Old anti-Semitism is the new anti-Semitism – a never ending story

The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) is holding these days a referendum whether to disaffiliate with the National Union of Students (NUS). This discussion has been triggered by the criticism of the NUS’s own political objectives and the recent election of a controversial new leader, Malia Bouattia. She described the University of Birmingham as “something of a Zionist outpost” and made similar statements thereafter. She had been accused of antisemitism in these instances.

NUS President Malia Bouattia
NUS President Malia Bouattia. Source: The Oxford Student

However, the topic of antisemitism has returned to the political stage in the UK after a couple of allegations and suspensions of over fifty member of the Labour party, including the former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. It has been brought to public attention that antisemitism is very persistent in the political sphere and that there have not been enough political attempts to tackle the problem. Most political actors accused of antisemitism have defended themselves by declaring that their statements were purely “anti-Zionist” and not anti-Semitic. British Prime Minister David Cameron has stated that “Anti-Semitism is racism”. Both statements do not get the problem of antisemitism.

First, antisemitism is not racism. The national socialists in Germany did not see the Jews as a “race” among others, but as the prototype of the “anti-race, the negativity as such” as the German philosophers Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer observed in their main oeuvre “Dialectic of Enlightenment”. One of the main differences between racism and antisemitism is the perception of the other. The racist object is seen as inferior and weak, whereas for the anti-Semite, the Jews are powerful and superior. The anti-Semite sees the Jews as controlling the media, the banks, and the world.

The UK is not a single case though. All too often, anti-Semitism is overlooked in many European countries. The terrorist attack on the Bataclan in Paris had a clear anti-Semitic motivation. Furthermore, in 2015 alone, 7,900 Jews have emigrated from France to Israel because of the growing antisemitism. This number is supposed to raise in 2016. In Sweden, the number of attacks against Jews is steadily raising. In the UK, the Jewish Labour MP Luciana Berger published the hate messages she has received on Twitter and Facebook. 59% of hate crimes motivated by religious bias in the United Stated are anti-Jewish.

Most of current antisemitism is covered as anti-Zionism or “critique of Israel”. Zionism is the positive affirmation of a Jewish state. As such, it is difficult to disentangle the state of Israel and Judaism. Much of the critique publicly voiced does not differentiate between state policies – such as the occupation of the Palestinian territories, the construction of a fence at the border, or the treatment of Palestinians at the checkpoints – and the state of Israel as such. As outlined above, the state of Israel can be considered necessary for the personal security and safety of many Jews because many countries cannot or do not want to grant it, especially in the Arab region. Furthermore, solely focussing on Israel as the aggressor and the Palestinians as the victims, does not add much to the truth. A balanced image of both sides is necessary to understand the complexity of the conflict. Demonising, delegitimising, and double standards towards the state of Israel are anti-Semitic.

We position ourselves against racism, sexism, and homophobia. In that context, anti-Semitism is overlooked very often. It is not only because of historical reasons and responsibility that we must not forget the Jews and their personal fate. It is simply the right thing to do. No one says we should not criticise the Netanyahu government or certain policies – many Israelis do it themselves often enough (for example here, here and here). But when it comes to the definition of anti-Semitism, we should stick to the same measures we often use for other forms of discrimination: Let the minority define it. Treat the minority the same way you treat others. No better and no worse. If opposing discrimination means anything, it surely means treating the minorities what they deserve.

Vincent Wolff Zahner is currently studying for an MPP at the Blavatnik School of Government and has previously worked at the UN-FAO in Santiago de Chile and at the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ). 


  1. Alex Michie says:

    Good article. The increase in anti-semitism in Europe is very worrying and needs to be addressed and hopefully eradicated. I have one substantial disagreement though.

    I find it somewhat ironic and somewhat fitting that many white, British journalists and media outlets have spent the last 12 months mocking Rhodes Must Fall activists, telling them they do not understand racism. Telling black activists that claiming a statue of Rhodes is racist is an infantile, stupid, and irrelevant argument. Then in the recent anti-semitism debate these same organisations and journalists used the “let the minority define the discrimination” argument.

    I do not agree that the minority / group should define what is discrimination and what is not. I believe they have the most valuable contribution to make, for sure. But not that they should define it. Some Muslims say it is racist / Islamophobic for a country to ban wearing religious items in public – that doesn’t make it true. Some Jews claim it is anti-semitic to criticise Israel – that also doesn’t make it true. Not least because it’s simplistic (and racist?) to assume all members of a minority have the same views or speak with the same voice.

    You seem to imply in your penultimate paragraph that presenting Israel and Palestine as anything other equals in a war of aggression is anti-semitic. I really disagree with this. In Apartheid South Africa, the ANC conducted what was called terrorism (and what would still be called terrorism today). It is extremely rare, if not impossible, for both sides of a war or occupation to be non-aggressors. But that in order not to be racist (/anti-semitic) you must present both sides as equally culpable or aggressive – especially if you do not believe that to be the case.

    Thanks for the article though. Hope you at least agree that, in most cases, the definition of discrimination should be the result of an inclusive civic discussion, where minorities’ voices are given most prominence. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case.

  2. Dearest Alex,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment. I really appreciate it.
    I see your point (and agree) that the definition of discrimination is a more complex issue then I have outlined and yes, it should be part of an inclusive civic discussion (even if this is very difficult in reality).
    I did not write there are equals in the conflict. They are definitely not. But is Israel always the aggressor and are the Palestinians always the victims? Definitely not either. My main point I wanted to make is: Parts (!) of the critique towards the Israeli state is covered antisemitism. We tend to forget that part of the problem and its long tradition (like the massacre of Hebron in 1929), and I want to raise awareness of the uniqueness of the situation.
    In any case, I would like to thank you for your very thoughtful comments and your patience with me. :)