The Meaning of Antisemitism: An Exchange

anti feature

Daniel Randall and Judah Bernstein discuss antisemitism.

Events such as the hostage-taking at a synagogue in Coleyville, Texas, remind us that antisemitism is not a historical relic, but a potent ideological force capable of impelling violence. Does the antisemitism that motivated Malik Faisal Akram, the Coleyville gunman, belong to a single historical thread linking all forms of anti-Jewish bigotry and oppression, or is antisemitism historically contingent and subject to recomposition? Does it even make sense to talk of “antisemitism” as a singular category at all? Daniel Randall and Judah Bernstein are both Jewish writers who have both written about defining and historically locating different forms of antisemitism, collaborated on this dialogue to discuss some of the issues.

DR: You’ve written recently about how it’s important not to see antisemitism as historically-transcendent, but rather existing in, and conditioned by, specific historical conditions. I agree it’s vital not to collapse all forms of antisemitism into an almost mystical “Jew-hatred”, implicitly seen as innate and latent in non-Jewish consciousness, which is essentially immutable. Could you summarise your arguments on that?

JB: My approach here derives from my training as a doctoral student. My doctoral advisor, David Engel, wrote an essay a decade or so ago that aroused quite a bit of controversy – it was about “antisemitism” as an analytical category. He argued there that when historians, regardless of the period they’re studying, use the term to label this or that action or statement or belief “antisemitism,” they’re taking for granted that there’s some sort of coherent thing, “antisemitism,” that actually exists in the natural world that you can find and observe and that can unite disparate phenomena across space and time. 

But in fact, as Engel revealed in the article, remarkably quickly after the word’s popularising in the 1870s, its meaning expanded to encompass many different things in many places and historical eras, and of course its meaning has drastically changed again and again in different times and places since then. Engel urged historians to stop using the word and to instead describe why Jews in the time period a historian is studying found certain events to be threatening, rather than to assume that they ipso facto were somehow connected to other things that other Jews found threatening in a totally different context.

That’s a long way of saying that my training under Engel taught me that “antisemitism” is just a word Jews use in differing contexts to describe things that they deem dangerous or offensive. Of course, Jews throughout history have used other words to do this as well – sinat yisrael, eiva, judenhass, anti-Judaism, other things like this. The point is that when Jews begin to fall for the same trap Engel was describing in his article, that the things they find offensive in the context they occupy in some way lead backs to a platonic ideal called “antisemitism,” they can find it hard to locate what it is that truly threatens them now, and how they may respond (indeed, they might despair completely of an adequate response if they view things in this way).

DR: Yes, I think the point about “despairing completely of an adequate response” is especially apposite. Seeing antisemitism as historically transcendant and essentially immutable implies it can’t be defeated or overcome, only “managed” or suppressed somehow. 

Despite all the problems you describe, and despite the fact it was an imposition by racists rather than a term Jews chose to describe their own oppression, I think we’re substantially “stuck with” the word “antisemitism.” Nevertheless, anyone attempting to confront it has to be analytically specific in order to avoid falling back on the idea that we’re dealing with some singular, immutable force of nature.

There’s a distinct phenomenon, but which is in some ways related to this idea, that one encounters on the left, in terms of the notion of what you call a “platonic ideal” of antisemitism. In response to allegations of antisemitism on the left, leftists will sometimes broadcast their anti-fascist and anti-Nazi credentials. The implication is that Hitlerite, exterminationist, racialised antisemitism is the only real antisemitism (the “platonic ideal”, if you like), and as long as you’re opposed to that, you’re in the clear. This misses the point that, whilst there are tropes and motifs that are common to all forms of antisemitism, the forms are, in fact, distinct.

JB: I couldn’t agree more, and this is a major issue among the left in the US too. When you look at the literature that US Jewish leftist groups produce on antisemitism, literature which likely shapes how non-Jews think it through, you quickly realise that their understandings of the phenomenon flow entirely from the following presumption: antisemitism derives from the fusion of Christianity and modern right-wing politics, and that’s it. 

This is a problematic way of looking at things for all sorts of reasons. One is that it produces distorted conceptions of the Jewish experiences within other countries and cultures that don’t easily fit the “Christianity plus right-wing politics” model. For another, as you point out, it makes it incredibly difficult for leftists to identify corrosive dynamics within their own ranks, which are, after all, rarely Christian and decidedly not right-wing. And beyond all that, this way of looking at things is virtually the same way that folks on the right view antisemitism, that it is some sort of transhistorical, disembodied force – popular in these circles is the “disease” or “virus” metaphor. The difference is that folks on the left invest that force with different elements than do those on the right, and that produces different outcomes for them.

