What is antisemitism?
Antisemitism has many faces.
To put it very simply: antisemitism is hostility towards Jews. For centuries, Jews have been assigned character traits that are supposed justify hatred and contempt towards them. They are portrayed as greedy, malevolent and responsible for all evil in the world. “The Jews” supposedly pull the strings and control politics and world economy. In contrast to racist discrimination, where “the Other” is portrayed as inferior, antisemitism imagines Jews not only as inferior but as superior and overly powerful at the same time.
Antisemitism leads to defamation, social exclusion, discrimination, persecution and expulsion and even murder of Jewish people. In National Socialist Germany, it culminated in the Holocaust, or: the Shoah (Hebrew for “catastrophe”, the Jewish term for the systematic murder of six million Jews).
There are different types of antisemitism. Antisemitism studies distinguish Anti-Judaism, modern Jew hatred, secondary antisemitism, Israel-related antisemitism and structural antisemitism. De facto, these distinctions are seldomly clear-cut, as the different types are intertwined with each other.
What this is about:
Conspiracy theories, BDS, IHRA’s working definition, structural antisemitism – debates on antisemitism often require a lot of background knowledge. And then there is Israel, which everybody seems to talk about even though the subject is anti-Jewish discrimination!? This handout tries to do justice to the complexity of antisemitism while still explaining the basics of anti-antisemitism in simple terms. We do not want to imply that multi-faceted issues and academic debates can be broken down to a few sentences. The questions and answers in this handout offer first steps and orientation and refer to further information.
Note on terminology
Depending on the context, we speak of “the Jews” or, simply, Jews. The notion of “the Jews” implies an image and corresponding ascriptions, most of them negative. In this handout, we want to distinguish between “the Jews” as a stereotypical stand-in ("Conceptual Jew") and actual Jews. We do this to emphasize that antisemitic images do not describe reality but an ideological image. When we refer to antisemitic world views and the image of “the greedy, powerful Jews” we use quotation marks. When we refer to actual Jewish life, we speak of Jews or Jewish people.
What is Anti-Judaism?
Anti-Judaism is closely related to the question of when antisemitism first appeared. Anti-Judaism is used to describe anti-Jewish hostility based on religion. Today’s images frequently have their sources in Christianity, although some are even older than Christianity.
It was the church’s hateful, Anti-Judaist propaganda that was responsible for spreading Jew hatred in Roman Antiquity and the Middle Ages. “The Jews” were blamed collectively for the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and called out for “deicide”. Attacks on synagogues are reported as early as the 4th century AD. Throughout the centuries, explicitly anti-Jewish decrees were issued. Further Anti-Judaist narratives include Jews supposedly poisoning wells, murdering Christian children (blood libel) or Jewish usury. Not least, “the Jews“ were accused of unleashing the Plague.
Time and time again, there were pogroms, persecution and expulsion, most famously the wave of violence from 1348 to 1351 whose geographical spread and violent quality exceeded previous events. In Erfurt, Germany, alone, almost 1000 Jews were murdered. 300 Jewish communities were annihilated.
Today’s antisemitism builds on this Anti-Judaism and maintains stereotypical ideas about “the Jews”. In the 19th and 20th century, these were “confirmed” by pseudo-scientific “raciology” that claimed it was in “the Jews’” nature to enslave the world. In National Socialism, “the Jews” were defined as the “counter-race” to the "Aryans" who had to be annihilated entirely to rid the earth of evil.
Jew hatred has been around for more than 2000 years, and up until today, Anti-Judaist myths of “the Jews” pulling the strings persist. They are updated over and over again in modern conspiracy theories and blend with other types of antisemitism. The originally US-American online movement QAnon, for example, believes in a secret elite comprised of US public figures who controls the world. This elite supposedly kidnaps and kills children and is assigned Satanist, sadist and pedophiliac attributes. This constitutes an update of the old Anti-Judaist blood libel.
What is secondary/Post-Shoah antisemitism?
Schuldabwehrantisemitismus (guilt-defensiveness antisemitism), secondary antisemitism or Post-Shoah antisemitism: These terms describe deflection of guilt and responsibility for the crimes of National Socialism as well as the rejection of Shoah remembrance. A frequent example of secondary antisemitism are debates around the term Schlussstrich, which means claiming there has been enough remembering and accounting for the past and the Germans have suffered long enough for Nazi crimes – and the idea that today’s generation no longer has any relation to National Socialism.
This type of antisemitism includes defiling places of remembrance or speaking of Auschwitz as a “moral cudgel” that is being wielded to hold against Germans their “eternal guilt”. It also becomes apparent in various ways when Covid measures are compared to National Socialism at so-called “Querdenken” rallies: one example is wearing a Yellow Star saying “Unvaccinated” - as if unvaccinated people were treated like Jews in National Socialism. This is a trivialization of the Shoah because people and groups talk about themselves as “the new Jews” as well as a reversal of historical roles of perpetrators and victims.
This reversal can also be seen when Jews are seen as partially guilty of the rejection and persecution they experience. The idea that “the Jews” acted “weird” or “not trustworthy” can be seen in today’s use of “Jew” as an insult.
What is modern antisemitism?
In modern antisemitism, Jews are made responsible for all evil in the world, used as scapegoats for crises, portrayed as “subverting” societies or falsely blamed for structural problems.
