In view of the current violence in Israel and Gaza, a heated international debate has been taking place in newspapers, journals, and other publications concerning the definition of antisemitism and the limits of legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. Many often claim that criticism of Israel too often deviates from the boundaries of accepted discourse by adopting antisemitic argument patterns, which target Israel as a Jewish state or as the alleged representative of Jews in the diaspora. Israel-related antisemitism, so-called “new” antisemitism, has become the main focus of those struggling to combat antisemitism writ large.
Five years ago, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an organization supported by 34 national governments including the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Israel, published a “Working Definition of Antisemitism,” adopted by the IHRA member states and many other institutions since. The definition—“a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews”—provided a list of 11 examples of antisemitic speech, most of which concern criticism of Israel. Attempting to limit criticism of Israel in the name of fighting antisemitism has recently become more common. Take the German Bundestag’s 2019 decision to label the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as antisemitic and prohibit public funding for its supporters, which led many German cultural institutions to exclude almost any criticism of Israel, even by German Jews or Israelis.
The IHRA definition, which some saw as restrictive or stifling, led an international group of 200 researchers associated with the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute to recently publish the “Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism,” whose purpose was to clarify “the limits of legitimate political speech and action concerning Zionism, Israel, and Palestine.” The Jerusalem Declaration sought to offer more precise distinctions between antisemitic speech and legitimate critique, thereby allowing room for critical debate on Israeli policy vis-à-vis the Palestinians. The publication of the Jerusalem Declaration in turn triggered a round of polemical exchanges between its supporters and critics.
These debates have so far been limited to the question of when exactly criticizing Israel becomes antisemitic. The question rarely discussed, however, is what the basic definition of antisemitism should be, which only serves to muddle the already embattled struggle against antisemitism itself, or what you might call “anti-antisemitism.”
The contemporary struggle against antisemitism targets at least three distinct types of antagonism toward Jews. These three different categories are typically attributed to different periods of history, but they are not separate or exclusive; they are acknowledged as coexisting, simultaneously and often in hybrid forms, within contemporary societies.
The first type of antisemitism is traditional or “pre-modern,” often understood as a form of religious antisemitism, which might be better described as anti-Judaism. It consists of hostility toward various forms of Jewish culture, religion, or ways of life—such as circumcision or refusing to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah.
The second type is “modern” antisemitism, or antisemitism proper: The historical anti-Jewish hostility that explicitly called itself “antisemitism.” Its distinctive aggression against Jews goes beyond the targeting of actual performances of Jewish culture, and instead attacks the imaginary, the allegedly genetic, and the supposedly concealed Jewishness of both practicing Jews and nonpracticing Jews. This type of antisemitism is a form of racism.
The third type is the so-called “new” antisemitism, frequently identified as arising in Arab, Muslim, or postcolonial Western discourse and which manifests itself as hostility toward the State of Israel.
The basic goal of anti-antisemitism is to subsume all three of these hostilities in the broader category of “antisemitism.”
But if we examine the theoretical foundations of opposition to racist antisemitism after the Holocaust, one basic observation emerges: Contemporary anti-antisemitism condemns racist antisemitism not for being racist or even for being antagonistic toward Jews, but for making any general statements whatsoever about Jews as Jews—for attributing any specific content or set of values to a collective Jewish way of life. To put it bluntly: Anti-antisemitism tries to fight antisemitism by denying that Judaism exists.
This phenomenon is visible in current debates about defining antisemitism. The IHRA defines it as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” But without saying what the perception is, this definition implies that ascribing even positive content to a collective Jewish existence is antisemitic. Similarly, the Jerusalem Declaration considers any hostility “against Jews as Jews” to be antisemitic; it thus categorically prohibits the possibility of attributing anything objectionable to Jewish practice, which denies in principle that collective Jewish existence has any real-world content. This impulse arises from a prevalent contemporary ideology, which seeks to discredit the attribution of any “what” or “essence” to collectives of people. The acknowledgment of collective content is disqualified as “essentialism,” which the Jerusalem Declaration in fact defines as “racist.”
This approach to defining or combating antisemitism is problematic in two ways. First, anti-antisemitism’s condemnation of the very idea of “Judaism” incriminates not only hostility to Judaism, but also—paradoxically—self-affirmation of Judaism as the constitutive content of a people’s collective existence, including their politics. By manifesting hostility to Jewish particularism—which is seen, for instance, in liberal society’s dislike of Orthodox and Haredi communities—anti-antisemitism becomes a form of anti-Judaism. The anti-antisemitic type of anti-Judaism is thus even more radical than the traditional religious form of anti-Judaism, in that it is hostile not only to specific parts of Jewish ways of life, but to the notion that they exist.
