The New New Antisemitism?

Three recent books provide radically different answers to the question of whether and why antisemitism is on the rise.

Author’s note: For the sake of clarity alone, I will consistently employ the non-hyphenated spelling of “antisemitism,” except where I directly quote individuals or the titles of works that employ the hyphenated spelling. In those instances, I will respect the original grammatological preference.

We are told that antisemitism is on the rise. To the degree that this claim is backed up by data, there can be only modest doubt. Regardless of whether antisemitic incidents are soaring or are simply being recorded more consistently than in the past, we live in an age of abundant discourse on antisemitism that is driven by real events and experiences.

We are also told antisemitism is not what it used to be, or at least not solely what it used to be. A “new,” but not particularly recent, antisemitism is increasingly agitating diaspora Jewish organizations and Israeli government agencies responsible for dealing with the problem. This New Antisemitism is one that supposedly hides behind anti-Zionism—which itself is frequently equated, ipso facto, with antisemitism.

But at the same time, the Western world has concurrently experienced a tangible resurgence in “traditional” right-wing antisemitism. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the elevation of the openly antisemitic alt-right movement brought these old demons back to surface. Deadly consequences have followed. The man responsible for the Tree of Life synagogue murder spree in Pittsburgh in 2018 turned out to be a right-wing media devotee who believed that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was looking to flood the country with nonwhite immigrants.

The mounting Jewish organizational consensus on The New Antisemitism and the reemergence of right-wing antisemitism on the American scene is the backdrop for On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice, a collection of essays published in 2017 by the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). JVP’s location at a dreadful intersection—facing antisemitism from the far-right as openly Jewish progressive activists and being frequently accused of collaborating with leftist antisemites (if not being Jew-haters themselves)—makes them a logical if controversial contender for organizing this symposium. The essays all reach, within their conceptual remits, the same broad conclusions: antisemitism from the right is the worst variant; antisemitism nevertheless exists on the left and must be confronted; and dubious accusations of antisemitism are being “weaponized” against Palestinian activists and their allies.

The edited collection is divided into three parts, each with contributions of varying quality. The first and most thought-provoking section is on the history and evolution of antisemitism. The sharpest entry here is by the Jewish Studies scholar Shaul Magid, who posits that antisemitism today is often deployed as “cultural shorthand” for anxieties created by an overreliance on Israel to sustain Jewish identity. Much the same way as discourse over “intermarriage” serves as cultural shorthand for dealing with the messier and more complex phenomenon of assimilation, “antisemitism” is an incomplete proxy for the more difficult crisis at hand: discontent over Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinians is driving young non-Orthodox Jews away from what the Six Day War generation of Jewish leaders sees as the strongest defining characteristic of American Jewish life today: Zionism, or as Magid describes it perhaps more accurately, pro-Israelism. This is not to say that younger non-Orthodox Jews are becoming anti-Zionists; as surveys show, this is resolutely not the case. But it does seem that they are less willing to defend Israel than their parents and grandparents.

The other two sections of the volume explore the connection between antisemitism and Islamophobia and false accusations of antisemitism. Most of the contributions in the last section feature the tumult on American campuses about Israel/Palestine, a perennial and evergreen controversy if there ever was one. But hovering above the specific experiences and polemics included in this collection is the problem of defining antisemitism.

***

Antony Lerman, who also contributed to the JVP collection, is a British expert on antisemitism whose skeptical stance toward The New Antisemitism pushed him outside the mainstream of the UK Jewish community. His new book, Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? is an international history of the recent evolution of the term “antisemitism,” especially within the Jewish organizational world, written from the perspective of someone who has both dwelled in and been spat out of the belly of that beast. A former director at the UK-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) and editor of Jewish Quarterly, Lerman is presently Senior Fellow at the Bruno Kreisky Forum for International Dialogue. Although Lerman has already written a memoir, this latest book contains ample self-reflection to fill another.

The first half of the book is a fascinating and personal account of how the concept of The New Antisemitism developed within the Jewish community. Contrary to some accounts, The New Antisemitism did not manifest in the new millennium, ushered in as it was by 9/11 and the violent Second Intifada. It had been, in fact, the subject of fierce competition between different actors—including major and minor organizations, academics, and the Israeli government—since at least the 1970s. That this overlapped with the Soviet Union’s hardline anti-Zionist turn, culminating in the infamous “Zionism is Racism” UN General Assembly resolution of 1975, is no accident. Lerman is not out to discredit the connection between the sort of militant anti-Zionism supported by Moscow during the Cold War and antisemitism, but he does believe that Israeli government institutions (including the Mossad), pro-Israel organizations, and sympathetic experts started pushing a highly distorted picture of antisemitism around this time, one that did not comport with the sharp decline in antisemitism generally experienced by Jews living in the West.

