About Antisemitism

Working Definition of Antisemitism

The most widely accepted definition of antisemitism is the ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’ adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) on 26 May 2016. The IHRA is an intergovernmental body composed of: 31 member countries, 2 liaison countries, 9 observer countries, and 7 permanent international partners including the UN and UNESCO.

The IHRA definition has its roots in the ‘Working Definition of Antisemitism’ formulated by the European Union Monitoring Commission (EUMC), now called the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), adopted in 2005, and distributed it to all its national monitors. The two definitions are almost identical.

Click here for the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism

What is Antisemitism?

Antisemitism is racism against Jews. It is a prejudice and hatred spanning approximately 3000 years.

Racism and religious bigotry generally are the products not only of a fear of difference and aversion to “the other” but also of a reductionist mindset that craves simplification and cannot cope adequately with complexity. Rationality is cast aside for prejudice in the form of a series of generalisations about the presumed moral and other qualities of people based solely on their membership of an ethnic or religious group. The target of this prejudice is therefore not seen in all of his or her individual humanity, with a unique character and personal qualities, but rather as an anonymous “type”. Yet experience tells us that there are good and bad people within every ethnic and religious community, and that individuals are also a mixture of good and bad qualities.

In fact, racism and bigotry are rarely the product of any kind of purely cognitive process. People who propound racist or bigoted beliefs are almost always motivated by emotional or psychological factors born of their own failures, or by a supervening interest, and will therefore persist in such beliefs even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The so-called “reasons” proffered for racist and bigoted attitudes towards entire ethnic or religious groups are necessarily no more than rationalisations.

Antisemitism has both ethnic and religious dimensions and differs from other forms of racism and bigotry. Over time it has mutated in order to adapt to changing circumstances. In pre-Christian and pre-Islamic pagan societies, Jews were berated for nurturing, rather than killing, those of their children who fell ill, and for mandating a day of rest each week. With the advent of rival forms of monotheism, Christianity and Islam, this cultural prejudice gave way to religiously based hatred. The Jews’ refusal to accept the theological claims of Jesus or Mohammed elicited indignation and demonization from their respective followers. Christian doctrine held Jews collectively to be eternally guilty of Deicide, a belief not officially abandoned until the second half of the twentieth century. 

From the late 1800’s onwards, religious antisemitism was eclipsed by the anti-Jewish racial theories eventually embraced by the Nazis. These theories were put forward in the name of genetic “science”, but without the slightest evidentiary foundation. With the discrediting of Nazi racial doctrine, antisemitism went underground for several decades. It has now returned with a vengeance. 

Contemporary antisemitism often takes the form of a denial of Jewish peoplehood and basic rights. To try to redefine the Jewish people as a non-people so as to suit the interests or convenience of others is not only dishonest but also an assault on the human dignity of every Jew. This is quintessential antisemitism. Given their relatively small numbers, the Jewish people have always been vulnerable, and for a long interval of 1800 years, were stateless, and could usually be victimised with impunity. Much of the rage directed against the modern State of Israel and the Jewish people arises from the fact that this is no longer possible. Antisemites see Jewish powerlessness and vulnerability as the natural order of things which they seek to restore. Thus, it is precisely when Jews defend themselves successfully that the rage against them is at its most intense.    

It is therefore a mistake to equate antisemitism only with yellow badges, concentration camps and gas chambers, and to dismiss other forms of antisemitism as “lesser” manifestations or not as “genuine” antisemitism. 

In summary, contemporary antisemitism is manifested through:

  1. Religious anti-Jewish themes deriving from Christian and Islamic theological supersessionism and supremacism
  2. Racial antisemitism deriving from far Right ideologies, including Nazi and white supremacist ideologies
  3. Political antisemitism disguised as anti-Zionism and the denial of Jewish peoplehood, history, rights and dignity, emanating from both the far Left and the far Right.

A Brief History of Antisemitism

Pagan antisemitism in the Greek and Roman world objected to Jewish exclusiveness. The rise of Christianity added a dangerous new and false accusation of deicide: that collectively, the Jews were responsible for crucifying Jesus. The early Christian Church developed the notion that the Jews were therefore a people rejected by God: children of the devil. (See John 8:44.) With the political victory of Christianity in the Roman Empire, these theological views were translated into social reality. With few rights and unrelentingly portrayed as being without honour, the Jews were to be preserved as a people to witness the triumph and ‘truth’ of the Church.