Second, and most importantly, denying any “essence” within Jewish existence without also denying the existence of Jews still presupposes a certain form of collective existence, that of Jewishness. But the essence of this collective existence consists of having no essence at all, of being defined without any cultural, intellectual, or moral content—a collective without knowledge.
The Jewish collective posited by anti-antisemitic discourse constitutes existence without essence, community without qualities. Anti-antisemitism is thus, at base, a form of Jewish identitarianism. Ironically, the political category that most closely resembles this type of collective identitarianism is the same one anti-antisemitism fears most: the category of race.
That still leaves the most popular current debates on antisemitism, which are increasingly concerned with the third type of anti-Jewish animus mentioned above: The “new” antisemitism associated with hostility toward the State of Israel. The key here is to understand that the trouble caused by conflating traditional anti-Judaism (the first type of antisemitism) with racist antisemitism (the second type) also applies to antisemitism as a framework for criticizing Israel (the third type).
Whereas the distinctive feature of racist antisemitism is hostility toward imaginary Jews or supposedly hidden Jewish conspiracies, Israel is an explicitly and openly Jewish state. Israel’s Basic Law of 2018 declares that “The State of Israel is the national home of the Jewish people, in which it fulfills its natural, cultural, religious, and historical right to self-determination,” and goes on to clarify that “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” The identification of the State of Israel with Jews—which is not a far leap from the Jerusalem Declaration’s definition of antisemitism, which is to hold Jews collectively responsible for Israel—is therefore not an antisemitic fantasy. It is the Israeli constitution.
Indeed, the State of Israel is one of the central contemporary projects carried out in the name of Jews as a global community. It understands itself—and is also understood by a great many Jews, Israeli and non-Israeli—as representing Jews and Jewish history. But Israel is most often held responsible today not for some mythical complicity in the murder of Christ but for seven ongoing decades of denying the political and human rights of millions of Palestinians, which is officially justified with reference to the alleged interests of the Jewish people.
Indeed, the State of Israel is one of the central contemporary projects carried out in the name of Jews as a global community.
Opinions on this justification vary a lot, and one cannot deny that the wide array of hostilities toward Israel arising from its handling of Gaza, the West Bank, and its own Arab minority includes many religious and racist antisemitic manifestations. But framing the problem as a question of antisemitism is incorrect and forecloses actual debate. Anti-antisemitism, which categorically delegitimizes both anti-Judaism and affirmative forms of collective Jewish existence, precludes healthy reflection and self-reflection, including the ability of Israeli and non-Israeli Jews to self-critique.
It is true that the IHRA definition of antisemitism permits “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country.” Certainly, the State of Israel does not commit unique injustices or commit them in a unique way: All contemporary state injustices, in one way or another, are shaped by the same basic and competing forces, such as nationalism, militarism, colonialism, capitalism, and racism. Israel is not worse in this respect, just equally bad as many other states, which is bad enough.
But the debate about the situation in Israel we’re witnessing today must address a certain particularity, which is necessary for understanding and improving it: The perpetuation of a nation-state’s injustices in the name of Jews as Jews. This central fact must be acknowledged and critically examined in any constructive debate that seeks to engage not only matters of Israeli security but the political imagination that animates Israeli society and institutions. What are the implications of a nation-state taking military action in the name of Jews? Is it different or the same as using violence in the name of Indians or Danes? What kind of Jewish existence, and what conception of Jewish interests, justifies current forms of oppression? Are Jewish politics in Israel essentialist or identitarian? Are they Jewish or anti-antisemitic? Do traditional Jewish cultures, especially in the diaspora, offer means to resist injustices committed by the state? Does Judaism itself?
These are the essential questions that do not preoccupy antisemites, but should preoccupy self-identifying Jews, Israeli and non-Israeli, who shape present and future Jewish politics, including in the Jewish state. The basic condition for engagement with such questions is the recognition of Jewish culture as a real, content-rich, historical, and enduring world that exists beyond the concepts of race or antisemitism—beyond anti-antisemitism.
Elad Lapidot is professor of philosophy and Jewish studies at the University of Bern in Switzerland and the author of Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism (SUNY, 2020).