-term political project to create consensus around the concept of the “new antisemitism,” a theory that gained traction in the 1990s. The “new antisemitism” framework presented anti-Zionism as a novel form of Jew-hatred, which directed the same bigotry that motivated pogroms and the Holocaust toward Israel. Rather than focusing on the “old” source of white Christian antisemitism, a “new antisemitism” lens sees Palestinian rights activists and Muslim communities as particularly threatening. Proponents of the term were successful in seeing their schema codified, first by the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in the early 2000s and then by the IHRA, whose definition has now been widely adopted by governments and Jewish institutions around the world.
The writer and researcher Antony Lerman traces how this communal consensus took shape in his new book, Whatever Happened to Antisemitism?: Redefinition and the Myth of the ‘Collective Jew’. Lerman is a firsthand witness to this history: Since 1979, when he took a research post at the World Jewish Congress’s London-based Institute of Jewish Affairs (IJA)—which he relaunched in 1996 as the Institute for Jewish Policy Research think tank—he has spent more than four decades working in research and publishing on Jewish issues, with a particular focus on antisemitism. In the book, he narrates how the definition of antisemitism has profoundly changed during that time. He describes the role of Israeli institutions and diaspora Israel-advocacy organizations in framing opposition to the Jewish state as the principal manifestation of antisemitism today, a view which puts Israel at the center of Jewish identity. Lerman argues that a key component of the “new antisemitism” theory—the belief that Israel is criticized because it plays the role of the “collective Jew” among the nations—is a dangerous myth that serves as a battering ram against Palestinian activists and creates confusion in the fight against existing antisemitism.
I spoke with Lerman about the major players who advocated for the “new antisemitism” approach, the flaws he sees in the theory, and what a better way forward might be. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Shane Burley: When did the term “new antisemitism” enter the discourse, and how did it become Jewish establishment consensus?
Antony Lerman: At a series of seminars organized by the Israeli president’s office in the late 1980s and early 1990s that sought to understand why Zionism and the Jewish state were increasingly under attack and what role antisemitism played in this development, the term was being used. By the end of the 1990s, it was a phrase that was clearly on the table, being used by a lot of people monitoring antisemitism—particularly by organizations and people working in the field of antisemitism for whom seeing matters through a Zionist lens was a key priority. But at that time, even people who ended up becoming strong advocates of the existence of the “new antisemitism”—like the historian Robert Wistrich, who was later the head of the Sassoon International Centre for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA) and who became a “high priest” of the idea, and Dina Porat, then head of the Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism at Tel Aviv University—were still blowing hot and cold about whether it was a useful term.
Events at the turn of the century marked a turning point that hastened the process of redefinition. After the NGO Forum at the UN World Conference Against Racism in Durban in 2001 [Ed. note: The NGO Forum attracted major backlash from Jewish organizations after its official declaration stridently condemned Israel and the event itself featured antisemitic flyers and posters], the Second Intifada, and 9/11, the media was awash with statements by Jewish leaders and organizations adamantly claiming that antisemitism was running riot globally, with Israel at the center of the alleged tsunami of hate, and Muslim forces and extreme left groups largely responsible. Among Jewish establishment organizations, Zionist organizations, Israeli institutions, and anti-antisemitism bodies, this tipped the balance of opinion firmly in favor of accepting the “new antisemitism” thesis. There quickly followed demands from many among these elements for a new definition that reflected this.
SB: How did this new consensus become codified as the official IHRA definition of antisemitism?
AL: [Israeli politician and former Soviet refusenik] Natan Sharansky’s “3D” definition—which says that “delegitimization, demonization, and double standards” applied to Israel should be considered antisemitic—was the first to achieve some international recognition. But the American Jewish Committee (AJC); Porat at the Tel Aviv University Roth Institute, which was backed by the Israel Government Monitoring Forum on Antisemitism and the [Israeli national intelligence agency] Mossad; the Anti-Defamation League; the UK’s Community Security Trust; and others in the anti-antisemitism field chose a different route to introduce a new definition. They used a body, the EUMC, as the non-Jewish organization conveniently placed to devise a new definition and give it international legitimacy.
The EUMC at that time had been weakened by a controversy over a suppressed report on antisemitism that was subsequently leaked, which largely blamed European Muslims for incidents of antisemitism. This sparked a major public controversy, with the EUMC coming under attack, especially from the European Jewish Congress—whose representative on the EUMC board was responsible for the leak—for allegedly downplaying the seriousness of antisemitism at that time, leaving it vulnerable to pressure to dispel this notion. This controversy was hugely significant: It gave the AJC an opening to push the EUMC to devise and publish a working definition of antisemitism based on a draft prepared by Ken Stern, the AJC’s antisemitism expert. And so the working definition appeared on the EUMC’s website in early 2005. The successor to the EUMC—the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA)—had tried to disown the definition. [Ed. note: In 2013, the FRA quietly dropped the definition from its website and representatives said they were unaware of a consensus definition when questioned.] But the AJC and the Simon Wiesenthal Center very astutely maneuvered the reintroduction of the working definition into the public domain internationally through the IHRA. The definition became, with minimal amendments, the IHRA working definition of antisemitism in 2016.
