What exactly is anti-Semitism? Does any precise definition of the term exist? Who is and who is not an anti-Semite? Why is there such a disparity in judgement and categorization in our day-to-day debates when it comes to this issue?
As we ourselves can see, there are people whose stance we will call “one-dimensional”: they are those, to whom any criticism of Jews, especially the intense and enduring criticism, is anti-Semitic.
Then there are those, whose categorizations appear to be “two-dimensional”. They divide criticism of Jews into two categories: anti-Judaist (if it is criticism based on religion) and anti-Semitic, if it covers areas other than religion.
“Tri-dimensional” is a categorization which includes anti-Semitism, anti-Judaism and anti-Zionism.
We ourselves however represent yet another category, which includes the following five terms:
Where is the difference between them? And why do we need five different categories where others are content with only one or two? Are we not introducing too much disorder into our discussion?
The following explanations will show that just the opposite is true. We are in fact responding to the reality in which criticism of Jews, or of ideas and practices represented by them, is not monolithic but very complex and diverse and namely in each and every one of the above-mentioned five categories.
The most profound problem with the term “anti-Semitic” comes from the fact, that since it was first used by Steinschneider in 1860 it has never been precisely defined albeit the full definition – as we will see – was almost found! Today however little is being done to clarify the term and to bring any lasting consensus as to its use and meaning. Today’s polemists seem to be all too content with their political debates in which the term “anti-Semitism” is merely used as munitions against their opponents. Their main concern seems to be not so much to define the term they are using but rather to score some political points by either attributing anti-Semitism to somebody else or to show how ridiculous their adversaries’ accusations are.
When one looks up Wikipedia, the English version gives us a lot of text about anti-Semitism. One can read and read. There are many examples depicting different versions (or supposed versions) of anti-Semitism. There are names provided and different facts. One thing is missing there however: the definition of the term. In the whole lengthy discourse there is simply nothing that tells you exactly what is anti-Semitism. And it seems that many are not even seriously interested in any precise definition as it would inevitably limit their own possibilities of misuse and abuse of the term. It is obvious that the more exact and precise the definition of a term, the lesser the possibility to use it at random. Only terms without precise limits of meaning can be misused and abused at will, because they can stick to just anyone whom someone else condescends to target – “one size fits all”. A carefully and precisely defined term will not “fit all” because its limits are too obvious and too easily recognizable. An attacker would expose himself too blatantly and lose credibility.
So how would we then define the above five terms?
Let us start with the first of the five, “anti-Jewishness”. The reason why we decided for this one first is that of the five it is by far the most “all-embracing” in the negative sense, the most “total” of them. It can include (but does not have to) elements of the other four or at least one of them, e.g. anti-Semitism or anti-Judaism as well. But anti-Jewishness can also have virtually nothing to do with either anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism or anti-Judaism.
For example, someone might be simply concerned about Jewish over-representation and influence in the media, banking or politics in his country. He might not be interested in their racial or ethnic (Semitic) origin, he might not be concerned which particular political ideology they represent (like Zionism), might not care about Israel and its policies or what religious persuasion (like Judaism) the Jews follow. And yet he becomes highly critical of Jews and his criticism and aversion, or indeed his hostility towards them, become so intense that in his imagination they form a negative image, a negative stereotype of a Jew, which he then projects on the entire Jewish population in his country or indeed worldwide.
Therefore anti-Jewishness would then be a stance clearly featuring a prejudice against Jews as a whole group, for whatever reason.
As for anti-Semitism, as we noted previously, it had never been defined precisely in our time although there were all prerequisites present for a clear definition. If the term is still not defined, we certainly can provide a definition now, coming back to its root. What draws our attention is the fact that if Moritz Steinschneider simply wanted to create a term that would describe negative attitudes to Jews, his choice of a word would have seemed very specific and somehow surprising. He could have simply use the term “anti-Jewishness” and the term would certainly fit the task. But this is not how the term was invented. How did it then come about?
