Ira Straus

Do Jews ,have a right to define anti-Jew hate,?

ADL has complained that Jews, unlike all other groups, are not allowed to define what constitutes hate against themselves. And therefore should be allowed to.

The complaint is accurate, but the solution goes the wrong way. No group has a right to define words for its own purposes. Every group should respect an honest usage of words.

A group has a right to help everyone recognize hatred against itself. It has a right to participate prominently in defining the terms that describe that hatred. And it has a right to be treated equally with other groups in these regards.

But no group should own the dictionary. No group has a right to unilaterally define others as “haters” at its own interested discretion. No group has a right to define any words arbitrarily.

The horrible thing is this ownership and arbitrary redefinition is in fact being done today. It is corrupting some of the most important words in the vocabulary. It is undermining intelligent thinking on a vast range of vital subjects. It is corrupting the very minorities in whose name it is being done.

In most cases, significantly, it is not really being done by any of those designated minority groups themselves. It is being done, rather, by an ideological group or elite, the one that holds predominant sway in the media and academic: the political Left.

Do words of vilification need to be honestly defined and delimited? Yes. It is sorely needed to do.

Most of the deplore words are used without definition. That is proving a disaster for the world. It is enabling them to be thrown around recklessly, for inappropriate, interested purposes. Anti-Semitism is practically the only one for which a delimiting definition is requested.

It is actually a good request. It is so good that it should be applied to all the words of demonization and exclusion.

Instead we’re facing a demand-on-Jews-only situation.


Jews, unlike other groups, did define their terms honestly

The result of the demand-on-Jews-only is this: Jews are the only group that attempts to give an honest, fair-minded definition of the attitudes and ideologies that constitute hatred against itself. And they are the only group that makes a reasonable attempt to apply the term objectively. All the others throw around the designated hate labels – racism, sexism, Islamophobia – without restraint, at their foreordained political targets, or at anyone they dislike or want to hurt.

In response to the demands for a definition of anti-Semitism, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), an inter-governmental organization of 35 member countries, developed a “working definition of antisemitism”. It has been embraced by numerous governmental and non-governmental entities, including the U.S. and the European Parliament, as the best definition we have for organizing efforts to combat anti-Semitism. Despite this, the definition is frequently attacked in the media and academia.


Why the Left rejects the honest definition

The IHRA definition is as fair a delimitation, and as appropriate for practical usage, as any we are likely to get. The apologists for the Left anti-Semitism do not attempt to improve on it. Instead, they just use, as their own working definition of anti-Semitism — anything questionable that is said about Jews if it comes from the Right, and only if it comes from the Right.

This reduces anti-Semitism to just another term thrown into the collection of pejorative labels for the Right — Hillary Clinton’s famous “basket of deplorables”. They are all terms that have come to be used interchangeably as euphemisms for “Right-wing”. Thus, for the Left, “anti-Semitism” is, effectively, simply another term for “Right-wing”.

“Hate” itself has become a euphemism for Right-wing. “Hate” is used routinely to reference statements and persons on the Right, no matter whether they are expressing anything like actual hatred. Skillfully lawyers have finessed this by treating the phrase “hate speech” as meaning “speech that the Left hates”. This is not irony; it is actually accurate about the mainstream usage of the term, travesty though it is of the English language.

“Haters”, similarly, is used to designate those whom the Left hates. Often it positively loves to hate them. It engages in massive campaigns of verbal abuse and hatred against many of them. This is hate speech in the proper English language meaning if the word. The campaigns are conducted with all the vitriol the Left can bring to bear, all the enthusiasm in shouting viciously against them, all the verbal abuse and threats of assault — and sometimes actual assault – it can organize, until it moves on to another object of its hatred. This ritual of public hatred, which we have been seeing regularly enacted in our media and on our streets, was immortalized by Orwell in 1984, with its “Two Minutes Hate” sessions.

We have seen even more of these hate sessions than usual on college campuses in recent months. This shows how strong the new anti-Semitism has become.


Privileged accusations

The “deplore” words are given special privilege: as long as they are deployed by the Left, they need bear no relation to truth in the proper English language. But they are deprivileged, even attacked, when they aren’t used by Left against Right.

Thus, the deplore words can be used with abandon – with reckless disregard for the truth — as long as they are used against the designated object of hatred, the Right. But people are asked for a definition of them as soon as they are applied against an entity on the Left.

When people respond fairmindedly to this demand and give an honest definition for the word, they do not get in return a belated acknowledgement that there is a real and dangerous deplorable -ism or -ophobia – racism, hatred, anti-Semitism, homophobia — in that entity of the Left. They are not answered with a seriousness about condemning and combatting the racism of the Left or the anti-Semitism of the Left. Instead they are treated to more rounds of disputing the definition and running interference for the Leftist entity.


The absolute double-standard about anti-Semitism

“Anti-Semitism” is an accusation that is made regularly in the mainstream media and goes undisputed there – but only as long as it is directed against the Right. Trump is called an anti-Semite almost every time he says something about Jews, no matter how much it is actually in support of Jews. But anti-Semitism goes unrecognized when it comes from the Left. AOC and Rashida Tlaib are not pegged, by our quasi-official arbiters of these matters, as anti-Semites, no matter what they say. Nor was Jeremy Corbyn, whom the Left was hoping to make Prime Minister of Britain – not until the Labour Party decided to move away from the far Left, and dumped him for that purpose. Then he “became” an anti-Semite. In reality, nothing had changed in him; the mainstream Left had only changed its view of what was expedient politically in relation to him.

