It’s all getting very complicated. The definition of anti-semitism has become an fine art, presided over by professors of antisemitism and fought over across the internet.
It shouldn’t be like this. The more complex the debate becomes the more people disengage from it, leaving antisemitism in the hands of neo-Nazis (who celebrate it) and extreme supporters of the Israeli government (who see antisemitism in all serious criticism of Israel). Instead we should keep it simple. Antisemitism is racism. It’s just a word for anti-jewish racism, hatred of Jews because they are Jews, equivalent to hating people because the are black, asian, Irish or whatever. (And don’t tell me Jews are a religion. There is a major ethnic component to Jewishness, so that many people define as Jewish purely because of their family background. So Jews can certainly be victims of racism).
So, back to basics, how to you avoid being racist? It’s easy. You treat people as individuals. If you meet a new person you don’t assume you know anything about them from a group that they may be connected to. When they do something, be it good or bad in your eyes, you don’t connect those actions with any group – the actions are purely the responsibility of the individual in question. You don’t generalise about groups of people – you allow individuals to define themselves in their own terms. Even if you’ve met more than one person from a ‘group’ that have a certain trait – don’t assume that the next person you meet from that group will be just the same.
Its usually the negative generalisation ones we tend to call racism: when a group is generalised as being mean, stupid, corrupt, evil, dominating, pathetic etc. But although people tend to worry less about positive generalisations (‘Italians are great lovers’ ) these are no less stupid and can easily hide a negative element inside a supposedly positive one (c.f. ‘Black people have such wonderful rhythm’). The surefire way to avoid racism is to cut out generalisations full stop. And the fact that people sometimes make generalisations about their own ‘group’? That’s stupid too, but they have a right to do it as a member of that group in a way that an outsider simply doesn’t. At this juncture we should clarify that of course any act that goes beyond generalisations to actually stirring up hatred against, discriminating against or committing violent acts against members of an ethnic group is utterly racist.
As antisemitism is simply racism, you avoid antisemitism in just the same way. If you hear about somebody Jewish who did something, good or bad, you draw conclusions only about that individual – not about any other Jewish people. That applies whether that person is a drunk guy on the street, an executive at a bank or the Prime Minister of Israel. People are only responsible for their own deeds. And if a person, group, or state, claims to speak for all Jews, take that with a massive dose of salt. Stick to your guns and don’t generalise. And obviously, do not, in a million years, discriminate against people because they are Jews or commit violence against them for the same reason. I hope that goes without saying
Is that all there is to it?
Yep, pretty much. You should be able to make pretty much any political point (other than a racist one) in a non racist way. You just need to show a little care in the way you say it, so that you avoid generalisations. So the statement ‘All meat killed in the UK should be pre-stunned – the alternative is excessively cruel to animals’ is evidently not a racist statement. The legality of shechitah (Jewish animal slaughter for kashrut purposes) is a matter for legitimate political debate. But ‘The Jews have got to stop their barbaric animal killing’ clearly is; it generalises about about all Jews regardless if they purchase kosher meat or not, and throws in an old stereotype about Jews being savage (like the ‘old testament’) for good measure.
But what about Israel? Doesn’t it get much more complex?
Not really. Israel is a state. You can’t really be racist against a state. There is no position on Israel that is per se antisemitic – although you can express views it in an racist way. Calling for the right of return for Palestinian refugees? Fine. Calling for Israel/Palestine to become a single state, with equality for all its citizens? No racism there. Calling for BDS? Lots of states are subject to some kind of sanctions, this is not normally described as racist. Calling Israel an apartheid state? People can debate whether or not the claim is fair but it’s hard to see how it can be antisemitic. But blaming policies of the Israel government on ‘The Jews’? Yep, that’s racist. Blaming them on ‘the Zionists’? I’m afraid that, most of the time, that’s racist too – ‘Zionist’ has long been a synonym for ‘Jew’ in much racist discourse.
Critiquing Israel policy by relying on negative stereotypes of Jews – ‘controlling the world’, ‘money obsessed’ etc.? That’s racist too. Hey, I know that people may not be aware of all stereotypes that have been used about Jews, so may find this difficult to avoid. But there’s an easy remedy, in line with what we laid out above. Don’t generalise at all. Be precise, if the Israeli Prime Minister has done something, blame it on them as an individual. Likewise, if the criticism is of the Israeli army, make that clear. Likewise, critique ‘the Israeli government’ or even ‘structural discrimination inherent in the the Israeli state’ – just don’t blame it on Jews or Zionists. They probably didn’t have any say in the matter. Precision removes any tinge of unwitting racist generalisation.