Disappointingly, Lerman does not consider the influence of the Soviet Jewry movement, the activist crucible in which several contemporary Jewish community leaders were forged, or indeed the experiences of the over two million Jews living behind the Iron Curtain at the time, in shaping the concerns over The New Antisemitism. Even if we accept that anti-Zionist antisemitism did not concern many Jews in New York and London, this claim is harder to sustain when adopting a broader view of world Jewry, which included Soviet Jews, Israelis, and Jews in the Middle East outside of Israel. Upon finishing the book, I immediately turned to the index to double-check that Lerman, in fact, criticizes Natan Sharansky’s work on antisemitism several times without once mentioning his biography. To be clear, Sharansky’s years in a Soviet prison do not exempt his ideas from critical scrutiny. But as an example of this book’s overall blind spot, Lerman’s lack of curiosity about what led Sharansky to what he believes about antisemitism is just too on the nose.

Similarly, Lerman is at times selective in his analysis of various antisemitism scandals in the UK’s Labour Party. He is passionately intent on refuting the perception of the party under Jeremy Corbyn as “institutionally antisemitic.” This effort would have been much more convincing if he had confronted some of the harder cases. These could include former mayor of London Ken Livingstone’s obsession with portraying the Ha’avara Agreement as evidence of ideological affinity between Zionism and Nazism. Or that of Chris Williamson, a former Labour MP who today earns his living twaddling about Zionists on Iran’s PressTV. Or the full-throated defense of the conspiracy-mongering sociologist David Miller by Jewish Voice for Labour, a group of Jewish Corbynite dissidents with whom Lerman has collaborated in the past. Instead, we are given a treatment of a few instances that, in retrospect, do seem to have been dealt with carelessly and overzealously (such as that of Marc Wadsworth). But these instances occurred within a context. Even if a moral panic about antisemitism swept up innocent Labour Party members during and immediately after the Corbyn era, and even if these individuals deserve to be exonerated publicly, perhaps even compensated by the party for the harm done to their reputations, it still does not mean that the problem was not as real and ghastly as portrayed.

Even if the discourse on The New Antisemitism had been ongoing for some time, the early 2000s were undoubtedly a crystallization point for this theory. If there had been significant pockets of dissent within the establishment, from organizations such as Lerman’s JPR and even, in previous decades, from the American Jewish Committee, the new century saw the emergence of an establishment consensus around this “redefinition” of antisemitism. This period is also where Lerman’s narrative picks up steam, clearly setting down its core argument about the fallaciousness of The New Antisemitism. “In short,” Lerman writes, “it comprises two complimentary notions: ‘anti-Zionism is antisemitism’ and ‘Israel is the collective Jew among the nations.’”

These two propositions are, of course, connected. The principle behind “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”—with the customary exemption granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are theologically opposed to Zionism—is that it is a form of discrimination: the anti-Zionist presumably does not object to the right of other ethnonational states to exist. The Jewish State is thus being singled out and subjected to a double standard. The syllogism is not as clever as some of its proponents believe, given that many anti-Zionists do in fact object to similar regimes around the world, and others do not hold the eliminationist views imputed to them. But the logic of the equation should be clear. Few informed critics will miss the irony of this trend in Zionists defining antisemitism. While not all early Zionists shared Herzl’s conviction that Jewish statelessness was the sine qua non of antisemitism, Israel becoming the “Jew among the nations” can scarcely be considered an accomplishment on standard Zionist terms. Lerman’s research largely attributes this formulation of antisemitism to academics Irwin Cotler and Dina Porat, but it is the development of The New Antisemitism’s hegemony that most concerns the author.

Lerman is at his best when detailing the institutional and intra-Jewish politics around antisemitism, particularly around the evolution and rise of the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which considers “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” to be antisemitic. If nothing else, Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? is a valuable addition to historical writing on Jewish nongovernmental organizations around the world, and on Israel’s periodic but sometimes decisive interventions in these debates. Lerman’s case that The New Antisemitism, rather than being mainly an organically birthed scholarly consensus in response to external stimuli, was the result of a decades-long political struggle, is persuasive—and would have been stronger if he took his critics’ arguments more seriously. Instead, one is left with the impression that on one side stand those committed to serious empirical inquiry about the hatred of Jews, and on the other pro-Israel idealogues looking to redefine antisemitism to squash legitimate criticism of the State of Israel. This could be a proper conclusion to reach, but it requires a more serious probing of both global antisemitism and whether (or how) theorists of The New Antisemitism have responded to it.

