Using and misusing antisemitism

Antisemitism is not only a Jewish problem; Jew-hatred – like other forms of religious and ethnic prejudice – is a threat to the very foundations of liberal democracies.

January 15, 2017 21:40
4 minute read.
terror in Paris

FRENCH SOLDIERS patrol the street in a Jewish neighborhood following a string of terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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A Latin American head of state falsely accuses a prominent national Jewish organization of engaging with foreign Jews in a conspiracy against the government. A European government awards one of its highest honors to a newspaper columnist who called Jews “stinking excrement” and blames the local Jewish community for historical manifestations of antisemitism in his country. In Toulouse, three young children and a teacher are shot point blank in the head outside their Jewish day school.

These outrages and others are the true story of rising antisemitism today. Yet side by side with these horrific acts of Jew-hatred, we sometimes come across questionable and fake accusations of antisemitism, accusations that appear to be motivated by politics or ideology.

It is one thing to encounter false accusations of antisemitism in the comments section of an online news site or in social media, and quite another to find them proffered by opinion makers in mainstream publications or by prominent political figures.

For example, when war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian and separatist sources propagated numerous unsubstantiated accusations of antisemitism in Ukraine. When Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted in March of 2014 that the new Kiev leadership which ousted the Yanukovych regime was antisemitic, we conferred with Ukrainian Jewish leaders who informed us that the allegation was false. Such unsubstantiated claims diverted attention from and made it more difficult to address the true nature of antisemitism in the region.

Consider, too, some of the crude accusations that have been hurled against Pope Francis. Just prior to his 2014 visit to Israel, an op-ed entitled “The Pope’s Antisemitic Plan for Jerusalem” appeared on a news site. In the same period, a prominent columnist complained about the pope’s “antisemitic position” regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Such claims are a calumny against a religious leader who has stated that “anyone who does not recognize the Jewish people and the State of Israel – and their right to exist – is guilty of antisemitism.”

Why are we so concerned about the irresponsible use of the term? In a world where antisemitic ideas and movements are on the rise, are a relatively small number of bogus charges of antisemitism really a problem? Our answer is yes. When some people misuse or abuse the term, it makes it easier to dismiss the all-too-many charges that are true. We condemn false claims of antisemitism as a political or ideological tool, which is counter-productive and even dangerous.

At the Office of the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, our number one priority has been to protect Jewish communities and Jewish lives through monitoring and combating acts of antisemitism in foreign countries. We consistently urge governments around the world to address and condemn antisemitism and work with vulnerable Jewish communities to assess and provide appropriate levels of security, engage in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, fight back against antisemitic propaganda, promote interfaith collaboration and fund grassroots programs. We endeavor to strengthen civil society to speak out against antisemitism. Additionally, the US State Department works to help create avenues of emigration for Jews whose lives are in danger.

Our office has also urged countries to adopt a non-legally binding working definition of antisemitism which includes examples of where criticism of Israel, depending on context, can be regarded as antisemitism. We have found this working definition – when used judiciously and not as a method of silencing speech – to be a useful tool in monitoring and combating antisemitic activity. Several European nations have already adopted this definition.

Unfortunately, those who make phony charges of antisemitism can end up protecting the purveyors of authentic antisemitism. For example, there are people who argue that any criticism of State of Israel is antisemitic in nature or intent. But such a stance allows virulent critics of Israel who do engage in antisemitic rhetoric to defend themselves by complaining that anyone who criticizes Israel or even disagrees with any aspect of Israeli policy is automatically and unfairly charged with antisemitism. By cheapening the word, those wishing to defend Israel against any reproach may unwittingly aid its enemies.

It is a sad fact that antisemitism continues to threaten the future of several Jewish communities around the world. However, antisemitism is not only a Jewish problem; Jew-hatred – like other forms of religious and ethnic prejudice – is a threat to the very foundations of liberal democracies. As one Jewish leader in France told us, “we may be the first group that is targeted but we won’t be the last.” All of us who understand the pernicious nature of modern Jew hatred must strive to ensure that charges of antisemitism are made judiciously. If the word is to retain its force as a term of opprobrium, it must be reserved for true antisemitism alone.

The author is the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism at the US State Department.

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