Updated: Jan 4, 2021
You've most likely heard of antisemitism, but do you actually know what it is and where it comes from? Would you be able to spot it online, on the streets, in the media and in day to day life?
In light of the recent report published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the existence of antisemitism within the Labour Party, this guide aims to explain what the term ‘antisemitism’ actually means and how this phenomenon has developed over time.
What is antisemitism?
The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights defines antisemitism as:
“a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."
You may have seen this term written with a hyphen: ‘anti-Semitism’. The International Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) explains their concern that such a spelling may more easily allow for ‘Semitism’ as a phenomenon to exist, which would in turn legitimise antisemitism.
The term ‘Semitic’ actually refers to a group of languages from the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, if spelled with a hyphen ‘anti-Semitism’ technically means hatred towards all people who speak Semitic languages or all those who identify as ‘Semites’.
In reality, since the term ‘Antisemitismus’ was used by a German journalist in 1879 to describe anti-Jewish political campaigns, the term ‘antisemitism’ refers almost exclusively to prejudice against Jews.
So, what actually counts as antisemitism?
Like racism, antisemitism can be and has been expressed in many ways. These range from individual ‘small scale’ acts to widespread, large-scale incidents, the most famous of which being the Holocaust: the elimination of Jews by the Nazi Party during World War Two.
Unfortunately, there are numerous examples of contemporary antisemitism in public life, politics, religious spaces, media, schools, and the workplace. It seems humanity has not learned its lesson after the tragedies of the Holocaust and a certain hatred continues to be expressed towards a group of people who are biologically and racially no different to the rest of the world.
Some examples of antisemitism include, but are not limited to:
Encouraging, taking part in, or justifying the murder or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or extremist religious opinion. Pogrom is often a word used in this context to describe the organised massacre of an ethnic group, such as Jews.
Stereotypical, false, or dehumanising claims about Jews or the power of Jews collectively e.g. the myth about Jews controlling the media or economy.
Holding the entire Jewish community responsible for real or imagined crimes committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews. i.e. using Jews as a scapegoat.
Denying that the Holocaust ever happened or that it is exaggerated.
Denying Jews the right to self-determination, for example by saying that the creation of Israel is a racist venture.
Expecting Israel as a nation to act in a way that would not be expected of any other state.
Using classic antisemitic symbols, images, or vocabulary in any way. For example, the swastika, phrases and names used during the Holocaust, continuing Nazi acts such as the phrase “Heil Hitler”. The triple parentheses or triple brackets has been used to highlight the names of individuals of a Jewish background, or organisations thought to be owned by Jews. The use of the Star of David, drawn as two overlapping triangles, in certain ways and circumstances would also be classed as antisemitic.
Antisemitic discrimination includes denying Jews opportunities or services available to others.
Further examples and explanations can be found here.
Has antisemitism always existed?
In short, antisemitism has almost always existed to some extent. Back in the times of Ancient Greece and Rome, however, this was simply due to religious differences. Judaism is monotheistic, meaning that Jews worship only one God, whereas most people at the time worshipped multiple gods as well as the emperors. The Jewish refusal to worship emperors was therefore seen as disloyal.
Then came the rivalry between Judaism and Christianity. This was no longer about monotheism as Christians also worship one god. The issue here was that Jesus was executed by Pilate and the Gospels in the Bible placed all responsibility for Jesus’ death on the Jews. Christianity became increasingly widespread and many laws aimed to segregate Jews, restrict their freedoms and push them to the edge of society. The church taught that Jews were “friends of the Devil” and “a race of vipers” right up until 1965 when such views were finally renounced by the Catholic Church.
There are instances throughout history of Jews being denied citizenship, rights and certain professions, as well as being subject to massacres and segregation. However, during the Middle Ages, Jews became great figures in trade, banking and moneylending. Jews were tolerated for this reason, however their success coupled with traditional religious prejudice caused envy. Some areas were more tolerant than others allowing Jews to experience great intellectual and cultural success as philosophers, physicians, poets, and writers, playing a vital role in transforming the intellectual world of medieval Christendom.
Despite this, Jews continued to be viewed as a community rather than as individuals and were treated as outsiders. An example of this is the phrase “To the Jews as individuals everything, to the Jews as people, nothing” which was used during the French Revolution calling for Jews to reject their communal identity.
Antisemitism is very much still an issue today. Latest figures show a record high of 1,805 antisemitic incidents in the UK in 2019, 697 of which occurred online; an increase of 82% compared to 2018 (Community Security Trust). CST Chief Executive David Delew reports that if we want the situation for British Jews to improve, antisemitism in politics and social media must be tackled. Despite calls to end antisemitism and for greater collaboration in order to do so, 2019 was in fact the fourth year in a row to see an increase in antisemitic occurrences.
Arguments over antisemitism in the Labour Party have been going on for several years and came to a head this week. The investigation lead by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found the Labour party to have had a deficient system for handling antisemitic complaints and failings in the leadership. One statement indicates a tendency within the party which, did not do enough to prevent antisemitism and, furthermore, may even have accepted it. Current party leader Sir Keir Starmer promised a “culture change”, saying the party would carry out all of the report’s recommendations. Former Labour Party leader Corbyn commented that the antisemitism highlighted by the investigation has been exaggerated “for political reasons by our opponents inside and outside the party”. Following these comments, Corbyn was quickly suspended by fellow party members and supported by current leader Keir Starmer. The full report published in October 2020 can be found here.
For more resources head to our Racism, Islamophobia & Antisemitism section.