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Anti-Semitism: a lot harder to define than you might think

Daniel M. Kimmel, Jewish Advocate

October 9, 2015

One might think that a book entitled “The Definition of Anti-Semitism” would be very short. The author would explain it means hatred of and bigotry toward Jews and that would be it.

However, from the origin of the word, to how to spell it, to the title subject matter which takes up most of the book, it’s actually quite complicated. Many historians attribute the word to one Wilhelm Marr, a 19th century Jew hater in Austria, who is supposed to have coined the term to give a “scientific” patina to his bigotry. Author Kenneth L. Marcus, a former staff director of the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights and currently president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, has given the subject a lot of thought. He allows that Marr may have put the term into common usage, but found evidence that it actually predates him.

“The Definition of Anti-Semitism,” by Kenneth L. Marcus. Oxford University Press, 278 pps., $29.95

Examining the word and the concept from historical, linguistic, political, social, and legal angles, Marcus demonstrates that how the word is defined can have real world ramifications. For example, the word suggests that there is something called “Semitism” that the anti-Semite is opposing, but that isn’t the case. There have been those who have brushed off groups alluding to the infamous “blood libel” (the accusation going back to Medieval times of Jews making ritual use of Christian blood) or promoting the notorious hoax “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (purporting to be “proof ” of an international Jewish conspiracy) because it is being done in the Arab world. Since Arabs are Semitic peoples, goes this line of reasoning, how could they possibly be “anti-Semitic?”

Marcus quickly disposes of such arguments showing that the term has always meant antipathy for and opposition to Jews and nothing else. While some of this background is fascinating and some of it is lost in the author’s occasional lapses into academic jargon, the real point of the book is to come up with a working definition that can be used today by governments, institutions, and others who want to oppose bigotry but aren’t sure if a given instance qualifies. This is a current hot button issue when it comes to criticism of Israel, most particularly with the so-called “Boycott, Divestment, Sanction” (BDS) movement.

A 1966 entry on anti-Semitism, in “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary,” included this as part of the definition, “Opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel.” That’s so broad that Marcus finds it of little use (and Webster’s subsequently dropped it). On the other extreme was the U.S. Office of Civil Rights, dismissing complaints in 2004 about anti-Semitic activity at the University of California, Irvine, which included students making comments like “dirty Jew” and destroying a Holocaust memorial. They ruled – wrongly in Marcus’s view – that this was a “political” dispute over Israel rather than discrimination.

Marcus takes us through several different definitions before formulating his own, including ones he finds quite useful such as a statement adopted as official American policy by the U.S. Department of State. He notes that people can have strong views against Israel without being anti-Semitic, and cites Israeli politician Natan Sharansky’s “3-D Test.” An attack on Israel, in Sharansky’s definition, is anti-Semitic if it “demonizes” Israel as having evil powers separate from other nations; if it engages in a “double standard” applying a test upon Israel that is applied to no other nation; and/or it “delegitimizes” Israel by denying Israel’s right to exist.

For some, all this may seem like an academic exercise. As with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography, someone confronting what seems like obvious anti-Semitism wants to simply say, “I know it when I see it.” However in a concluding chapter, Marcus applies the best of the definitions and their tests to real life cases and finds that the charge of anti-Semitism is sometimes falsely made. He notes that some felt criticism of Jewish congressman Eric Cantor, which led to his primary defeat in 2014, was proof of anti-Semitism. Marcus notes that Cantor was not targeted by his opponents for being Jewish, which didn’t seem to be a factor at all. Instead he was seen as out of step with Republican primary voters who had moved even further to the political right than he had, particularly on the issue of immigration.
It won’t be a spoiler for those who read the book to learn that Marcus comes to the opposite conclusion when it comes to the BDS movement. While allowing that some individuals who support it may not consciously bear any animus to Jews, the language and imagery of the movement has strong connection with classic anti-Semitic tropes. Marcus deems this tacit or unconscious anti- Semitism, which is no less harmful as it traffics in anti-Jewish stereotypes and myths.

For the average reader, “The Definition of Anti-Semitism” is an often fascinating intellectual exercise. For those who are involved in the issue professionally – whether in law enforcement, academia, government, or organizations – it is, or should be, required reading.

If you are concerned about anti-Semitism on your campus, or if you seek advice about best practices, contact us.

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Research Articles
and Reports
Over 50% of Jewish American college students report that they experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on their campuses during the 2013-2014 academic year. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has announced that campus anti-Semitism “is a serious problem which warrants further attention.” Campus anti-Semitism can include subjecting Jewish students to different treatment, harassment, violence or a hostile environment. In some cases, campus anti-Semitism is related to anti-Israel sentiment. In other cases, it is not. For most purposes, we define anti-Semitism according to the U.S. Department of State definition of anti-Semitism. .
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Adam S. Feuerstein
Adam S. Feuerstein is a Principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers and Adjunct Professor at Georgetown Law. His practice encompasses a broad range of transactional and tax planning matters.
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