***

Elad Lapidot does not approach the issue of antisemitism from an explicitly “Left” perspective, but the philosophical project he lays out in his provocatively titled Jews Out of the Question: A Critique of Anti-Anti-Semitism takes direct aim at what he sees as the epistemological offense committed by the hegemonic anti-antisemitism discourse: combating not only hatred or negative stereotypes of Jews, but the very idea that there is any collective Jewish episteme at all—a “semitism” that one could conceivably be “anti.” The author is a professor of philosophy at the University of Bern, and his interlocutors are drawn entirely from either his discipline or other corners of the academy. This has an obvious advantage for the author in that he assumes less risk of being publicly disciplined for contesting a dominant paradigm, as the disciplinarians are not known for their zitzfleisch. Another consequence of this choice is the loss of the general reader.

I do not want to exaggerate the difficulties in accessing Lapidot’s argument and the examples that he discusses, but in reviewing this text alongside Lerman’s book and the JVP volume I risk conveying a comparison in type. So let there be no confusion: Jews Out of the Question is best read with at least an intermediate undergraduate familiarity with the major contributions of continental philosophy, especially those of G.W.F. Hegel, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Hannah Arendt, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Jacques Derrida, and Alain Badiou. It is not impossible to read the book without these props but doing so will likely involve extended detours to Wikipedia and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Caveat emptor.

Lapidot’s learned posture should not, however, conceal his provocation. He is out to expose what he terms an “awkward solidarity” between antisemites and those who purport to fight them. Lapidot avers that antisemites and their critics each advance a strikingly similar “negative epistemology” that proposes that the Jews are “a collective being, with respect to which no philosophically relevant statements may be made, namely as something that lies outside of thought.” Consequently, Jews are merely “flesh-and-blood.” The affinity between antisemite and anti-antisemite ends at the conclusion of their efforts: the former wishes to destroy, expel, or contain the Jews as flesh-and-blood, while the latter hopes to protect them. Lapidot’s point seems to be that both treat the Jewish collective as something non-conceptual, as Semites devoid of Semitism. Here, as with Lerman, the influence of the comparative literature scholar Gil Anidjar, whose work on the disappearance of the “Semite” in the West deserves a larger readership, is apparent.

The first chapter delves into the case of Heidegger’s “Black Notebooks,” a collection of philosophical and personal writings first published in 2014, that contained statements widely considered antisemitic, written when the philosopher was a member of the Nazi Party. It is the shortest chapter (though it connects to the book’s excellent and readable epilogue), and its main purpose is to set the stage for what the anti-antisemitic discourse entails. The hyphen or lack of one, for starters, is no trivial matter: according to Lapidot, the nonhyphenated spelling of “antisemitism” is a product of the problematic “de-epistemization” of “anti-Semitism,” which asserts there is nothing of substance after the hyphen.

Lapidot identifies three strands of anti-antisemitic thought that he subsequently critiques. The first, exemplified by Horkheimer and Adorno’s discussion of antisemitism in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, is that Jewishness or Semitism is the creation of the non-hyphenated antisemitic mind. Flesh-and-blood Jews, the only real Jews, are thus represented by a totalizing concept that is manufactured by the antisemite. But in the framework provided by Horkheimer, Adorno, and Sartre there is also little or no room for any positive or even neutral Jewish episteme.

