What is antisemitism?

Explainer, Keywords / Saturday, February 17th, 2024

Around the world, the Gaza conflict has led to rising levels of both antisemitism and Islamophobia. The government has warned against actions “that could hurt another ethnic or religious community’s feelings, or which are racially offensive in nature, or which could lead to public disorder and societal tensions”. CHERIAN GEORGE explains why antisemitism has no place in a society that respects equality, but cautions that misapplying the term to deter criticism of the Israeli state can aggravate the problem. (See also: “Islamophobia”)


Antisemitism is a specific kind of racism directed at Jewish people. It is a helpful term because it sensitises people to expressions that need to be recognised as hate speech against Jews. The term is also controversial: Israel and its supporters have been known to apply the “antisemitic” label on legitimate criticism of its conduct and its nationalist ideology of Zionism.

Hate speech vilifies a vulnerable community’s identity, either to intimidate them directly or to instigate hostility, discrimination or violence against them. Hatemongers upcycle myths and stereotypes embedded in a society’s collective memory by earlier iterations of hateful narratives. Virulent anti-Jewish hate propaganda goes back at least a millennium to Europe’s Middle Ages, when Christians circulated the myth that Jews were an evil force, even murdering Christian children and using their blood in rituals. Such “blood libel” surfaced repeatedly in pogroms against Jews, even in the 20th century.

The most common theme in antisemitic rhetoric is a product of 19th century Europeans’ resentments directed against the economic success of some members of the Jewish minority. Antisemitic tropes scapegoat Jews as a greedy, conniving minority controlling major institutions. European elites’ early 20th century publication of an entirely fabricated document, Protocols of the Elders of Zion — a hoax designed to prove the existence of a Jewish conspiracy for world domination — counts among the most successful “fake news” disinformation campaigns of the last 200 years. Nazi propaganda harnessed such lies to cultivate fear and loathing of Jews in the run-up to the first industrialised genocide in world history. As recently as the early 2000s, multi-part television series based on the Protocols were aired in Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran. Also plainly antisemitic is Holocaust denial, the vile notion that the established fact of the Nazi genocide was made up to further Jewish interests.

Today, antisemitism is expressed most forcefully by white supremacists in Europe and North America, as well as by radical Islamist groups — but there are also signs that casual antisemitism is endemic in some societies. Combating antisemitism, alongside other styles of discrimination, has been flagged by United Nations human rights experts as an important global priority: “Antisemitism not only affects Jewish people, individually or collectively, but, as an ideology based on hate and prejudice, it attacks the fabric of societies, threatening the realization of all people’s human rights and the overall security of states where it occurs.”

The most contentious aspect of antisemitism arises from Jews’ relationship to the state of Israel. Free speech defenders, including many Jewish liberals, have for decades called out Zionists for weaponising the term to attack critics of the Israeli state. Israel’s status as an ethnically- and religiously-defined nation-state can make it difficult to distinguish political criticism of the state from racist attacks on the Jewish people. For example, the Star of David is on the national flag flown by the Israeli military, but also a sacred icon of the Jewish faith. As a result, cartoons showing this symbol when condemning Israeli violence against Palestinians are routinely branded as antisemistic. Critics of the Zionist lobby in the United States are accused of recycling antisemitic conspiracy theories.

The slippage goes the other way as well: unhappiness with the state of Israel often morphs into racism against all Jews. This is notably pronounced in Southeast Asia, where many Muslims appear to consider Jews to be the enemy — despite, or because of, the fact they have never met any. The ease with which anti-Zionist political expression regularly slips into antisemitism is one reason why some governments police criticism of Israel with extra care. Some western countries, especially Germany, regulate speech perceived to be antisemitic more tightly than other types of hate speech. This has had the effect of stifling support for Palestinians and opposition of Zionism. Many Jewish liberals oppose this type of Jewish exceptionalism, preferring instead to universalise their experience: they believe “never again” means not allowing any peoples anywhere to suffer the way Jews have.

The most widely used definition of antisemitism is a 2016 document from the intergovernmental International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It states that criticising Israel the way other countries are criticised cannot be considered antisemitic. However, it includes examples that critics see as over-protective of Israel’s political interests. Applying the antisemitism label too liberally, like crying wolf, backfires by undermining the credibility of Jewish people’s legitimate fears. In 2020, more than 200 scholars offered a refined definition, the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, that they hoped would both “strengthen the fight against antisemitism by clarifying what it is and how it is manifested” and “protect a space for an open debate about the vexed question of the future of Israel/Palestine”.

One current controversy centres on whether promoting boycotts against Israel are antisemitic. The Jerusalem Declaration says no, as boycotts are “commonplace, non-violent forms of political protest against states”. While the Palestinian rallying cry to reclaim the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean is widely interpreted as genocidal in intent, the Jerusalem Declaration clarifies that supporting new constitutional arrangements “that accord full equality to all inhabitants ‘between the river and the sea’” is not in itself antisemitic. It adds that “evidence-based criticism of Israel as a state”, including its founding principles and systematic racial discrimination and comparisons to other historical cases, including settler-colonialism or apartheid, are not antisemitic, even if contentious.

The Jerusalem Declaration — in keeping with best practice in the regulation of hate speech — stresses that any guidelines must be applied with sensitivity to context: “So, for example, hostility to Israel could be an expression of an antisemitic animus, or it could be a reaction to a human rights violation, or it could be the emotion that a Palestinian person feels on account of their experience at the hands of the State. In short, judgement and sensitivity are needed in applying these guidelines to concrete situations.”

— By Cherian George, Professor, School of Communication, Hong Kong Baptist University