Professor David Feldman on antisemitism

News of the appointment of Professor David Feldman to help lead the Labour Party’s enquiry into antisemitism has already prompted some scrutiny of his published views on the topic.

One relevant document is his submission to the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism.

This sub-report sets out to explore the ways British Jews were represented in political discourse around the time of Operation Protective Edge.

Feldman devotes a section of his report to the problem of defining antisemitism.

Defining antisemitism is a contentious and complicated but necessary undertaking. (p. 3)

He proposes ‘two distinct but complementary definitions of antisemitism’. One is focused on discourse which treats Jews as ‘something other than what they are’. The second focuses on discrimination.

When we consider discourse we focus on the ways in which Jews are represented. Here we can say, following the philosopher Brian Klug, that antisemitism is ‘a form of hostility towards Jews as Jews, in which Jews are perceived as something other than what they are.’ Accordingly, antisemitism is to be found in representations of Jews as stereotyped and malign figures. One such stereotype is the notion that Jews constitute a cohesive community, dedicated to the pursuit of its own selfish ends. It will be important to ask whether this or other malign stereotypes figured in public debate on Operation Protective Edge.

In addition to antisemitism which arises within the process of representation there is also antisemitism which stems from social and institutional practices. Discriminatory practices which disadvantage Jews are antisemitic. Taking a historical view, we can say that British society and the British state became less antisemitic in past centuries as Jews were allowed to live in the country, to pray together, to work, to vote and to associate with others in clubs and societies to the same degrees as their Christian fellowWsubjects. Discrimination against Jews need not be accompanied by discursive antisemitism, even though in many cases it has been. If we apply this definition of antisemitism to public debate on Jews and Israel last summer and autumn we will need to ask whether any aspect of this debate threatened to discriminate against Jews. (p. 3)

Feldman’s definitions actively exclude other phenomena commonly associated with antisemitism. For example he rejects the idea that singling out Israel for disproportionate scrutiny is, ipso facto, antisemitic. Antisemitism, he argues, can only be established if it’s exacerbated by one of the two definitions cited above.

He goes on to invoke the EUMC working definition, and notes (quite correctly) that it proved controversial.  Choosing a definition of antisemitism – like choosing the chair for an enquiry on the subject – can perhaps never be a wholly neutral act. Many who didn’t like the EUMC working definition felt that it placed too much emphasis on the intersection between antizionism and antisemitism. Its repeated cautions about needing to take account of context made it difficult to use as a ‘litmus test’ but were, I thought, an appropriate reflection of the topic’s complexity.

‘The criticisms [of the EUMC working definition] have been damaging’, notes Feldman. But is the fact it has been criticised – and I’m not saying it’s perfect – enough to ditch it? Later in the document Feldman says that being offended isn’t in itself proof that something is antisemitic. By the same logic, neither is the fact some didn’t like it proof the EUMC working definition is unhelpful.

I don’t think any reasonable person would disagree that anything falling foul of Feldman’s two criteria is pretty much bound to be antisemitic (p. 4). In that sense it achieves the consensus which, he reminds us, the EUMC w/d failed to accomplish. However offering a very narrow definition of antisemitism raises problems of its own, particularly when other approaches are actively excluded.

One such approach is of course the EUMC. Another is David Hirsh’s emphasis on the importance on institutional antisemitism where an atmosphere hostile to Jews may be created inadvertently. Feldman uses a rather loaded example to undermine this idea.

However, taken on its own, an emphasis on outcomes is vulnerable to the same abuses that we found in definitions of antisemitism grounded in Jews’ perceptions. In other words, it is not sufficient for Jews to identify a particular outcome as a desirable Jewish project – let us say, support for Jewish settlements in territory occupied by Israel and then decry opposition to that project as antisemitic. (p. 5)

In what serious discussion of antisemitism is opposition to settlements invoked as a racist position?