The second version of the argument holds that while there is a substance to Jewishness or Semitism, it is a fundamentally negative essence, “such that Jewish episteme would hold the core elements of anti-Semitic thought.” Lapidot explores writing by Arendt and Badiou as examples of thinking of this kind, one in which the antisemite seamlessly emerges from Jewishness. Arendt and Badiou provide rich reservoirs for discussion, but it was in this chapter that I most regretted Lapidot’s exclusive engagement with philosophers. In considering this second form of anti-antisemitism, it is hard not to think of Albert S. Lindemann’s controversial 1997 monograph Esau’s Tears, which attracted intense criticism for arguing for a relational or dialectical history of Jews and antisemitism. Or of the intellectual historian Martin Jay’s 2003 article in Salmagundi Magazine, “Ariel Sharon and the Rise of the New Anti-Semitism,” which took a more qualified view of Jewish complicity in antisemitism than Lindemann’s book but still emphasized contemporary antisemitism as primarily a response to wrongs committed by the Jewish state. Or for that matter the Marxist analysis of antisemitism developed by Abram Leon, shortly before he was martyred in Auschwitz, that saw Jews as a “people-class” whose fortunes vis-à-vis non-Jews changed with the emergence of different economic systems. The challenge with these works is they are not dealing with the relationship between Jewish thought and antisemitism, but that of the historically contingent position of Jews and antisemitism. Would Lapidot, like Lindemann and Jay’s mainstream critics in the Jewish community, see specters of internalized antisemitism in their analysis? Or would he credit them for resisting the trend toward comprehending antisemitism as purely irrational and fantastical?

The third component of anti-antisemitism that Lapidot treats is that of Jean-Luc Nancy’s commentary on the Heidegger controversy, which equates Jewishness with anti-antisemitism by “disfiguring” it through treating Jewishness as a foil or “alterity” for an antisemitic West. Colloquially, one can meet this attitude in wistful recollections of when American Jews were not regarded as white and “confronted” Christian hegemony in the United States. Once again, Lapidot shows, through his careful readings of relevant texts, the negation of Jewishness in this variation of thought.

Lapidot chooses to end by turning his focus onto antisemitism, where the “central question is whether and how anti-Semitism may be seen and analyzed not only sociologically and psychologically, but epistemologically, i.e., as an episteme, as a form of knowledge.” Evidently, this is the polar opposite of the approach recommended by the dominant anti-antisemitism paradigm. This last portion of the book includes short chapters on the antisemitic French scholar Ernest Renan, the debate between Bruno Bauer and Karl Marx that spawned the latter’s “On The Jewish Question,” and finally the antisemitic thinking of Wilhelm Marr, Adolf Hitler, and Richard Wagner. The book’s treatment of antisemitism, as opposed to anti-antisemitism, can at times feel both rushed and burdensome. The book’s epilogue, which places Heidegger as “an introduction to Talmud” and an impetus for reinstating Jewishness into the ambit of thought, is positively bewildering. Still, Lapidiot deserves credit for not neglecting to show us the new epistemological ground on which his analysis of anti-antisemitism may lead.

***

There are two pertinent big-picture questions that all three books raise. First, what is antisemitism today? Second, what makes someone an antisemite today? The answers, as anyone engaged in these debates knows, are strongly contested. Even in the obvious cases (how many reasonable people dispute that David Duke, Louis Farrakhan, and the Ayatollah Khamenei are avid purveyors of antisemitism?), consensus as to what constitutes antisemitism, and what makes someone an antisemite, is lacking. This is doubly the case when both the accusers and the targets are Jews, a sufficiently persistent occurrence that it has compelled groups of progressive scholars to issue alternatives to the IHRA declaration, including the Jerusalem Declaration and the Nexus Document. One of the initial drafters of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, has since become a vocal critic of how it has been applied. While the “definition wars” would require an essay of their own to fully explain, their very existence speaks to a Jewish Left that is profoundly dissatisfied with the establishment organizational consensus on antisemitism.

The foreword to the JVP collection was written by the philosopher Judith Butler, whose prominence as an anti-Zionist Jew at the pinnacle of American intellectual life has made her a frequent target of accusations of self-hatred. Butler addresses these claims directly:

“[T]hose who make use of the accusation for the purposes of suppressing criticism actually know that the person accused is not antisemitic, for otherwise the accusation could not hurt as it does. Indeed, it does not matter whether the accusation is true, because the accusation is meant to cause pain, to produce shame, and to reduce the accused to silence.”

While Butler’s point about the purpose of these accusations against Jews is well taken, the answers to the two questions above also demand grappling with the apparent loss of content in anti-antisemitism highlighted by Lapidot. If frivolous accusations of antisemitism can be leveled at even devout and active members of Jewish communities, with a serious emotional if not political impact, then something deeply unsettling has happened to our collective understanding of antisemitism in America.

