The Problem With "Antisemitism Studies"

The Problem With "Antisemitism Studies"

On October 26th, the Board of Education for the San Diego Unified School District passed a resolution determining that anti-Zionism should be understood as largely synonymous with antisemitism, part of the multi-millenium hatred of Jews. This ruling is only significant when seen as one of hundreds of similar rulings, from college campuses to non-profit boardrooms all the way to attempts at federal legislation. The is part of how the world of Israel-friendly NGOs are creating a single stream of consciousness about the “Jewish State”: anti-Zionism is the “New Antisemitism,” the same as classical Jew hatred yet now directed at Jewish power and Israel, conceived of as a “Jewish collectivity.”

Shlomo Abramovich points out that this definition is a change from how we conventionally understood antisemitism, hatred of Jews as Jews, and is done as many want Israel to become the key component of Jewish identity in the diaspora. This is why the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is labeled antisemitic, because Israel advocates would want to see attacks on the Israeli state as an attack on the legitimacy of Jewish safety, identity, and continuity. “Labeling the BDS as antisemitic creates the links between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, and between Israel and Jews,” writes Abramovich. “Doing so strengthens Israel’s image and self-identification as the representative of the interests of the Jewish people and even of Judaism.”

This shift is taking place across many venues, including the academy, where a coterie of scholars under the guise of Antisemitism Studies have created a sequence of institutes, journals, and scholarly imprints hoping to unpack this new world of antisemitism with “rigorous” scholarship. In the U.S., the best known of these is the Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, which operates the Antisemitism Studies journal and imprint on Indiana University Press. It is headed by Alvin Rosenfeld, a scholar mostly known for his stream of allegations of left-wing antisemitism, often leveled at the left and happily published by groups like the American Jewish Committee. A similar institute would be Vidal Sassoon Institute at Hebrew University, created by the late Robert Wistrich, a scholar who defined the field of Antisemitism Studies before his death nearly fifteen years ago.

Inside the world of Antisemitism Studies, Israel is the ultimate litmus test, which allows these scholars to level accusations of bigotry at Palestinian solidarity activists, the broader political left, and people of color. This creates an opportunity where the claims of the left can be called into question, particularly the left’s antiracist agenda, which they say uses criticism of Israel, the United States, and “whiteness” as a code to revive age-old antisemitic libels. This kind of discourse shifts the Overton Window on these issues to the right by providing a cover to conservative academics who want to dismiss ideas about institutional racism and the effects of colonialism: we aren’t being racist, we’re simply fighting antisemitism.

Rosenfeld’s most recent contribution to this field is called Contending With Antisemitism in a Rapidly Changing Political Climate, an anthology of scholarship on contemporary antisemitism. It promises to be a cutting edge volume that brought together all the relevant experts in the field (the conference from which the contributions were found had all of sixty people in attendance), and while there is ostensible diversity in its chapters, there is a clear throughline to the collection that is soaked in its own ideology of indifference, denial, and dismissal of anyone that strays from their rigid orthodoxy.

Despite clear evidence in the U.S. that far-right antisemitism is the primary threat to Jews, over half of the chapters in Contending with Antisemitism in a Rapidly Changing Political Climate focus on left-wing antisemitism. Even in chapters that are ostensibly about both left and right antisemitism, as with Linda Maizels’ chapter, she spends the depth of her research on Palestinian solidarity groups and displays not even a passing familiarity with the alt-right.  “Jews at campuses where BDS and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) dominate continually stand accused of aligning with evil, being okay with apartheid, approving and serving as apologists for racism, and being unable in their alleged white privilege to even imagine oppression,” writes Kenneth Waltzer, in a chapter that refuses to cite almost any of its claims and attempts to correlate antisemitic incidents with Palestinian activism even when there is no connection whatsoever. This presents the main model for argumentation in this book, and in much of the scholarship release from this and similar institutes: make sweeping statements about supposedly widespread and egregious antisemitism, ascribe the worst possible motivations of your detractors, and assume the most fringe examples represent the center of Palestinian activism. Their perspective is presented as so matter of fact that no citation is needed.