The trouble here, in larger political circles, I think, is that ultimately antisemitism just means whatever Jews at a specific moment in time want it to mean. For obvious reasons, that may be hard for Jews to openly accept, but it’s also hard for non-Jews to accept because it would require them to actually listen to Jews even when what Jews are saying does not affirm their immediate political imperatives. This isn’t just a left-wing problem, I’d add – think of the ubiquity of Holocaust symbology nowadays among the anti-vaccine crowd, despite vocal Jewish protests urging them to desist.

DR: You’ve also attempted to articulate social and material responses to antisemitism. For example, you’ve written: “If violent antisemitism flows downstream from socioeconomic despair, or if it in some way overlaps with the scourge of mental illness, as this latest attack once again suggests it does, maybe Jews should get behind reinvigorated social welfare programs.” 

I think that’s an important approach. However, is there also a risk there that we end up seeing antisemitism only as a backlash to social conditions, or as a misplaced articulation of legitimate social grievances?

JB: Yes, in my own modest writing on this topic I always try to emphasise how, no matter what approach to comprehending antisemitism we favour, there’s always going to be trade-offs. I agree with your assessment here and think we must always ask questions like these because things like antisemitism are incredibly complicated social phenomena and no-one has a monopoly on understanding it without bearing certain epistemic costs.

I think this approach of mine you’ve identified can also get touchy for another reason – often some Jews will see this as an attempt to exculpate those who hate Jews by excusing their hatred. This just came up recently in the Anti-Defamation League (ADL)’s hiring of a new director of Jewish outreach who had tweeted some time ago that we need to better understand the grievances that drive someone to be a suicide bomber.

But this approach, in my view, is indispensable insofar as it relates to my previous point. If we are to see antisemitism as historically-determined, we must ask about the prevailing social conditions that animate those who embrace antisemitic ideas. 

DR: What are your views on the idea of antisemitism as an “oppression”? Some writer-activists who’ve made important contributions to the analysis of antisemitism, including on the left, do define it in those terms. For example, April Rosenblum defines it as “oppression against Jews.” In my writing I’ve pushed back against that definition; particularly in a context in which white Jews have been substantially integrated into whiteness, it doesn’t make sense to me to think of Jews, certainly in the US and the UK, as systemically “oppressed” as Jews.

But as recent events in Texas show, Jews still face threats of antisemitic violence from non-state actors motivated by antisemitic ideology. So do analytical distinctions between an “oppression” and an ideological bigotry that can impel violence even matter?

JB: I think Rosenblum has done some really admirable work to try and get folks on the left to take animosity against Jews more seriously. 

But no, I do not see Jews as oppressed in the sense that there’s some sort of wellspring of anti-Jewish ideas embedded deep in society’s institutions that perpetuates anti-Jewish animosity. I am sceptical, as you are, that such a view coheres with the Jewish experience in the US. In general, I think the critique that Engel offers in his article I mentioned above makes a lot of these claims harder to verify. But specifically in the US I find that quite often what Jews perceive to be expressions of antisemitism are in fact not the result of some sort of wellspring of antisemitism that bubbles to the surface but rather the result of how most Americans know nothing about Jews and rarely think about them all that much. 

I’m reminded of the controversy recently over a rural Tennessee school board’s decision to remove Maus from their curriculum, which ignited deep concern that the school board had been commandeered by Holocast deniers. As it turned out, those officials removed Maus because they thought it was inappropriate for young people (curse words and nudity and the like) – they were puritans with a rather superficial understanding of the Holocaust, not antisemities. They clearly hadn’t given much thought to how Jews would react to the whole thing.

Obviously, there are people who come to embrace ideologies that demonise Jews. But I do think it still matters to distinguish between that patent fact and a larger claim of antisemitism as systemic for a number of reasons. A big one is the importance of maintaining the credibility of the word “antisemitism.” The word is an important political tool for Jews – when they call something antisemitic, they hope that non-Jews will hear them and take their word for it and work to minimise what ever it is that Jews are decrying in that instance. But the more Jews use the word in ways that are flexible and unconvincing, the less credibility and political efficacy the term will have. You get a sense of the risks involved when you consider just how politicised the term “racism” has become in American discourse. This is something Jews should strive to avoid.

DR: This is perhaps a minor semantic point, but I’m not sure about your use of the word “flexible” here. Doesn’t there have to be a degree of “flexibility” in terms of how antisemitism is understood, given that it’s historically contingent and can manifest in distinct and variant forms? 