Often, modern antisemitism is racialized and Jews are labeled as fundamentally different and thus not part of society. In the process, old Anti-Judaist imagery is updated, for example the idea of “the greedy Jew” which since the Middle Ages accused Jews to get rich illegitimately and at the expense of others.
Modern antisemitism evolved in the course of the 19th century. The Nazis radicalized it further and used it to justify their homicidal policies: up until 1945, they murdered six Million Jews from all over Europe. Yet, modern antisemitism did not vanish with the fall of National Socialism. Today, its imagery is confounded with other types of antisemitism, as well as regressive types of anticapitalism and criticism of globalization or Anti-Americanism. One example are readings of the Covid-19 pandemic as a global Jewish world conspiracy, but also statements that blame individual people with bad intentions for complex economic processes and financial crises or see the US as responsible for all evil in the world.
What is structural antisemitsm?
What is Israel-related antisemitism?
Israel-related antisemitism is when antisemitic images are directed against Israel. This is the case when Israel is demonized, when the state’s right to exist is called into question or when Israel is held to different standards than other democratic states (-> the 3D test). Israel-related antisemitism often serves as a workaround because antisemitism can be expressed without actually talking about antisemitic ideas about “the Jews”. Israel-related antisemitism does not work differently than other types of antisemitism but only uses Israel to express antisemitism.
How can we distinguish criticism from Israel-related antisemitism? The 3D test
Antisemitism, the hatred of Jews, can also be directed at Israel as a Jewish state (-> What is Israel-related antisemitism?). It is not always easy to recognize Israel-related antisemitism right away and to distinguish it from legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its policies. Ultimately, there is no universal rule to apply to each individual case. However, the 3D test can be helpful. This method was developed by Israeli author and politician Natan Sharansky in 2004 and applies three criteria: Demonization, Double Standards and Delegitimization. If a statement can be characterized using one of these 3 “D”s, it is probably antisemitic. The following questions can be helpful:
Is the State of Israel being demonized – characterized as evil incarnate? If so, the criticism is antisemitic. This happens for example when Israel’s policies are equated with the crimes of German National Socialism.
Are similar policies of other democratic states condemned less harshly than the policies of Israel? If so, the criticism is antisemitic. When Israel defends itself after rocket attacks, there will be intense criticism unfailingly. If other democratic states defended themselves in the same way this would not be called into question to the same extent.
Recognizing Israel-related antisemitism is not always as easy as in these examples. Further information can be found in our handout What is Israel-related antisemitism?
What is BDS?
BDS is short for „Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”. Time and time again, it is in the center of debates surrounding antisemitism. BDS is an international campaign without very solid organizational structure who has been operating against Jews and Israelis under the guise of commitment to the Human Rights of Palestinians since 2005. As stated in its name, BDS calls for a boycott of Israeli products as well as sanctions against Israel. Furthermore, BDS pressures artists who want to perform in Israel and has been part of efforts to exclude Israelis from international conferences or festivals.
What is the IHRA definition?
The IHRA working definition includes the many types of antisemitism and gives concrete examples of their manifestation. Not only does it state: “Manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity”, but it also describes precisely what Israel-related antisemitism looks like. It includes the 3D test.
Many NGOs and governmental organisations all over the world use this definition in their work. It describes comprehensively the types of antisemitism that Jews actually experience. In 2021, the European Commission published a handbook for the practical use of this definition that further explains it.
Are comparisons between Covid-19 measures and the persecution of Jews during National Socialism antisemitic?
Alas, who is to blame? The Left, the Right, or “the Muslims”?
Antisemitism is deeply engrained in the very center of our society. According to a study by the World Jewish Congress (WJC) from the year 2022, one in five Germans harbors antisemitic resentment – one in three even among young adults. These numbers alone make it implausible to blame antisemitism in Germany on one group, one political affiliation or one minority.
Antisemitism is a problem in all parts of society, and consequently manifests itself with no regard to political affiliations, social milieus and education. Parts of the so-called political center prove to be especially susceptible to calls for a Schlussstrich (an end of Holocaust remembrance, -> What is secondary/Post-Shoah antisemitism?). In Muslim communities as well as the political Left, Israel-related antisemitism is especially relevant. Within the Far Right, antisemitism serves as an ideological basis and manifests in particular violent ways.
What is especially striking and dangerous is the way antisemitism can bind together all these different groups and manages to get these sometimes very different milieus to rally together.
Studies: Just “how much” antisemitism is there, and how do you measure it?
According to the WJC, 21 % of German adults are of the opinion “the Jews” had too much influence in media and finance. The “Mitte” study sees numbers for a strong opposition to antisemitic statements on the decline – 12 % of the participants do not firmly oppose antisemitic prejudice. With Israel-related antisemitism, numbers are considerably higher yet. The numbers of antisemitic incidents remains continuously at a high level. In the year 2021 alone, the Bundesinnenministerium (Ministery of the Interior) registered more than 3000 criminal offenses, online as well as out on the streets.
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The article is a translation of the publication "Antisemitismus - Einfach erklärt". Translation by Fabian Schroers. The publication is available in German here. Bildungs- und Aktionswochen gegen Antisemitismus (Weeks of Action against Antisemitism) are Germany’s largest coalition against antisemitism. They receive funding from Beauftragter der Bundesregierung für jüdisches Leben in Deutschland und den Kampf gegen Antisemitismus (Comissioner of the Federal Government for Jewish Life in Germany and the Fight against Antisemitism)