Alice Pinheiro Walla

Why is there so much disagreement about what constitutes antisemitism today?

While most people agree that antisemitism is unacceptable, there is barely agreement about what constitutes antisemitism when it comes to progressives and the left. Most would vehemently disavow antisemitism. For some, antisemitism seems to be a thing of the past. It evoques images of Nazi Germany, and is associated today only with neo-Nazis and the far right. Antisemitism is radically evil, and therefore considered “exceptional” in character. Above all, it is incompatible with the image of “normal folks” who are committed to human rights and social justice.  

Although Jewish groups are raising concerns about antisemitism in the public discourse about the State of Israel, they are constantly reminded that “criticism of Israel is not antisemitism.” Accusations of antisemitism are suspiciously regarded as attempts to silence legitimate criticism of Israel and smear the reputation of “Israel critics.” Jews are either overreacting (at best) or raising such claims in bad faith. 

Certainly, claiming that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic is absurd. But is this what these Jewish groups are saying? Equating accusations of antisemitism with the absurd claim that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic is distracting us from the fact that some criticism of Israel is antisemitic. By repeatedly stressing that “criticism of Israel is not antisemitic”, some are implicitly assuming that no criticism of Israel can ever be antisemitic, which is of course, equally absurd. And this absurd assumption is preventing them from listening to what Jewish groups are saying about antisemitism. 

A problem hindering a much needed understanding of contemporary antisemitism is the belief that anyone engaging in antisemitism must be a fanatic Jew hater. However, it is possible to recognize discourse as antisemitic regardless of the speaker’s intentions or personal attitudes towards Jews. One does not need to be a misogynist to engage in sexism, because misogyny can be understood as embedded in social systems or environments. Analogously, one does not need to be a certified antisemite to adopt narratives and engage in practices that are antisemitic.

According to Gidley, McGeever and Feldman, antisemitism can be understood as a “reservoir of readily available images” which pervade our political culture. The images in this reservoir are attractive because they offer simple ready-made answers to problems people genuinely care about. Persons who are not antisemitically motivated may come to adopt political beliefs that are based on antisemitic ideas. If these political beliefs become mainstream, the antisemitic ideas at their source will also become normalized. This form of antisemitism not only creates environments and societies that are hostile and potentially dangerous to Jews in the long run, but may also predispose persons to develop hostile attitudes against Jews on the basis of their political beliefs. This includes the inability or unwillingness to believe Jews’ experiences, and gaslighting them when they say that they feel harassed and unsafe. Education is thus needed to raise awareness of the antisemitic foundations of specific political beliefs and discourses

Consider how terms like “apartheid”, “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are used inaccurately in public discourse about Israel in order to elicit strong moral reactions. Such narratives are now widespread in international media outlets and constantly repeated by the United Nations and prominent human rights organizations. They are taught at universities and appear in public statements by academics and student associations. As a student of mine observed, it is very difficult to entertain different views when everything one hears about Israel is so overwhelmingly negative. 

Anyone who sincerely rejects antisemitism would want to know if they were being antisemitic even if unintentionally, and would care to change their behavior accordingly. Slogans such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are problematic not because they are “perceived as offensive” by some (oversensitive?) Jews. That some Jews do not consider the chant antisemitic and some persons chanting these slogans may not understand what they mean, does not change the fact that “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is based on antisemitic ideas, including genocide of Jews. It is an explicit call for the destruction of the state of Israel. Historically, Hamas ideology and propaganda was heavily influenced by Nazi ideology. 

Students chanting this and other antisemitic slogans are treated complacently either for not understanding what these chants mean or by meaning something completely different by chanting them. However, neither ignorance nor the sublimation of antisemitism into an “edifying” aspiration for Palestinians is a plausible excuse in academic environments where it is common practice to educate students about bigotry, bias and discrimination. This does not mean that these students should be silenced; as we know, in many countries hate speech is also protected under free speech. But we should be able to identify such speech for what it is; to insist that thinking about something else while chanting antisemitic slogans makes them no longer antisemitic is to whitewash antisemitism. If engaging in racist or discriminatory speech with the excuse that one “does not mean it” is no exoneration for it, why should “not meaning it” make antisemitism disappear? 

A reason for this double standard is that anti-racism theories and antisemitism debates have long parted ways. Current anti-racism approaches endorse an account of race based on the idea of “white privilege” modeled on a North American conception of racial relations. This model categorizes Jews as white, privileged and powerful, while Palestinians are seen as oppressed people of color. This makes it difficult to regard Jews as victims of discrimination or to appreciate the complexity and historical background of the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

This is reflected in public attitudes towards Hamas and October 7th, which some are still reluctant to call a terrorist organization and a terror attack. While others acknowledge and explicitly condemn the terror attacks, they are nevertheless quick to add the usual allegations of genocide, aparteid and deliberate crimes against Palestinians that offset a concession of victimhood to Israelis. Several public statements issued by academics and student associations now follow this contradictory pattern. 

Such narratives demonize and consequently delegitimize the State of Israel and justify its destruction. They are not compatible with a two-state solution, in which Palestinians achieve statehood and live side-by-side with the Jewish state. This should be clear to anyone who cares to reflect about the conflict beyond superficial anti-colonial jargon. 

Antisemitic ideas and tropes are becoming (again) widely accepted commonplaces, now under the form of Israel-related antisemitism or Israelophobia. Educating our students about antisemitism in the context of the Hamas-Israel war does not amount to silencing them. It is part of our mission as educators, our responsibility to foster the inclusion and wellbeing of all our students at university campuses, as well as our academic commitment to intellectual honesty and accuracy. It is also the start of a genuine conversation about human rights that also includes Jews around the world, Israelis and the Jewish state.

About the Author
Alice Pinheiro Walla is Associate Professor of Philosophy at McMaster University, Canada. She was born in Brazil. She is a Kant scholar by training and held academic positions in Germany, Austria and Ireland before moving to Canada. She is an active member of her synagogue, where she helps as gabbait, leads religious services and reads torah.
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