To fight anti-Semitism, we must define it

Anti-Semitism is everywhere these days. It hovers over all debates about Israel. It hides in the subtext of every discussion. It’s seemingly inescapable…and yet it is nearly invisible. We think we know its effects, but maybe there is another plausible explanation for them.

For all its ubiquity, there is no constructive discussion taking place about anti-Semitism. We accuse and they deny. There is no common ground.

We saw it last week at the AIPAC Conference. Benjamin Netanyahu told the audience, “Attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel… are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti- Semitism.”

Rafeef Ziadah, a spokeswoman for the Palestinian BDS National Committee, responded, “The world is growing increasingly weary of Israel’s attempts to conflate criticism of its violations of international law with anti-Semitism.”

And so it goes, over and over, resolving nothing. These types of discussions – “You’re anti-Semitic” vs. “You think everything is anti-Semitic” – recur again and again, in comment threads and forums across the Internet.

Both sides ostensibly agree that anti-Semitism is something bad. The problem is a lack of definitions they hold in common.

The solution, then, is obvious. We need a universal definition of anti-Semitism. A definition would provide common ground and allow constructive discussion.

Fortunately, the EU and the U.S. State Department have already composed a working definition. It covers all of the forms of classic anti-Semitism and as well as their contemporary applications. It states, in part:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

Contemporary examples include blaming all Jews for the wrongs committed by Jewish individuals, denying the Holocaust, and accusing Jews of “controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”

Most importantly, it includes cases when anti-Semitism applies to Israel, including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.”

Is it the perfect definition of anti-Semitism? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it was composed in good faith after exhaustive discussions by various bodies, including Jewish community organizations.

By publicly and collectively adopting the working definition, we can move towards fighting anti-Semitism. It will help eliminate broad accusations or blanket denials. If a clause of the definition is violated, we can point to that clause specifically.

Once the Jewish world accepts the definition, we can move towards wider adoption, including in the media and beyond.

A common definition serves the interests of both sides – those who believe anti-Semitism is rife and those who believe they are being wrongly accused.

HonestReporting has already started this process, collecting 30,000 names on a petition for media outlets to adopt the working definition. This campaign would gain traction if the Jewish world publicly embraced the effort.

It starts with steps towards common ground. To fight anti-Semitism, we must define it. Until then, we’re stabbing at ghosts and getting nowhere.

About the Author
Alex Margolin is a writer and editor with HonestReporting. He also runs the Fighting BDS Facebook page.
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