My book exposes that this was always a political project. There were and are true believers in the notion of “new antisemitism,” but the whole process of its codification, from EUMC to IHRA and beyond, was heavily influenced by Zionist organizations. It would be wrong to say that all of the people engaged in the numerous seminars and conferences in which the idea was discussed were political stooges. But from the beginning there was a Zionist political motivation at work—many of the discussions were couched in the terms of “How do we reinvigorate Zionism?” And the more Israel itself became involved, the more the motivation of shifting the center of gravity of religious and secular Jewish identity to Israel came to the fore.
SB: What did the Israeli government’s involvement in the process look like?
AL: As the then-director of the IJA, the research arm of the World Jewish Congress, I was included in the panoply of Jewish communal research and defense bodies who were informed of the Israeli government’s decision, made in 1988, to centralize and coordinate Jewish monitoring and combating of antisemitism worldwide through the establishment of the Israeli Government Monitoring Forum, and to do this in a semi-public fashion. [Ed. note: this organization was replaced by the Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism in 2000.] Mossad agents in embassies around the world were charged with the responsibility to develop and manage this coordination, working closely with Jewish communal bodies, like my own institute. The effort was given a public face with the establishment of Porat’s Project for the Study of Antisemitism (subsequently the Stephen Roth Institute) at Tel Aviv University, initially funded by the Mossad—effectively handing over the deeply flawed function of monitoring worldwide antisemitism it had fulfilled from at least the 1970s to an academic body. At the time, many of us were very surprised, not so much by the Mossad’s decision to outsource this work to a university, but rather by Porat and Tel Aviv University’s decision to accept Mossad funding and to allow this fact to be known by people like myself in the Jewish communal research and monitoring community. [Ed. note: Porat now serves as chief historian at the Israeli Holocaust museum Yad Vashem.]
Implementation of the government’s new policy was not a smooth process initially. Israel had kept out of this area after the state’s founding, and existing bodies like the AJC and the ADL jealously guarded their domains. But eventually, especially after 9/11, the vast majority of such organizations fell in line. With the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Strategic Affairs, the Jewish Agency, and some state-aligned civil society bodies such as [Israeli think tank] Reut all becoming more deeply engaged, it was impossible for the established diaspora Jewish bodies to ignore Israel’s influence not only over the discourse of “new antisemitism,” but also over what Israel-aligned research bodies were doing. The SICSA at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Roth Institute naturally played a very significant role in ensuring Israel’s influence over research and political advocacy in the field. There was, and still is, a very fine line between Israeli government politicization of antisemitism for furthering its national interests—through hasbara [Israeli propaganda] and other political interventions—and scholarly work being undertaken at universities and in research institutes. The blurring of any differences between propaganda and objective research is one of the key factors contributing to the bitter and divisive battles over antisemitism research in the academy.
SB: Even early on, you had misgivings about the idea of a “new antisemitism.” Why?
AL: Already in 1985, in an editorial for The Jewish Quarterly, which I was editor of at the time, I spelled out the arguments then gaining ground—that attacks on Israel and Zionism were examples of a “new antisemitism”—and proceeded to explain why they are flawed. By then, after six years at the IJA monitoring and studying anti-Zionist thinking, rhetoric, and politics on the international stage, especially in what was then called the Third World, I had concluded that a great deal of that anti-Zionism was a kind of virtue-signaling to show support for the 1975 “Zionism is racism” United Nations resolution [ed note: the resolution was rescinded in 1991], and to curry favor with the USSR and demonstrate “revolutionary credentials.” There was very little evidence of antisemitism in this development. Moreover, some of the states expressing opposition to Zionism most vocally were, under the radar, doing business with the Jewish state. My approach was therefore to argue that anti-Zionism should be treated as a political phenomenon as well as a legitimate political position for Arab and Muslim states and for the Palestinian organizations themselves. There was no value in treating it as antisemitism. If you wanted to oppose anti-Zionism, do it by political discussion, argument, and campaigning, not by elevating it to the status of a “new antisemitism.”
I gave my own definitive view of the idea in an article I wrote for Prospect, a British magazine, in 2002: The anti-Zionism equals antisemitism argument—the central pillar of “new antisemitism”—drains the word antisemitism of any useful meaning. It means that to be antisemitic, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the Israeli government to denial that Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state, without having to subscribe to any of those tropes that historians have traditionally regarded as making up an antisemitic worldview: hatred of Jews per se, belief in a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, belief that Jews generated communism and control capitalism.
This argument remains true today, though we can now add advocacy for Palestinian rights—and advocacy for Palestinians’ right to narrate their own history of the Nakba [the 1947–1949 expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians by Israeli forces], continued dispossession, apartheid, and so on—to what proponents of the “new antisemitism” claim to be antisemitic. But it is simply the exercise of freedom of speech on Palestine/Israel. And the codification of “new antisemitism” in the IHRA working definition has only served to reveal the full perniciousness of the notion.