However the single most controversial element in Feldman’s report is his refusal to recognize the use of Nazi imagery in anti-Israel discourse as antisemitic. He does concede that carrying a placard saying ‘Hitler was right’ was antisemitic – indeed his explanation seemed superfluous. 

These utterances were antisemitic because they endorsed a figure – Hitler – whose political ideology was shaped by a malign stereotyped image of ‘the Jew’ and whose policies discriminated against Jews as he stripped millions of their rights, including their right to life. (p. 6)

However simply drawing parallels – say between Warsaw and Gaza – is not antisemitic in Feldman’s book, even though he fully acknowledges that such parallels are hurtful and inaccurate.

He points out that the words ‘Nazis’ and ‘Holocaust’ are used in a very loose way to attack many different targets. However there is a uniquely nasty charge when Israel is brought into the equation, and far more often than not this formulaic association is both deliberate and malicious.

Feldman’s next argument is that references to the Holocaust are used too loosely by those warning of the dangers of antisemitism. It’s possible to agree that sometimes such rhetoric is excessive – yet its motivation stems from anxieties about racism, not a malicious singling out of one people to be the target of wounding comparisons.  The use of the term ‘kapos’ to describe antizionist Jews might have been a better earned parallel.

Feldman goes on to make some reasonable points contrasting legitimate criticism of specific pro-Israel groups with conspiratorial complaints about the powerful Jewish lobby. David Ward and Jenny Tonge come in for criticism here, rightly. There is also quite a useful discussion of how some anti-Israel activism might be classed as discriminatory against Israelis though not necessarily antisemitic.

However so much seems to be missing here. One absent presence in Feldman’s report was any reference to the blood libel. This trope would seem to fit under his first chosen definition of antisemitism as it relies on a lurid false claim of Jewish difference.

Unlike some other critics of the ‘New antisemitism’, Feldman frames his discussion in a way which acknowledges the sensitivities in play. He does not accuse those he disagrees with of dishonesty; instead he repeatedly articulates understanding for those who set their bar lower than him.  However the fact he defines antisemitism so narrowly doesn’t bode well for the forthcoming enquiry. I’m not sure any of the incidents described in this recent report on Labour’s problems, for example, would clearly meet either of his two definitions.

It is difficult to map antisemitic tropes onto other forms of bigotry, but would jibes about rape, taunts over slavery or offensive depictions of the Prophet Muhammad gratuitously appended to legitimate critiques of theocratic regimes fail to make the grade if our benchmarks for measuring sexism, racism and anti-Muslim bigotry were equally tough?


3 Responses to “Professor David Feldman on antisemitism”

  1. josephinebacon Says:

    “For example he rejects the idea that singling out Israel for disproportionate scrutiny is, ipso facto, antisemitic. ” That says it all. Ask Hillel Neuer about antisemitism in the United Nations! The mere establishment of UNWRA itself and the declaration that the Palestinians are refugees *for ever* is, in my book, an act of antisemitism.

  2. levi9909 Says:


    You seem to place a problematic emphasis on subjectivity. You want antisemitism to be defined in terms of the perception of the supposed victims. You also presume on the motivation of people who say the things you want to be deemed antisemitic. So when someone compares Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, it’s upsetting or at least annoying to some Jews so that makes it antisemitic but, for you also the motivation of the people who say these things is “far more often than not……both deliberate and malicious.”

    In the first instance, if I say Gaza is like the Warsaw Ghetto, it might be because I think it is or it might be because I want to offend people but who is to say? Who can know?

    And someone says they are offended by the comparison, how do we know they don’t just want to cut off criticism of Israel over its treatment of Gaza?

    Also, Jews weren’t the only victims of the Nazis. Take Serbs. Many Serbs suffered enormously under the Nazis but there was no hesitation in comparing them to the Nazis over Bosnia back in the nineties.

    These are straight up problems with your own take on this Feldman chap without getting into my own suspicion that you do indeed want antisemitism to be defined in such a way as to protect Israel from criticism and to prevent challenging the idea of a state specially for the world’s Jews having a right to exist.

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