This one is a bit more complicated. Yes, someone (who is not Israeli or Palestinian) who shows no interest in any other international issue but yet campaigns loudly against Israel, using particularly aggressive language, may indeed have racist motivations. But so long as they do not cross the line laid out above (no generalisations about Jews or Zionists, no reliance on anti-Jewish stereotypes) I don’t think we should call this racist. There are too many non-racist reasons for having a focus solely on Israel/Palestine; its one of the most prominent international issues in the news, it fits neatly into an anti-imperialist/anti-American narrative common to many on the left, it’s an issue where Western governments are genuinely complicit, it’s an issue on which there is real disagreement in the west (unlike IS, North Korea etc.) To call excessive focus on Israel/Palestine racist is to dangerously muddy the waters and risk condemning legitimate political comment. But if you are in the position of being a campaigner focussed solely in this area it would be wise to take extra care in your choice of language to make sure you don’t accidentally slip into the language of stereotypes.
In line with our narrow definition of antisemitism, we should note that although violence against people that are Jews may well be antisemitic it need not necessarily be. An attack on a Jewish individual motivated by something the individual did or said cannot be assumed to be antisemitic – unless the language of the attacker makes it clear that Jewishness is the motivating factor. The same would be true if they were an MP in Britain or a MK in Israel – we would (in the absence of other information) have to assume they were being targeted as as individual, because of their views and actions. Attacks on Israeli soldiers should also not be seems as necessarily racist – they are acts of war, as recognised by international treaties. Soldiers are attacked every day across the world – it is widely accepted that these are political/military actions, targeting the state these soldiers represent. What about attacks on Israeli civilians, whether or not they are settlers? While these are odious acts – targeting innocent people rather than those who actually responsible for Israeli policy – we cannot assume these acts are racist. If they are not accompanied by antisemitic rhetoric (and thus are not targeting the individuals because they are Jews), they may well be acts of political violence, in the tradition of anti-colonial terrorism, violently targeting people perceived to be members of an oppressive ruling group, and who benefit from a system of oppressive rule. This is no way justifies these attacks. Simply because an act is not antisemitic doesn’t make it justifiable or acceptable.
There are some acts which are massively offensive to many Jewish people but are not necessarily antisemitic. The first is denial of (or attempting to play down) the Nazi holocaust. This incredibly stupid practice is hugely offensive, especially to anyone who lost family to the Nazis, but isn’t per se a generalisation about Jews, its just an idiotic factual error. However, when accompanied by conspiracy (Jews made up the holocaust to get sympathy etc.) the racist generalisation is easily apparent. Either way – for God’s sake don’t engage in any form of holocaust denial – the holocaust was horrifically real – do a bit of reading if you’re in any doubt.
Secondly, in contradiction to the previous point (but often found bizarrely in tandem with it) is the claim that Israel is acting like the Nazis. This is again wildly offensive, and totally unjustifiable. When we say acting like Nazis we don’t mean ‘being a bit authoritarian’, we mean committing racial genocide against millions of people. In no way has the Israeli government done that, and is not doing so now. But despite the claim being ludicrous and offensive it’s not racist per se – its a stupid piece of rhetoric against Israel rather than a generalisation against all Jews or a incitement to violence against them. Granted – many who use this language may well have racist intent – of all comparisons they had to choose this one, specifically designed to offend. But there are many reasons to choose a Nazi comparison, not least because it looms so large in the UK history curriculum, leaving people with a dearth of other examples to use. The Nazi holocaust is considered in Britain as the paradigm example of moral evil – that people too often reach for it to condemn behaviour they find odious should, in most cases, be considered stupid hyperbole rather than racism.
In the end it comes down to this. There are many things which are unacceptable, even outrageous, but are not racist. Stealing people’s land and resources, impoverishing people, engaging in violence, taking away human rights and so many more. To subsume them all under the banner of racism demonstrates a lack of analytical precision and ends up bending the dictionary beyond recognition. And it risks confusing people – which will only have there effect of making them less concerned about racism. Racism should be simple and clear so we can all oppose it without reservation. Because racism has this absolute – black and white – status there will be many who will try and shoehorn their cause into a paradigm of racism. If you succeed in doing so you have already won, without having to do the hard work of arguing your political case. So let’s keep things simple. Antisemitism is racism. Don’t be a racist. Was it so hard after all?