Six years ago, in a debate on Israel, I was surprised to be accused of anti-Semitism. That led to me writing: “When does anti-Zionism become anti-Semitism?” which can be found on my website, www.mohammedamin.com. As several high-profile people have recently been accused of anti-Semitism due to social media or mainstream media comments about Israel, I’ve been thinking about this question once more.

What is anti-Semitism?

There are some relatively well-established definitions. The most recent is the working definition adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) on 26 May: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antiSemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish institutions and religious facilities.”

The text above is identical to the working definition devised around 2003 by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).

When you read it closely, the entire definition is contained in the first sentence. A perception is something that happens inside your mind. So, indeed, is hatred. Since we cannot read people’s minds, we can only know that hatred exists within a person’s mind when it is manifested in words and deeds, which is what the second sentence is about.

Accordingly, we are left looking for words (most commonly) or deeds (occasionally), which provide evidence, sometimes overwhelming evidence, that the person hates Jews. If we find such overwhelming evidence, we can find the person guilty of anti-Semitism. We are entitled to disregard the individual’s protestation that they do not hate Jews, unless the individual can offer equally strong evidence in the form of their other words or deeds. Mere assertions of “not being anti-Semitic” will not acquit the individual.

The EUMC definition has always been controversial due to it providing, alongside its definition, a list of potential markers of anti-Semitism, including several anti-Israel behaviours. Some used the EUMC definition as if those possible indicators of anti-Semitism were part of the definition and constituted proof of anti-Semitism, regardless of context. The IHRA appears to have avoided that bear trap.

What is being anti-Israel?

There is an endless list of possibilities. As a mathematics graduate, when faced with a continuous variable, I always find thinking about the most
extreme possibilities a worthwhile aid to analysis.

At its mildest, being anti-Israeli could comprise no more than daring to disagree with any policy of the Israeli government. I do not believe that anyone would attempt to contend that a person falling in this category had provided verbal evidence of their anti-Semitism.

At its most extreme, being anti-Israeli could involve expressing the view that Israel should be militarily crushed with the entire Jewish population being slaughtered. In this case, I would expect all reasonable people to convict the individual of having provided verbal evidence of their anti-Semitism. As one goes from the mild extremity, steadily ratcheting up the level of anti-Israeli views, the greater the likelihood that the individual hates Jews.

However, it is impossible to specify a particular form of anti-Israeli words, whereby all milder versions are not evidence of the individual being
anti-Semitic while all stronger versions are such evidence. The reason is that one is attempting to determine the individual’s mental state (“does this person hate Jews?”) and two people may use the same words while having entirely different mental attitudes towards Jews.

Further, for each individual one has to assess the strength of any evidence for the defence that would rebut an accusation of anti-Semitism.

I’m not anti-Semitic, but…

Recently, after a public meeting, I was approached by someone starting with these words who then gave me a tirade against Israel and against the behaviour of Jews throughout history.

The only conclusion I can draw from the person’s words is that this individual hates Jews. I am also not aware of any evidence in the other direction that would defend against a charge of anti-Semitism.

However, I suspect this person was not consciously lying to me. Rather, they were insufficiently self-aware to realise that what they believed about Jews constituted hatred. Sadly, I doubt that the person is unique in this respect.