Keith Kahn-Harris

This is where all attempts to codify definitions of antisemitism – the IHRA Working Definition, the Jerusalem Declaration, and others – will almost inevitably run aground, in my view. The actual “definition” in such documents tends to be the “inflexible” part, but the stuff the authors really want to call attention to is all in the contextual examples, the stuff which by-and-large is “flexible” and dependent on context.

This is something of a tangent to your previous remarks, although it is prompted by them: I think any bigotry, or allegations of it, can be cynically exploited for political ends, or sometimes even fabricated. But to even be able to assess that requires sensitivity, and what Keith Kahn-Harris calls a “minimal civility”. I think the left needs to understand how the political elements of a marginalised group identity are historically woven into that identity, so attacks on those politics can feel like attacks on the group.

When leftists accuse Jewish communal organisations of fabricating allegations of antisemitism – usually “to deflect criticisms of Israel”, or something similar – I think they’re largely missing the point. It’s not that these organisations don’t really think attacks on Israel are antisemitic, but are just claiming they do in order to deflect the criticism; what they’re reflecting is the fact that most Jews really do see Israel as central to their Jewish identity, in ways that can make it seem like criticisms of Israel are attacks on Jewishness.

That’s historically constructed, and as someone who opposes nationalism and aspires to a universal, rather than particularist, politics, it’s something I ultimately want to deconstruct and overcome. But it’s not a matter of flicking a switch. I think the (majority-non-Jewish) left needs to develop a way of thinking, writing, and acting about Israel/Palestine which doesn’t compromise on basic questions of universal rights and equality but which is also sensitive to history and its effects on consciousness.

I should say here that I think that has to apply in the “other direction”, so to speak, as well. Jews, especially Israeli Jews, need to come to terms with how Palestinians’ social conditions and historical experiences have shaped their consciousness, rather than seeing that consciousness as simply in thrall to this transhistorical notion of immutable Jew-hatred.

To return to the question of who gets to decide whether something is or isn’t antisemitic; in general, there’s a progressive impulse about autonomy and self-determination embodied in the idea that, if a member of a marginalised group says an idea or action expresses bigotry against them, people from outside that group should believe them. But I don’t think that idea is really operable as an absolute. For starters, you’ll immediately be confronted with the fact of contestation within the marginalised group.

Obviously I want the term “antisemitism” to be deployed accurately and effectively. Sometimes, it patently isn’t: much of the reaction to Amnesty International’s recent report on Israel from the mainstream Jewish communal establishment seems to me profoundly unhelpful, as do claims that Ben & Jerry’s’ decision not to market their ice cream in Israeli settlements is “antisemitic”.

But the confrontation with antisemitism, including an effort to understand it clearly, is not only a Jewish responsibility. It’s fundamentally a collective ideological and intellectual responsibility of people who believe in equality and oppose bigotry. So my position here doesn’t necessarily proceed in terms of “Jews must carefully police the way we use the term ‘antisemitic’, because otherwise non-Jews will stop believing us”. 

I’ve occasionally seen some quite ugly discourse from leftists along the lines of, “well… I used to oppose antisemitism, but these Jews have cried wolf one too many times, so they’ve foregone their right to my solidarity”. It’s important to confront that rather than pander to it in any way. I also think we need to avoid narrowing down the focus onto only the “worst” types of antisemitism, which takes us back somehwere near to the “platonic ideal” point we discussed earlier.

Rather, I think what’s required is a collective effort of political education, on the part of both Jews and non-Jews, to raise the collective ideological and intellectual level, so everyone has a firmer grasp of what antisemitism is and the different forms in which it can manifest, and can think critically on the topic.

JB: I’ve written about the definitions-wars and made that exact point – how these definitions can’t meet a lot of different instantiations of Jew-hatred in the real world. 

On top of what you say, you get this issue of Jews defining antisemitism, then other Jewish organisations embracing that definition… but then those same organisations continue to use the term in ways that aren’t covered by their favoured definition or even run afoul of that very definition! Perhaps that’s inevitable, but a lot of organisations really need to decide whether they want a definition or not – if they do, they should stick to the one they’ve embraced, because otherwise the whole project is discredited. And then there’s the issue of how the very attempt to define the term has foregrounded intense disagreements about the term, which has only served to make the term appear more like a political weapon. 

