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Defining anti-Semitism
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Defining anti-Semitism

A conversation with Kenneth Stern on the greatest threats to the Jews

Martin J. Raffel
Martin J. Raffel

Anti-Semitism, which is objectively on the rise around the world and in the United States — highlighted by the devastating violence perpetrated this past year at two American synagogues — has become enmeshed in partisan politics. In spite of this polarized environment, is it possible to reach a consensus on the definition of anti-Semitism and determine which manifestations of it pose the greatest threat to Jewish security?

To answer these questions, I reached out to a long-time colleague, Kenneth Stern, an expert on anti-Semitism, who recently was named director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate (BCSH) at Bard College in New York.

Martin Raffel: Is it possible to find a consensus on the definition of anti-Semitism?

Kenneth Stern: I was the lead drafter of the “working definition” of anti-Semitism, now referred to as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition that also is used by the U.S. State Department. The key part of the definition, which I believe we can all agree on, are these two points: “anti-Semitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for ‘why things go wrong.’” At the same time, we spelled out examples of expressions that could, in the appropriate context, be considered anti-Semitic, such as denying Jews their right of self-determination or holding all Jews responsible for the acts of Israel. But the purpose of the examples was not to define who is and who is not an anti-Semite. They were created primarily to provide data collectors on anti-Semitism some useful guideposts about what to include and exclude.   

MR: How is anti-Semitism being manifested today on the far right?

KS: White supremacists at Charlottesville shouted, “Jews will not replace us.” Why? Because they believe that whites are superior to non-white people, and, despite this, they are losing the battle to preserve their majority status in America. To explain this situation, they believe another party must be putting its thumb on the scales. That would be the Jews. Richard Bowers, the Pittsburgh anti-Semitic terrorist, was reportedly worried about an “invasion” of brown-skinned people from south of the border. He didn’t target them, but instead blamed the Jews. John Earnest shot up the Poway Chabad synagogue because he believed Jews were behind the “genocide” of white people.

MR: Anti-Semitism on the far left seems to revolve around Israel. Where do you draw the line between criticism (even unfair criticism) and anti-Semitism?

KS: There is no bright line. For example, should we automatically equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism? If one believes Jews alone don’t have a right to national self-expression while other peoples do possess that right, maybe. But what if one believes that not because these are Jews, but because of the impact of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state on Palestinians? Are Satmar Jews anti-Semites? I don’t think anyone would say so, as they have a religious objection to Zionism. But what about young IfNotNow activists for whom Judaism is about “repairing the world” and are anti-Zionists? Who gets to decide which theologically based anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic and which isn’t? I argue you can’t. There is no line. There is context, nuance, purpose, all of which must be considered. This a debate taking place in a world of gray, not black and white.

MR: Is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement always anti-Semitic? Or is there a form of BDS, e.g., targeting Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which is not anti-Semitic?

KS: Even if not based on an anti-Semitic motivation, BDS may have an anti-Semitic effect. In the academy it may target Jewish professors and students and treat Israeli academics in unfair and deplorable ways. BDS also empowers the extremes in the Israel/Palestine debate, and some of BDS’s movers and shakers are anti-Zionist. But many students see BDS as a vehicle to pressure Israel, especially over the settlements. Pro-Palestinian activists don’t seem to know (or care in some cases) about the history of anti-Jewish boycotts and how BDS activates this nerve. Pro-Israel activists don’t seem to recall that during the second intifada, Israel and Jewish organizations were telling Palestinians to find a non-violent way to make your case. BDS is non-violent.

MR: Is applying a double standard to Israel compared to other democratic countries always anti-Semitism? Or can someone single out Israel as a special concern, such as someone who focuses on saving one endangered species as opposed to all of them?

KS: Even the working definition says one must look at context. There’s a difference between saying every democratic state should defend its citizens, but Israel should let its people be attacked, on the one hand, and criticizing Israel more harshly because you care about it more, or you see the complexities of Israel as a democratic state as it is increasing settlements in land in which another people have aspirations for national self-determination.

MR: Is attaching the apartheid label to Israel (e.g., Israel Apartheid Week) anti-Semitic?

KS: We discussed whether to include it in the definition as a soft-core variant of the Israel equals Nazi equation but decided not to for a variety of reasons. Israel is not an apartheid state — Palestinian citizens of Israel vote, are elected to office, etc. — but there are aspects of life for Palestinians that have some resemblance to apartheid, particularly in the territories. Some Israeli leaders have also warned if there is no two-state solution, Israel’s control over Palestinians will look more and more like apartheid.

MR: Of course, we need to address all forms of anti-Semitism, whether on the left or on the right. But with limited resources, it is incumbent on us to focus on the greatest threats. What are they?

KS: While this isn’t an either/or proposition, I believe the greater threat is from the right, especially when one sees nationalistic political parties and xenophobia on the rise here and abroad. The danger of anti-Semitism always increases when people are encouraged to see an “us” and a “them,” because Jews are scapegoated with harming “us” by empowering and/or manipulating “them.” There are some places, though, where anti-Semitism on the left is more of a concern than it is in the U.S.

MR: Many in our community see President Donald Trump as an “enabler” of far-right anti-Semitism, which a recent ADL report indicates is the primary source of violent attacks against Jews. How serious a problem is the rhetoric coming out of the White House?

KS: It is among the most serious challenges. When a president says there are some “fine people” among those marching with tiki torches and swastikas, shouting “Jews will not replace us,” that’s enabling. We also need to look at the wider context.  His dehumanization of Muslims and immigrants — stoking the “us/them” paradigm — creates a climate conducive to the growth of all sorts of bigotry, including anti-Semitism. 

MR: How worried are you that the anti-Zionist attitudes represented by the BDS movement are moving from the far left into the moderate left and affecting the Democratic Party?

KS: Not all BDS is anti-Zionist. Some support BDS because they believe Israel is on the wrong path and want to change its behavior. As I noted previously, the movers and shakers behind BDS are largely anti-Zionist, however. There are now a few Democratic members of congress who are championing the Palestinian narrative, and who have sometimes said things that reference anti-Semitic tropes. The Democratic Party is overwhelmingly pro-Zionist and pro-Israel. I hope the handful of Democrats who are taking up the Palestinian cause — which can be articulated without using anti-Semitic tropes — are more careful in the future.

MR: How serious are the anti-Semitic threats on college campuses?

KS: There are about 4,000 college campuses, and Israel is an issue in only a small number. Pro-Israel programming happens twice as often as anti-Israel programming. Yet there are challenges, mostly to academic freedom and free speech. The shouting down of pro-Israel speakers happens from time to time, but pro-Israel activists have tried to stop classes and speakers with threatening emails, phone calls, and lawsuits. Both sides are harming the campus, and the irony is that the Israel/Palestine conflict is a perfect model around which to build educational programs, focusing on issues such as how our thinking is impacted when our identity is connected to an issue of perceived social justice or injustice, or how to navigate a conflict where two sides covet the same land and have mutually exclusive national narratives. (This is the subject of my forthcoming book: “The Conflict Over the Conflict: How the Israel/Palestine Campus Debate is Eviscerating Academic Freedom.”)

In Part II, I will ask Stern what can be done to address the growing threat of anti-Semitism.

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

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