The answer to this question lies in what was going on in Europe at the time. It was a time in the historic development of Nationalism when, especially after the great archaeological discoveries, Nationalist intellectuals of scientific orientation began to theorize about historic racial roots of nations and make an effort to define racial characters Steinschneider took part in a debate about these racial characters. Two other authors, Ernest Renan and Heymann Steinthal, discussed the “general character of the Semitic peoples” and they had in mind not only Jews! They came to the conclusion that Semites showed negative traits of character that compared to Europeans or Indo-Europeans (the term Indo-European was first used by Thomas Young in 1813) Semites were allegedly more inclined to violence, lust, selfishness and more unscrupulous behaviour. These traits were then named by those two authors as “Semitism”. Steinschneider therefore in his reply concluded that such views were “anti-Semitic prejudice”.
As we see, the debate moved very close to producing a very accurate and clear-cut definition of anti-Semitism as a prejudice against Semitic peoples, based on purely racial considerations. Some might even argue that the short debate had in fact defined the term “anti-Semitic”. And this is exactly how we propose to understand the term, going all the way back to its origin! To us therefore only and exclusively a negative attitude towards Semites or opinion about them (including Jews but not only them) based on racial considerations forms anti-Semitism. And nothing else belongs to this category as far as we are concerned.
When we are however talking about anti-Judaism, then we are discussing nothing else than a religion and its possible influence on philosophy or politics. Of course in this case it is a negative opinion. As we have explained in a separate text, the prefix “anti-“ does not necessarily warrant hatred or outright hostility. We explained it using another example from the domain of religion. If a Christian does not accept the dogma of the Holy Trinity, he is called an “anti-Trinitarian”, which itself does not mean that he either hates Trinitarians (i.e. other Christians) nor the “Trinity” itself (The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit). It simply means that he rejects the dogma itself which he considers wrong. The same is with anti-Judaism, however we are aware that whoever is “anti-“ can display all sorts of attitudes, including the most negative ones, as the prefix covers a whole plethora of views and attitudes. Anti-Judaism can also have many faces and it can represent various shades of criticism, however a common denominator for them all is that it is only and exclusively based on religion and its precepts. My own kind of anti-Judaism has been described here.
A very similar story we will find when discussing anti-Zionism, with the difference of course, that in this case we are discussing a political idea or program. We are fully aware that Zionism, since its inception in the last few years of the 19th century, has been displaying different ideas, some of them particularly unsavoury, but we have to remember that Zionism is a form of Jewish Nationalism. A short definition of Zionism exists and it says that it is “a movement for (originally) the re-establishment and (now) the development and protection of a Jewish nation in what is now Israel. It was established as a political organization in 1897 under Theodor Herzl, and was later led by Chaim Weizmann.” (Wikipedia).
Therefore anti-Zionism would logically be an opposition to the idea and movement as described above. It can also be – and indeed is – an opposition to methods used for the protection of the Jewish state as well as an opposition towards all the perceived abuses employed by today’s Zionist elites to further Jewish interests worldwide, including interests of the state of Israel.
But how would we call someone who, even if opposed to the abuses by Zionists, generally accepts the main goal of the early Zionists, that is a formation and preservation of a Jewish state but is opposed (in our personal case totally opposed) to the existence of Israel in its current location? What if the person considers the location of Israel as a total error in judgement and the methods of its creation as totally criminal, inhuman, morally corrupt and racially supremacist as well as inherently intolerant? In such a case he/she is not anti-Zionist at all but certainly represents what we call anti-Israelism. It can be (as it is in our own case) that the person favours a formation and existence of a Jewish state as a goal fully moral and fully justified.
It is the method and the final result of Zionist activity which he/she abhors and resents as despicable and repulsive.
On a side note, we can say that it could be the subject of a separate discussion how the term “anti-Semitism” began to be understood, with the time passing, in the narrow sense, subjectively, as referring only to Jews, but extended objectively from issues of race only to almost any kind of criticism, justified or not, whether of the entire group or its individual representatives.
It is enough to say, however, that the current use of this term either does not have anything in common, or has very little to do with the original discussion and its subject, scope and conclusions, from which the term originated.