I couldn’t agree more with what you say about the left, Israel-Palestine talk, and antisemitism accusations. To clarify, when I said Jews need to think carefully about how they use the term, I didn’t intend to affirm the response you mentioned and that I’ve sadly seen in abundance too – leftists, both non-Jews and Jews, claiming that because this or that person or organisation abuses the term, the term need not be taken seriously in regards to matters of anti-Zionism, etc., no matter who is using the term. I only meant that, in this political reality where claims about antisemitism are more contested than they have been in the past, it would be wise for Jews to be more careful about how they deploy it.

Perhaps this gets at Kahn-Harris’s point, but we can and should expect different things from different people – that Jewish organisations use the term responsibly so that the term retains linguistic force, but also that folks in leftist politics make a good-faith effort to understand where Jews are coming from, to listen to them with empathy when Jews assert that something they’ve seen or heard strikes them as antisemitic. 

I also agree that this American notion that we should always believe it whenever a minority claims oppression is unconvincing. Although I’d add that this principle is one that is not always honoured for American Jews – meaning, Jews are sometimes not believed when they claim this or that thing is antisemitic. But whether or not claims should be validated without question from the get-go, I think they should always be heard with empathy and understanding.

Perhaps one way the left can begin to thread the needle you articulated is by seeking out and listening more intently to leftists within Israel, whether Jewish or Arab. The left there is of course in dire straits, but it still exists and will likely offer a perspective on Israel-Palestine and leftist politics which differs from what has become salient in the US and Britain.

On your point about political education, I’m all for more robust educational initiatives, though I’ve come to despair of the notion that education or communal relations alone can solve at least the problem of anti-Jewish violence that has become more pronounced of late in the United States. That problem is vastly different than the issue of discourse within leftist circles we’ve been discussing, true, but what if the only real way to fend-off the worsening problem of antisemitism within leftist circles is for there to be some sort of headway on the Israel-Palestine front? 

I don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t have a clue as to how headway can happen or what it would look like, but this strikes me as a really disturbing possibility given that Jews in Britain and America find themselves in something of a diasporic-political trap: they have very little influence over the trajectory of the conflict within Israel and the Palestinian territories, on the one hand, but many of them, for obvious reasons, also won’t and really can’t conceive of a Jewish identity in which affiliation with Israel doesn’t play some role. 

DR: The question of whether it’s possible, or desirable, to construct a “non-Zionist” Jewish identity that’s anything more than a minority concern is probably a bigger one than we can usefully discuss in this exchange. I think it is both possible and desirable, although probably on a fairly long-range timescale and very much not in the way what I call the “absolute anti-Zionist” left poses this question, which is essentially to deliver ultimatums to Jews with no sensitivity to where “Zionist” consciousness might come from.

In terms of a confrontation with antisemitism on the left, I do believe this is fused with the need to assert a genuinely egalitarian and consistently democratic politics on Israel/Palestine. That idea can be uncomfortable for a lot of Jews, for whom the instinct is often to attempt to “decouple” the issues. And to be clear, I’m obviously not suggesting that Jews who don’t subscribe to what I’d see as genuinely egalitarian and consistently democratic politics are fair game for antisemitic attacks. But I do find it telling that the place our exchange has ended up is in talking about how headway can be made on the Israel/Palestine question. That suggests to me that the issues are interlinked, although I acknowledge that, even amongst those who might accept that they are, exactly how they might be interlinked is in itself contested.

Although the situation on the ground in Israel/Palestine is extremely bleak, there are small rays of hope. Building international support for initiatives like Omdim b’Yachad, which seek to mobilise Israeli Jews and Palestinians in common struggle, is key, in my view.

It’s important on its own terms because, as you noted earlier, the Israeli left – especially the parts of it which make an active effort to organise “binationally” – is extremely embattled. It’s also important for reconfiguring diaspora identity, as it can offer Jews a way of engaging with Israeli life that isn’t about knee-jerk, uncritical support for the state.

And it’s also vital for a confrontation with left antisemitism. Building solidarity with joint struggles between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs shows leftists that there’s a way to engage with Israel/Palestine that doesn’t write off the entire Israeli-Jewish national group, and by extension diaspora Jews who have an affinity with that group, as irredeemably reactionary. 


Daniel Randall (DR) is a railway worker, trade union representative, and socialist activist based in London. He was written extensively about antisemitism, especially on the left. His book Confronting Antisemitism on the Left: Arguments for Socialists was published in 2021 by No Pasaran Media
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Gloria Tessler
Gloria Tessler
4 months ago

A profound and engaging piece posing the questions about antisemitism and Israel- consciousness that have never been more relevant

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