“Anyone guilty of anti-Semitism will be called out on it.” With those words, delivered Monday in a speech to the Conservative Friends of Israel annual lunch, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May declared a just war of sorts. A timely one too. For as David Nirenberg, the University of Chicago professor and author of Anti-Judaism: The History of a Way of Thinking, has warned us, “We live in an age in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of “Israel””.
Nirenberg’s book is a magisterial survey and its conclusion should leave us shaken: hostility to the Jews has been a constituent element of western culture. The uncanny flexibility of antisemitism, its remarkable ability to shape-shift, has ensured both its impressive longevity and our woeful tendency to fall each time for its new guise.
Anti-Semitism’s core motif is that the Jews, collectively and in their essence, are malign. Chameleon-like, the attribution of malignity changes with the times and with the needs of the anti-Semites. Jews have been “God-killers”, “aliens”, “cosmopolitans”, “Jewish bankers”, “Jewish-Bolsheviks”, “untermenschen”. These have all served as code words to mark the Jew for destruction.
And now the code word is “Zionist” or “Zios” or “Zio-Nazis”. That which the demonological Jew once was, demonological Israel now is: uniquely malevolent, full of blood lust, all-controlling, the hidden hand, tricksy, always acting in bad faith, the obstacle to a better, purer, more spiritual world, uniquely deserving of punishment, and so on.
May announced that the British government is formally adopting the working definition of anti-Semitism proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)—an intergovernmental body set up at the turn of the century by 31 member countries, 24 of which are EU member countries. We now have a definition that catches up with modern anti-Semitism. “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews,” the definition runs, “which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. 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 guidance note that accompanies the IHRA definition makes clear it does not seek to prevent legitimate criticism of Israel. If that criticism is similar to that levelled against any other country, then it “cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This is vital. Whether or not it is always fair, it is legitimate to criticise Israel’s settlement policies, ongoing occupation of the West Bank, failure to close the gaps between the majority Jews and minority Arabs, and the level of force, which some argue is disproportionate, it has used to stop the waves of Hamas rocket attacks.
But the IHRA makes clear that modern anti-Semitism may involve a certain excessive demonising and hate-filled discourse about the Jewish state “conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” Some so-called “criticism of Israel” is anything but, having strayed into a dark place, where anti-Semitism is updated for our times. Some of that discourse, such as the Holocaust Inversion—in which Israel is depicted as The Third Reich, the IDF as the SS, Netanyahu as Hitler, and the Star of David twisted into the Swastika—positively luxuriates in those dark places.
The UK government is calling time on all that. Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust, or of being more loyal to Israel than their own nations is now defined as anti-Semitism. The denial of the Jewish peoples right to self-determination, requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation, the application to Israel of the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism, such as the blood libel, all this too, is now defined as anti-Semitism. The “[Ken]Livingstone Formulation”—i.e. the claim that no attack on Israel or Zionism is ever anti-Semitic, while every objection to an attack on Israel is always a bad faith dirty ‘Zionist’ affair—has had its day.
The Left is comfortable fighting classic anti-Semitism, especially if it comes wearing a skinhead haircut and Dr Martens boots. But when it comes to the anti-Semitism aimed at Israel, the anti-Semitic anti-Zionism highlighted by the IHRA, parts of the Left have lost their way. Too many turn the world upside down until support for Israel’s enemies—whatever these enemies stand for, however they behave—is a left-wing duty. For example, Judith Butler, a leading US academic, said Hamas and Hezbollah, two of the most murderous anti-Semitic organizations in the world, must be understood as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”
Good news then, that the Labour Party has announced that it too will accept the government’s new definition. If Jeremy Corbyn’s staff have also read the IHRA guidance notes, then that really would be a breakthrough.