By Bret Stephens
In a season of widespread condemnation of antisemitism, many struggle to define it. I can imagine having this conversation with any number of people trying to understand this age-old phenomenon:
Q: I’m having trouble making sense of some of the claims and counterclaims being made about what is, or isn’t, antisemitic speech and behavior. To be honest, it doesn’t help that so many prominent Jews have sharply different takes on the subject.
A: Two Jews, three opinions.
Q: That sounds like a stereotype.
A: It is. It’s also one of the few things that most Jews agree is true of us as people.
Q: OK, so in your opinion and a half, what is antisemitism?
A: It’s a conspiracy theory that holds that Jews are uniquely prone to use devious means to achieve malevolent ends and must therefore be opposed by any means necessary, including violence.
Q: Is that the commonly accepted definition?
A: No, it’s my own. A more widely cited definition comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which defines antisemitism, in part, as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” But the phrase “a certain perception” raises more questions than it answers.
Q: So why do you call antisemitism a conspiracy theory? Isn’t it just simple bigotry against Jews?
A: Few things are simple about antisemitism because few things are simple about Jews. We are a nation, a religion, a culture, an “other.” At various times, we’ve also been thought of, falsely, as a race, most malevolently by the Nazis.
Antisemitism has expressed itself over the centuries as political opposition to Jews, religious hatred, cultural disdain, xenophobia or racism. It’s a shape-shifting virus that has adapted itself to the reigning prejudices of different eras. But a common thread linking one strain to another is that antisemitism typically takes the form of a conspiracy theory.
Q: Such as?
A: Deicide, for starters — the idea that Jews got the Romans to kill Jesus. Later, in the Middle Ages, came the belief that plagues were caused by Jews poisoning wells. Next, it was Jews using their financial power to start wars. Or their control of media and Hollywood to manipulate public opinion and degrade public morals. Or their influence in Congress and the White House to take America to war in the Middle East and advance Israeli interests.
Q: Isn’t there some truth to the last point? Weren’t figures like Paul Wolfowitz largely responsible for taking the United States to war in Iraq?
A: Actually, the people who took America to war in Iraq were George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Blaming second-tier Jewish officials for the actions of top-tier Christian officials is classic antisemitism.
Q: But if antisemitism is a conspiracy theory, why do so many people call anti-Zionism a form of antisemitism? Whatever else you might say about anti-Zionism, it seems nothing if not direct.
A: Remember that antisemitism can also take the form of political hatred, and Zionism — that is, support for the existence of a Jewish state, as opposed to any of its policies — is today the principal expression of Jewish politics. But even anti-Zionism increasingly expresses itself as a conspiracy theory.
Q: How so?
A: Think of it this way: To the 19th-century German antisemite, Jews were impostors and swindlers — impostors, because they claimed to be citizens of Germany when antisemites claimed they were “Semites”; swindlers, because they were in the business of swindling “true” Germans out of their patrimony. To the 21st-century anti-Zionist, Jews are impostors and swindlers — impostors, because they claimed to have ancestral ties to the Holy Land when anti-Zionists claim they are colonizers from Europe; swindlers, because they were swindling Palestinians out of their patrimony.
In both cases, Jews are “the other.” The only difference is that past generations of antisemites accused Jews of being Middle Easterners, while today’s anti-Zionists accuse Jews of being Europeans.
Q: Interesting. But aren’t there ultra-Orthodox Jews who consider themselves anti-Zionists?
A: Yes. And if you’re one of those Jews, consider yourself acquitted of charges of antisemitism. Also, if you oppose every form of nationalism on principle, then you can honorably oppose Jewish nationalism. But you can’t support every nation’s right to exist except for the Jewish nation. That’s antisemitism.
Q: But if you support Palestinian nationhood, doesn’t that require opposition to Jewish nationhood?
A: It isn’t one or the other. It can and should be both. Israel came into existence in the most legitimate way possible — through a vote of the United Nations, which was immediately opposed by Arab states that set out to destroy the nascent Jewish state. In 2000, Ehud Barak, then Israel’s prime minister, offered Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a Palestinian state. Arafat rejected the offer, and 23 years of tragedy have ensued.
Q: Including the current tragedy in the Gaza Strip, in which Israel is being widely accused of committing genocide.
A: That accusation is also a form of antisemitism. It is manifestly false: If Israel really wanted to commit genocide in Gaza, it has the means to do so. Accusing Jews of the very crime of which they themselves were history’s greatest victim is a uniquely vile taunt. And the charge of genocide is so heinous that it licenses any form of violence to stop it, including the sort of massacre we saw on Oct. 7.
Q: I also don’t agree with the genocide charge, per se, but I still think Israel’s response is inhumane, disproportionate and counterproductive.
A: I disagree, but that’s entirely legitimate criticism, just as it’s legitimate to object to Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank or to Benjamin Netanyahu’s extremist government. Plenty of Israelis and American Jews do so as well.