The new definition of antisemitism is only a threat to antisemites – David Hirsh

This piece, by David Hirsh, is from

Characterising something as antisemitic is a political judgment. It requires knowledge about how antisemitism works, an understanding of context, somedownload thought about intentions, but also analysis of unintended consequences. The working definition, which has now been adopted by the UK Government, offers helpful guidance on the making of such political judgments.

How would you decide whether a joke was antisemitic, or sexist for that matter? You could not invent a machine to do this for you. In part it would depend on whether the joke was funny, on who told it, how and why; on who laughed at it and why they laughed.  It is a matter of judgment, and there is room for legitimate disagreement and debate over judgments.

In our time, people who do and think antisemitic things frequently believe themselves to be opponents of antisemitism. Those who single out Israelis and their supporters for boycott angrily deny that they are antisemitic; some who conflate Zionism and Nazism consider themselves to be antiracists; those who say Jews were among the chief financiers of the slave trade or who want to address the ‘Jewish question’ complain they are targets of Zionist smears.

On the level of words, prohibitions and taboos against racism and antisemitism remain firmly in place; but this does not prevent antisemitic and racist ways of thinking becoming ever more significant and influential in public discourse. Because the veneer of respectability is still important, denial and counter-accusations of bad faith tend to drown out rational and democratic discussion.

Antisemitism lurks under the surface; we are reluctant to see it in our allies and we are eager to see it in those we fear or hate. The left sniffs the antisemitism on the right and the right sniffs the antisemitism on the left.

The working definition does not seek to see a person’s essence to find out whether they are antisemitic. What it does instead is to help in the recognition of antisemitic actions and ways of thinking. It is concerned with what people do, what they say and what they tolerate; not what they are.

Many in the movement to boycott and to de-legitimize Israel are afraid of the working definition. They say that it defines criticism of Israel as antisemitic. It actually does the opposite. It helps us to make the distinction between what kinds of criticism may be legitimate and what kinds of hostility or demonization may either lead towards, or result from, antisemitism.

Some on the left will continue to say that the working definition is part of a Zionist and Tory conspiracy to smear left wing politics. This itself is an antisemitic claim.

The left needs to understand antisemitism and to come to terms with the history of antisemitism within its own movement. It needs to educate young people to recognize and oppose antisemitism, not to accuse those who do recognize it of being the problem.  The working definition can help us to mobilize against antisemitism. It is not a threat to the left or to those who are for Palestinian freedom, it is a threat to antisemitism.

David Hirsh is a lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths College, University of London

This piece, by David Hirsh, is from

Follow this link for a pre-history of the new definition of antisemitism. 

Follow this link for the UCU’s disavowal of the working definition.  

Follow this link for the live blog of the debate in which UCU decided to disavow the working definition. 


3 Responses to “The new definition of antisemitism is only a threat to antisemites – David Hirsh”

  1. josephinebacon Says:

    Characterising something as antisemitic is not a political judgement, it is a matter of the intention of the person who uttered the words. The Ronnie Barker skit of a chasid who wants to insure himself against being Jewish is not antisemitic, it is very funny and not at all offensive – as I see it, other people may not feel the same way. True antisemitism is UNEQUIVOCALLY offensive to Jews such as the pronouncements of Jackie Walker and Ken Livingstone. When he says in that confiding tone he adopts when imparting his pearls of wisdom that “the creation of the State of Israel was a mistake” that is at least as offensive to Jews in general as it is to Israelis and, worst of all, it is an insult that is never hurled at any other country. Was Simon Bolivar’s action in founding Venezuela a “mistake”? Does anyone ever say that, even with the present Venezuelan regime? No, Israel is singled out for opprobrium and that is why attacks on Israel, qua Israel, are antisemitic.

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    I have just listened to Luciana Berger, M.P., welcoming the adoption of the Working Definition, while being interviewed on the BBC 10 o’clock news. It’s been a long-time coming. It will make prosecuting the Joshua Bonehill-Payne’s of this world easier.

    However, let’s just wait and see the flood of Livingstone Formulation moans and rebuttals coming out of the woodwork. How long will it take them to complain about their “freedom of speech” being unfairly limited? It’s 23.00 GMT as I write this.

    24 hours do you think?

  3. Yehuda Erdman Says:

    I agree with David’s article but would like to comment further. We Jews do not define ourselves by any definition created by anti-semites. This is what happened in Nazi Germany because the Nazis won power in 1933, and thereafter made sure they remained in power. All those who opposed them were liquidated in one way or another. However, there were instances when successful protests against the Nazi policies were mounted. Two come to mind`; the first was against the Nazi policy of “euthanasia” of “abnormal” children. When the German people woke up to what the Nazis were doing there was a huge upcry and the programme of euthanasia came to a rapid halt. The second example is when towards the end of WW2, the Nazis imprisoned a group of Mischling (by Nazi definition, half, quarter or eighth- part Jews), their “aryan” wives and girlfriends publicly protested and their partners were released. This was almost unheard of during the Nazi regime.
    All this comes back to my first premise. Since the very start of Jewish history which is about 4000 years, at various stages and by various powerful people there have been attempts to blacken our name, and even to go further and destroy us. In some places, the Jews were forced to accept the views expressed about them as much as these views were held by the people at large. So, for example, when in the middle ages in Europe, the Jews were money lenders they were accused of usury and it was widely accepted that the Kings and Princes who ruled, were entitled to force the Jews to leave their territory and to confiscate their money and property. This happened almost everywhere over a period of centuries.
    To this day, many in the world accuse the Jews of fomenting wars and controlling industry, the Media, controlling Governments etc. Even intelligent, educated people hold such irrational views, even in Western democracies. How is this possible after so long? There are many and varied answers. However, in the context of David’s article in the JC, we must consider if the definition of antisemitism just adopted by the Government headed by Mrs May helps or hinders the fight against anti-semitism. The short answer is it helps because we believe the intentions of this Government are honourable. Why? Britain is a safe haven for Jews and indeed all other minorities. Exceptions exist but thanks to a free and vociferous press, these are rapidly exposed and usually dealt with by the process of law.

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