To return to Shaul Magid’s argument: if antisemitism is indeed being used as cultural shorthand for addressing the obvious contradictions between occupation and liberalism, then it is because Jew-hatred is seen within the community as an easier problem to deal with—surely a very recent development in Jewish history. No one claims that antisemitism has disappeared, clearly, but antisemitism is an issue that is mostly addressed effectively by liberal American institutions once an idea or individual is widely deemed to be antisemitic. At that point, they are reliably marginalized —as we have seen in recent weeks in the case of Kanye West. The hope is that anti-Israel politics, and certainly anti-Zionism, will also be isolated in this manner. As Butler rightly notes, whether some content is antisemitic is beside the point. “Antisemitism” is valued here not as a truthful descriptor but as a mechanism for containment, what Michel Foucault might have called an example of “power-knowledge.” Antisemitism has experienced “de-epistemization,” in the language of Lapidot. It is an irrationality, a social malady whose symptoms are certain identifiable “tropes” in the antisemite’s speech and writing—regardless of intent or context.

Zionists, of course, have also faced a reputational onslaught in liberal spaces. Ever since the infamous 1975 UN resolution mentioned earlier in this review essay, the equating of Zionism with racism has always been an attempt at marginalization and isolation. If this equation should become hegemonic, then Zionists will find themselves outside the gates of liberalism, which is precisely where many of them hope to dump anti-Zionists. If the activist struggle in the West resembles a zero-sum game, then that might be because it is one. Whichever side “authorizes” their equation first—“Zionism = racism” or “anti-Zionism = antisemitism”—will prevail in the total struggle. Today antisemitism and antisemites, just like racism and racists, lack a stable meaning, and are heavily implicated in political battles in which they sometimes strain to fit.

At last, the controversies over Zionism, antisemitism, and racism speak to an uncomfortable reality that liberals are loath to encounter. Societies and institutions where prejudice and discrimination are judged to be among the worst civic offenses are highly vulnerable to misleading campaigns aimed at sowing disarray for the benefit of a foreign state. Israel is hardly exceptional in this regard. For example, supporters of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, no doubt with the encouragement of its top apparatchiks, have smeared critical academics in the West as “Hinduphobes.”

In the larger context of international affairs, it would be surprising if Israel did not seek to press presumed Western rejection of antisemitism to its advantage—even at the cost of mislabeling ideas and people as antisemitic. It has done so not only against those who say Israel “has no right to exist”—a statement that the overwhelming majority of diaspora Jews do believe to be antisemitic—but also against those who merely want to separate Israel from ongoing and overt colonialism in the West Bank. The furious backlash against Vermont-based ice cream company Ben & Jerry’s for their proposed boycott of the settlements is illustrative of this indiscriminate assault. The regime of occupation and settlements is incompatible with contemporary liberal norms. But as Israel prepares to unapologetically hold onto and build in the Occupied Territories in the long term, maintaining a system of both direct and indirect undemocratic rule over Palestinians that an increasing number of human rights groups are likening to apartheid, penalizing critical discussion of this structure of subjugation within the domestic polity of its foremost ally is an obvious priority.

This poses a challenge to the Left in the West, only recently beginning to contend with this problem as it relates to antisemitism, and not at all with other manifestations of prejudice. What does one do when a commitment to stamp out all forms of hatred domestically is exploited by the essentially amoral nation-state in pursuit of its interests? To make matters more complicated, what happens if much of the relevant domestic minority population identifies with that nation-state in some way? To be clear, this is not a question of “dual loyalty” but of the positive feelings and concern for Israel that most American Jews, myself included, would readily admit to. While it is possible to imagine a group of organizers telling the local Consul-General for the People’s Republic of China that they are not welcome at a demonstration against Sinophobia, the same cannot be so easily said to their Israeli equivalent at a public display against antisemitism, given the views of the American Jewish community.

So far, many of the answers are not encouraging. The denial exhibited by Lerman’s dismissal of the Labour Party antisemitism controversies and some of the essays in the JVP collection will ultimately weaken the Left in a West highly sensitized to antisemitism, as Corbyn learned in 2019. At the same time, it would be tragic, not to mention iniquitous, if the Left abandoned its support for Palestinian freedom from Israeli domination because of the issue’s proximity to antisemitism—a claim both darkly real and dubious. Perhaps the answer, as the scholar-activist Barnaby Raine has suggested, is a comprehensive theory of “subaltern” antisemitism rooted in a critique of ideology, one that charts a path toward correcting the conditions that produce victims who are then directed to blame “the Jews” rather than their real tormentors. But without a similarly thoughtful and sympathetic account of why Jews today, with relatively few exceptions, are attached to Zionist ideology and its political manifestation in the State of Israel, one has only made half the effort required to overcome this challenge. And half-efforts just won’t do.

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