How to Write [about] Anti-Semitism


Wilhelm Marr, inventor of 'antisemitism'

I favor writing “antisemitism” in the British way, as one word without a hyphen. Antisemitism–a term invented by a 19th century German (Wilhelm Marr) to label his Jew-hating belief system–is an ideology, but “semitism” is not. Moreover, antisemitism is not about the hatred of all peoples who speak a Semitic language (the linguistic family that includes Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic). Consequently, it’s not a misnomer to refer to Arabs who happen to hate Jews as antisemites.
The definition of antisemitism that I most prefer is attributed to the British-Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin: that antisemitism means “hating Jews more than is absolutely necessary.” This is a wise as well as witty observation that acknowledges that Jews–being only human–are capable of all the imperfections, weaknesses, mistakes and crimes of other humans. (That Jews are ordinary human beings is in itself something that the most extreme antisemites deny.)
Jerome Chanes, historian and contributing editor of The Forward, has recently written a review of the latest in the long list of books on the subject. He concludes with the common understanding that this is a problem of non-Jews, not a Jewish problem as such. I know what he means, of course, but I disagree slightly.
Yes, among hardcore antisemites, Jews are guilty of something bad regardless of what they do. Such people cannot even accept Jews when they convert to Christianity, or when they are completely assimilated into the non-Jewish majority culture, eschewing any interest in or attachment to a community of self-affirming Jews. But antisemitism becomes a dangerous affliction when these bigots are able to stir up the passions of otherwise non-fanatical non-Jews by pointing to real or imagined wrong-doing by Jews.
Such is what happened in recent years when the widely disseminated visuals of the Second Intifada and of the Israeli military response inspired antisemitic outbursts against European Jews (most especially noted among Muslim immigrant communities in France). So on occasion, what Jews do–or are seen to do–does matter. This is a point I made in a somewhat controversial op-ed article in The Forward in 2003. I noted that if some pivotal singular events had not happened–e.g., Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Arabs in Hebron in 1994, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the wave of terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv during the election campaign of 1996–the peace process of the 1990s would likely have succeeded, and there would have been no outbreak of antisemitic incidents in Europe in the early 2000’s.
It is still my belief that the peace process of the 1990s, although obviously flawed, came very close to succeeding. If not for the tragically effective efforts of enemies of peace on both sides–perhaps most effectively on the Israeli side–Oslo would have succeeded. And it is also my belief that with the formal end of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the phenomenon of antisemitism would have come to an effective end. Like polio or smallpox, the virus might still infect some souls, but only on the margins of society.
Alas, as the conflict endures, so does this pestilence and the danger of it spreading. I know that there are parts of Western Europe today where Jews are warned against wearing kippot (yarmulkes), or stars of David, or other such indicators of Jewishness on the street. And widespread anti-Israel sentiments in the Muslim world are often expressed in antisemitic terms. But I see the antisemitism as mostly a product of anti-Israel attitudes rather than the other way around.

0 thoughts on “How to Write [about] Anti-Semitism

  1. Seliger is only partly right — yes, what Jews do does matter, what Israel does does matter, but there are circuits through which antisemitic thought and frames migrate and influence people independent of what the Jews or Israel does. Indeed, they help frame how these things are viewed.
    How accomodate the reality that things are said today in hard left circles and surely in radical Islamic circles that mirror and often incorporate the thoughts of Hitler and the Nazis and of Communist antisemitism from the show trial/anti Zionist era of the early Cold War? How accomodate the growing scholarship that shows the Nazi ideological roots of some contemporaray antisemitism — or the Cold War era Communist ideological roots of this spreading hatred.
    The left makes a mistake in pooh-poohing antisemitism or rooting it only in material realities. That left that does so is the left that never learns…..

    • I don’t disagree with Mr. Waltzer. There are antisemitic tropes that the Nazis and the Stalinists (the latter in a somewhat different vein) helped popularize. It is a moral failing of the Left that it does not take this old hatred more seriously.

    • I hope readers will check out Mr. Rehmat’s website to get a sense of what those of us who struggle for mutual understanding and peace are up against. I’ve found that his “Jewish blogger friend, Gilad Atzmon,” is a very good musician, but also someone who does not use his considerable talents to help make the world a better place.
      It’s possible that I’m prohibited by Tikkun’s comments policy from saying anything sharper.

      • Yes Ralph – Gilad Atzmon doesn’t see Israel and Judaism through Zionist prism even though he was born in a prominent Zionist family. He served Jewish army during Lebanon war but got sick off how the so-called “moral army” killed young children.
        After writing ‘The Wandering Who: A study of Jewish Identity Politics’ – Gilad has proved beyond doubt that like the promised Jewish Messiah – he too can unite the Jews – at least against him.