SB: Why has the project to codify the IHRA definition been so successful?
AL: There are two primary reasons. I have already referred to the first: The very effective political campaign conducted by the AJC and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Who is going to question the actions of the IHRA, an international organization dedicated to Holocaust remembrance and committed to preventing another Holocaust? Never mind that the organization is not very international (30 of its 34 member countries are European) and its main usefulness to most of its members is as a vehicle for virtue signaling, or “Holocaust washing”—diverting attention from antisemitism, or other forms of racism, that some of them tolerate or even encourage in their own countries.
The second reason is that the 2016 adoption of the working definition came at a time when Israel was becoming ever more deeply engaged in the struggle against antisemitism from a position of geopolitical strength. Israel was no longer widely seen as a pariah state. Many of those forces that had been against Israel for years were, as of the adoption of the IHRA definition in 2016, now aligned with Israel, and other states, to fight jihadi terrorism. This includes countries like the Gulf states, Morocco, Sudan, India, and China. By 2021, Israel had relations, either in public or in private, with 13 out of the 22 members of the Arab League. This gave Israel a very advantageous platform from which it could successfully communicate its alleged concern about antisemitism to sympathetic governments ready to sign onto the IHRA.
You also need to look at the other side of the coin. The pushback against IHRA hasn’t been successful. There are many excellent scholars and activists working to achieve the demise of the IHRA “working definition.” But they do not have the clout of the forces they are opposing. An alternative definition, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, is a definite improvement, and the people who put it together have genuinely admirable motives, but their political influence is insufficient to make a significant difference. I would love to be proven wrong.
SB: The “new antisemitism” conceptualizes antisemitism as a transhistorical phenomenon, consistent across different times and cultures, and posits anti-Zionism as the contemporary adaptation of a longstanding hatred. Other scholars, meanwhile, have argued that there is not necessarily continuity between different periods of anti-Jewish persecution that emerge in vastly different contexts. Do you believe that there is any validity in the notion of antisemitism as a transhistorical concept?
AL: Even though the term “new antisemitism” looks as if it implies that antisemitism is changing over time, in reality it says the consequences are always the same from generation to generation.
We must recognize that Jewish life lived in open societies is far too complex to be looked at principally through the prism of antisemitism, and certainly not antisemitism framed as an eternal, unchanging phenomenon. One of the consequences of the IHRA campaign and its defenders is to homogenize Jewish relationships with non-Jewish people around the world, because it makes non-Jews believe that antisemitism is all Jews care about—as if it were the defining characteristic of Jewish history.
I am taken with the arguments that we need a different word for antisemitism, such as Judeophobia. I certainly feel that the word antisemitism is inadequate. It doesn’t help in understanding how Jewish experience has changed in many ways over time. But we are in a bind here. Is it really going to help if you introduce such a major change, since the word antisemitism is so well known and only becoming more well known with the IHRA definition?
SB: How would you envision a successful alternative approach to antisemitism?
AL: The first thing is it has to be multiethnic and multiracial. I think the only way you’re going to combat it is by working with other anti-racist groups in other communities. But beware of Israeli political leaders hijacking the discourse of a collective anti-racist struggle. [Multiracial struggle] is something Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, while he was foreign minister, advocated in a speech he made on antisemitism. But then he said the campaign must be based on a renewed emphasis on the Holocaust. So, multiracial coalitions, but still Jews front and center: the “canary in the coal mine”—the notion that what happens to the Jews first always happens to everyone else next, which has no basis in historical fact.
Second, we must recognize that methods used to monitor antisemitism are fundamentally inadequate—a complete mess. The US and UK monitoring bodies say social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are the primary ways of spreading antisemitism. But there is no clarity as to how they are quantifying this or assessing its dangers qualitatively. So much of the monitoring of antisemitism was always about incidents such as physical attacks on Jews or defacing cemeteries. It was pretty straightforward, and while it could also be manipulated, it was nonetheless clear what was being counted. So, what are people counting today? How do you measure the spread of a Tweet or Instagram post? How do you evaluate its impact? I don’t see that the monitoring bodies understand that at all. Therefore, a root and branch reform of what is understood as “monitoring” is vital.
Third, putting together an effective movement against antisemitism is made even more difficult since what’s now labeled as antisemitism is pro-Palestinian advocacy, anti-Israel speech, and the alleged attack on the “collective Jew.” So if you’re monitoring that as a form of “antisemitism,” what you’re doing is monitoring people exercising free speech. How do you measure that? How do you put that on the scale and work out the seriousness of antisemitism? You can’t. An urgent task is therefore to set aside such “faux” antisemitism, if I can put it that way. Some maturity and realism is required here: Israel is a state, and you can say anything you like about states. It would be an uphill struggle to create such a movement. It would require shedding a lot of baggage. But it is undoubtedly necessary.
Shane Burley is the author of Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021) and Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017). His work has been featured in places such as NBC News, Jacobin, The Daily Beast, Truthout, Al Jazeera, The Independent, The Baffler, Full Stop, Haaretz, and Roar Magazine.