The British government’s announcement that it has agreed to adopt an international definition of anti-Semitism looks like another pointless exercise in ‘sending out a message’. Borrowed from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the definition says anti-Semitism is ‘a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews’. If you’re still confused as to what anti-Semitism is, the definition helpfully explains that ‘rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities’.
The stated aim of adopting this definition is to help tackle hatred towards Jewish people. But it’s far from evident how a mere definition could be used to curb hatred of any sort. Worse, this definition of anti-Semitism bears little relation to the context and situations in which such prejudice is expressed today, and to how anti-Semitism has changed.
The newly adopted definition fails to engage with the fact that, in 2016, anti-Jewish sentiment is rarely expressed explicitly. Consider this example. Recently, following one of my public lectures, a member of the audience came up to me to rail against ‘the Goldman Sachs of this world and the people who control all the banks’. In the old days, someone like this would probably have expressed his prejudices about Jewish world domination in unambiguously anti-Semitic language. Today, however, a wink and a nod and a reference to Goldman Sachs come to serve the same purpose. How can a new definition of anti-Semitism deal with the new culture of wink-and-nod prejudice?
The current culture of anti-Semitism bears only a passing resemblance to its old-school predecessor. Yes, this new-school anti-Semitism that has emerged in recent decades draws upon the conspiratorial imagination of old-school anti-Semitism, but otherwise it expresses itself in a very different way. In Western Europe, people, especially those on the left, who have a problem with Jews rarely use the vocabulary of anti-Semitism. Instead they use the language of bad faith. People express bad faith when they feel under pressure to adopt values that go against their own inclinations. So when people say something like ‘I don’t hate the Jews, but these cliquey people are far too powerful’, they are opting to self-censor, to express their prejudices in a somewhat disguised, guarded way.
New-school anti-Semitism often expresses its distrust of ‘those people’ through the language of anti-Zionism. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism; it is perfectly legitimate to criticise Israel and to call into question every aspect of its history and its current political and military approaches. The problem is not attitudes to Zionism as such, but the way that some express their hostility to Jews through a hostility to Zionism. In recent years, hatred of Israel has come, among certain groups, to embody a venom towards Jews. So when British Labour Party councillors post images on Facebook calling on Israelis, or even Jews, to ‘stop drinking Gaza blood’, it is pretty clear that their target is not really Zionism. No, through resurrecting the infamous blood libel of the medieval anti-Semites, they have adopted the old outlook of the pogrom in what appears to be a new, politicised way.