        • I just checked out the book (The Wandering Who) on Amazon and some of what the editorials on the actual book cover say about it is pretty ok – BUT – I’m just a bit more that a little concerned about the types of books listed under “Customers who bought The Wandering Who also bought:” There were alot of Nazi type books amongst them about seeing the Star of David as ‘conspiratorially evil’ and all this crazy kind of stuff! I was shocked to see that the types of books Listed on Amazon as having been read by those who had also read Gilad Atzmon’s book were nothing short of antisemitic!!!

  2. It is necessary to parse Isaiah Berlin’s vile definition of antisemitism as “hating Jews more than is necessary.” Why should hating Jews AT ALL be “necessary”? Necessary to who? Necessary why?
    How much should Jews be hated that would not be considered “more than is necessary.” And why should Jews be hated AT ALL?
    Unless Berlin was being ironic and satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift, this statement exhibits a shocking lack of respect for Jewishness as a legitimate and laudable expression of a particular way of being human, as well as a validation of rejection of and hostility toward the nation whose behavior is characterized and informed by the affirmation of this cultural expression.
    Would anyone today say that racism is “hating African Americans more than is necessary” without being ostracized? Would anyone say that misogyny is “hating women more than is necessary”? Or that homophobia is “hating gays more than is necessary”?
    Finally, antisemitism is far more than harboring feelings of antagonism toward a group of individuals defined as “different” from those in the dominant culture. Antisemitism must include in its definition the ACTING ON THAT ANTAGONISM. It matters little whether Eichman hated Jews; it matters a great deal that he organized their annihilation, even if he didn’t “hate them more than was necessary” to implement the Final Solution.
    It is the action that is the defining factor.

    • I understand why my friend Aviva does not regard antisemitism as a joking matter. Considering its historic consequences, it is surely not. Still, I do not believe that Isaiah Berlin intended to trivialize antisemitism in the least.
      His may not be the best possible definition, but I find it enlightening for the reason I’ve specified.

  3. The canonical Hebrew Bible reveals the injustice of empire whether it’s Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome, or empire imitating Judaisms, or even current cooperate, political and national empires which shall not be named.
    Of course, the one’s who reveal this will suffer. Sometimes, given escalating mimetic rivalries, there will be scapegoats who will bear the brunt of societal conflict.
    What is needed is nonviolent, non sacrificial, nonscapegoating love. The time has come. Either we learn to love our enemies. Or, we all die.
    God is leading us into the way of love. Will we have faith to practice this love?

  4. I see a bunch of Israeli hasbara agents showing their self-denial of the Zionist meaning of the world ‘antisemitism’.
    A former Israeli cabinet minister had clarified this hoax of ‘anti-Semitism’ created by the people to protect themselves from genuine criticism – who themselves, mostly, are not Semites but descendents of Asiatic Khazarian Turks and North African Berbers. Shulamit Aloni (born 1928), during her August 14, 2002 interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! said: “Well, it’s a trick, we always use it. When from Europe somebody is criticizing Israel then we bring up the holocaust. When in this country (US) people are criticizing Israel then they are antisemitic. And the organization (Israel Lobby) is very strong and has lot of money. And the ties between Israel and American Jewish establishment are very strong – and they are strong in this country as you know. And they have power which is ok”.

  5. “…. more than necessary”.
    An example of someone who is smart saying something really stupid while attempting to display how clever they are.
    I’m afraid that it is guaranteed that real antisemitism is on the rise due to exactly that kind of cleverness on the blogs, as well as dishonest accusations of antisemitism. It’s my direct experience. And it’s not unrelated to similar cleverness targeting other ethnic groups.
    The issues are far from simple and untortured but a wish that more Jews could have not been dead is certainly but living in safety and security is incompatible with antisemitism in any possible rational analysis.

  6. “And it is also my belief that with the formal end of the Israeli-Arab conflict, the phenomenon of antisemitism would have come to an effective end.”
    I strongly oppose the Occupation and the racist extremism that has gained power in Israeli right wing politics (as it has elsewhere). However, I don’t think that antisemitism would simply die down if (WHEN) these wrongs are righted. While they are certainly used by antisemites for recruiting new generations, the old memes are still there. Have you seen all the “Jewish Bankers” crap that’s been going around since the 2008 meltdown? It’s truly hard to fathom that people actually believe these things in the 21st century, but they do.
    Even the film “Defamation,” which is highly critical of the ADL and paranoia about antisemitism, depicts some really abominable stuff. Bigotry might latch onto real-world events (with a spin, certainly) in order to justify itself, but bigotry at its root is irrational and caused by the person who holds it, not by his target.

  7. What the heck so-called ‘anti-Semitism’ has to do with Jewish occupation of Muslim Palestine? The jewish hatred has existed in the West for centuries before the occupation of Palestine by Zionist Jews. However, in their distortion of Jewish history – they refuse to acknowledge that Jewish communities were expelled from almost every European country for over 108 times.

    • Rehmet, Jewish presence in what you call Palestine and the Middle East in general predates the Muslin religion by a few thousand years. Islam was an aggressive, imperialistic religion when it emerged from the desert.

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