This pattern has serious consequences in world affairs. It means the term “anti-Semitism” can always be directed against the Global Right, and will always be made to “stick” and harm the object against which it is thrown in that case. “Global Right” is defined in this language game as the Global West, meaning the West plus its allies and its wider spheres of influence – its policy influence over countries and its westernizing influence within countries. Israel is rightly counted as a part of this Global West. So Israel is counted as Right, and therefore is treated as fair game for being called any of the deplore words — even for being called “anti-Semitic”, which is in fact done at times and gets treated as a profound insight.

The same goes for the other deplore terms: they can be freely used against anything in the Global Right, or anyone who is on the Right side of any oppositional situation in the world. The dominant media and academia will make the labels stick when they’re used that way, no matter how innocent the object of the attack actually is of the alleged sin.

That is why these terms can all be thrown with reckless abandon at Israel. It can be called racist, genocidal, war criminal, anti-Semitic, and the media and academia will make the label stick.

The terms are immediately disputed, however, when they are applied to an entity that’s counted as belonging to the Global Left, or to the anti-West. Point out the obvious fact that Hamas and the Iranian regime are anti-Semitic, and you’ll be told that you’re being simplistic, you’re ignorant, you don’t understand that what they’re doing is really anti-imperialism, you’re not seeing the context… In the theoretical depths of academia, it may also be explained that your mind is actually controlled by the Western propaganda that envelops you structurally, and you’re just repeating excuses for Western imperialism.


What’s right and what’s wrong in the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism

Let’s try to evaluate it on its merits, to see what matters here, and how it can in reality be improved.

  1. It is right in what it says in its formal definition of anti-Semitism.

It wrong in leaving this too brief, and neglecting to identify the three main varieties of anti-Semitism: religious Jew-hatred, ideological ethno-sociological anti-Semitism (invented by German anti-Semites as a theoretical substitute and practical supplement for the old, somewhat obsolescent religious Jew-hatred), and social snobbery against Jews.

It is wrong particularly in neglecting the ideological component of anti-Semitism.  This is the most dangerous, most virulent, and sometimes most popular form of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitic ideologies discourse on the harm Jews supposedly do, and on their supposedly enormous power. It expounds conspiracy theories about “the Jews”. And about “the Zionists”. Thus, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

This ideology weaponizes the old religious Jew-hatred. The latter is still widespread in the lower-class base for anti-Semitism. Thus the pogroms. Thus the Nazis. Thus the Holocaust.

Ideological anti-Semitism comes in two main brands: Right and Left. Right-wing anti-Semitism blames the problems of the world on groups, above all the Jews, that it accuses of wanting to undermine society, and of being elites that exploit the ordinary people. Left-wing anti-Semitism blames the problems of the world on groups, including the Jews, that are Western or pro-West, and that it similarly accuses of being “privileged” and exploiting the ordinary people. Because both versions, Left and Right, have a strong populist aspect as well as a strong anti-Jewish element, they overlap considerably, despite Left and Right considering each other mortal enemies.

The Left-wing anti-Semitism is the cutting edge of anti-Semitism today. It is what has mainstreamed anti-Semitism over a period of several decades, laying the ground for the anti-Semitic mass movement of today. Its anti-Semitism was the one that burst forth into the light of day after October 7. It is not surprising that most of the Left would want to run interference for it and obfuscate the meaning of the term.


  1. The IHRA definition is right in giving examples of what can be anti-Semitism, and in choosing the most salient examples. This is needed so people can be soundly guided in locating anti-Semitism in practice.

It is wrong in not making it more absolutely, repetitively clear that these examples are only cases of what can be anti-Semitism. They are not themselves in most cases proofs of the presence of anti-Semitism, or sufficient alone for designating someone as an anti-Semite. Making this clear to even the most cursory reader might have given pause to a fraction of the people who have opposed the definition, such as some right-wing Biblical literalists — people who cannot admit that the Bible passages that have generated most of the anti-Semitism in European history really had that consequence. Nor can they admit that the passages were in fact anti-Semitic, motivated by anger at the Jews for not following their doctrine on Jesus (similar to Islam’s anger at the Jews and Christians for not following them), and by a desire to separate the Christians henceforth from the Jews.

To be sure, even if this were made 100% clear, most opponents of the definition would just find other excuses for rejecting it. They need to do this, in order to run interference for their own involvement in anti-Semitism. But there are some in that camp who would genuinely be given pause, and that’s worth it. It would also deprive the media of an excuse for disputing the IHRA definition and dissipating its effect — instead of applying the definition seriously, the way they should when they mention it.


  1. It is right in pointing to double-standards against Jews as an indicator of anti-Semitism.

It is wrong in not making clear that these need to be major or recurrent double-standards, not just the inevitable human deviations from applying standards exactly equally. That is what it plainly is meant to be saying, but it could say it more clearly. Giving examples of major or persistent double-standards would help here. There are plenty of examples from recent experience.

About the Author
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council of the U.S.; formerly a Fulbright professor of international relations; studied at Princeton, UVA, Oxford. Institutions named above for identification purposes only; views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.