Demonisation of Jews by the Church and their resulting inferior social and political status were carried over into medieval Europe. The conspicuous success of Jews as money-lenders (a vocation forbidden to Christians, and one of the few vocations Jews were permitted to undertake) became a further factor in the growth of popular antisemitism. During the Crusades this antisemitism broke out into mob violence (‘pogroms’), which entailed the massacre of Jews and looting of their property. New anti-Jewish myths were developed: the ritual slaughter of Christian children, the desecration of the sacred Host and the poisoning of wells. These were slanders which persisted powerfully, especially in Eastern Europe, and continue to be propagated in many parts of the Middle East.

Jews were forbidden to enter trades or professions or own land. Frequently they had to wear a badge or a distinguishing garment such as a distinctive hat. They had to live in ghettos, which were sections of a town or city where Jews were segregated from the general population, and which they were forbidden to leave on pain of death. They were subjected to inordinate taxation, denigrating legislation, inquisition, censorship, forced baptism, compulsory attendance at church, frequent property confiscation and even expulsion.

The French Revolution and the emancipation of French Jews in 1791 seemed to promise a fresh beginning. But the liberalism of capitalist society in the nineteenth century prompted a backlash against the Jews. Conservatives denounced them as the “grave diggers of Christian society”; peasants and artisans, threatened by the growth of industry, feared them as “capitalist exploiters and rapacious financiers”. The new, pseudo-scientific doctrine of racial antisemitism drew on all these stereotypes and formulated a view of history as the struggle for racial supremacy between Jews and “Aryans”.

From here it was a short step to the paranoid belief in a Jewish world conspiracy which aimed to undermine societies, overthrow governments and seize power throughout the world. This was the claim of a document fabricated by a Russian secret policeman at the end of the 19th century and published between 1903 and 1905 as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Hitler found the entirely fictional Protocols “enormously instructive”. They served both as a primer for Nazi politics and as (false) documentary ‘proof’ of a Jewish world conspiracy. Two years after the Nazis came to power the Protocols became required reading in German schools.

As historian Raul Hilberg explains, “From the earliest days, from the fourth century, the sixth century, the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect to the Jews: ‘You may not live among us as Jews.’ The secular rulers who followed them from the late Middle Ages then decided: ‘You may not live among us,’ and the Nazis finally decreed: ‘You may not live.’”

Written by New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies, a constituent body of ECAJ

Spelling of Antisemitism

Antisemitism (often misspelled as ‘anti-Semitism’), despite its name, is not directed at Semitic languages or Semitic peoples as a whole. It is directed solely at Jews. The word ‘antisemitismus’ (‘antisemitism’) was coined in 1879 by the German journalist, Wilhelm Marr, to replace the traditional word Judenhass (“hatred of Jews”) which denoted hatred of Jews for religious reasons.

Marr subscribed to the pseudo-scientific theory that humanity consists of a hierarchy of races, and believed that Jews were immutably inferior to other people for biological reasons. Thus, ‘antisemitism’ expressed hatred of Jews on the basis of so-called “race science”, which has long since been discredited, rather than on the basis of religion or theology. The reliance on racial pseudo-science rather than religion was deemed necessary by Jew-haters because Europe was seen to be becoming less religious and more secular, and the anti-Judaism of Christianity was becoming less relevant.

The original spelling of ‘antisemitism’ was the German ‘antisemitismus’. It translated as ‘antisémitisme’ in French, ‘antisemitismo’ in Spanish, ‘antishemiyut’ in Hebrew, and so on, with no hyphen and no capital letters. Only English for some reason changed the spelling to include hyphenation and a capital ‘s’ to form the word ‘anti-Semitism’.

Emil Fackenheim in his Post-Holocaust Anti-Jewishness, Jewish Identity and the Centrality of Israel, in ‘World Jewry and the State of Israel’ ed. Moshe David, p11, n2, stated: “…the spelling ought to be antisemitism without the hyphen, dispelling the notion that there is an entity ‘Semitism’ which ‘anti-Semitism’ opposes.”

Over the last several years there has been an attempt to hijack the term ‘anti-Semitism’, through use of its erroneous spelling, in order to de-Judaise it and to broaden it to include all peoples who speak a Semitic language, especially Arabs. The aim has been to discredit hostility towards Jews and to appropriate the term so that Arabs, and those who support Arabs or are anti-Israel, cannot be accused of being “anti-Semitic because Arabs are Semites themselves.”

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance has produced the following information to ensure accuracy in the understanding and use of the term ‘anti-Semitism/antisemitism’, and to encourage the correct spelling of the term. Click here for the IHRA guidelines on the spelling of Antisemitism.