Throughout the book, the most extreme and egregious excesses of the Palestinian solidarity movement are used as key examples, such as claims that Israel is a “Nazi state” enacting a “Holocaust” in Palestine. In the dozens of Palestinian solidarity events I have attended in my life, I have never seen these types of signs welcomed by organizers, and there is a general consciousness in the movement as to why this kind of rhetoric would be problematic. These examples are not definitive pictures of the Palestinian movement. The blunt approach that each writer has, lacking any nuance, is typical for academics who have little understanding how community and political organizing actually works, and instead simply stand back in horror when they read a news story about a panicked reaction to someone calling Israel an “apartheid state” at a campus event. Jeremy Corbyn is a favorite villain throughout, whose political convictions are boiled down to only his most embarrassing mistakes and an assumed subconscious revulsion to anything Jewish.

Perhaps the most egregious example of this is Miriam F. Elman’s essay alleging Jewish Voice for Peace (including several well known Jewish activists) is antisemitic. Using the most elementary understanding of Palestinian solidarity organizing, she makes sweeping statements assuming claims of Zionist colonialism could only be rooted in a perennial antisemitism. The chapter follows a common pattern that this type of scholarship does: few citations, heavy adjectivizing descriptions, and allegations that are so hyperbolic you might fairly call them fabrications. Jasbir Puar is said to be engaging in Blood Libel. Linda Sarsour is actually a right-wing Muslim because she wears a hijab, which makes her perspective illegitimate. Any use of “white privilege,” “settler colonialism,'' or “Israeli violence” is rooted in double standards that would only be satisfied when Jews become helpless victims. JVP’s religious programming is denounced not because it is hateful, but because it “subverts'' what this author believes should be the key themes of the High Holy Days and the “centrality of Zion to Judaism.” Because Zionism is an important feature to American Jewish identity, criticism of it is assumed to be criticism of Jews and the denial of Jewish access to identity. This simplistic banality of logic allows for rapid fire accusations of Jew hatred, and moves the goal post on what is acceptable far to the right. Inside this world of Antisemitism Studies, even criticism of the Occupation, the Settlements, of the Basic Law, and of nationalism itself should all be suspect, likely rooted in something much older than Israel itself.

Jewish Voice for Peace is certainly not above criticism, and, as many detractors have noted, they have often failed to adequately confront antisemitism in the Palestinian solidarity movement or elsewhere. The essay gets right that they were late to disaffiliate with Alison Weir, and many locals contested her expulsion, which showed an inability, or unwillingness, to see how criticism of Israel can take on traditionally anti-Jewish tropes. The pressing violence of the Occupation takes precedence, making allegations of antisemitism appear as though they pale in terms of importance. This is a tactical and moral error, and it is where JVP needs to grow. But that is hardly the same as making them the center of an impending antisemitic threat, unless your conception of the future of antisemitism hinges almost entirely on Israel. Not every misstep or poor decision around Israel or Jewish political issues is rooted in antisemitism, and not every Jew who disagrees on those issues is self-hating.

This shift in the Overton window is best seen in a parallel track of reasoning through the book: that antiracism is a codeword for antisemitism. This discourse suggests that because Jews are white, their oppression is often rendered invisible because of the way that antiracism and whiteness are framed. Balazs Berkovits’ chapter makes this point, which is one that the Jewish left has often contended with when trying to develop a progressive approach to fighting antisemitism. But this is where the reasonableness of Berkovits’ approach goes off the rails, as with the rest of the authors. The discomfort of white Jewish students is taken as evidence of antisemitism, and sweeping statements about the “guilt” Jewish students are forced to endure re taken as fact. In this and other volumes, narratives about American imperialism are seen as a way of erasing Jewish self-determination, and attacks on whiteness are essentially acts of Jewish invisibilization. While Contending With Antisemitism in a Rapidly Changing Political Climate is by no means the worst offender in this genre, there is a common theme that sees antiracist discourse as inherently problematic. Jews feel like pawns in this conversation, where they are used as evidence that antiracism is actually only about privileging certain types of people and not about eradicating oppression at all. The feelings of anxiety that white students and faculty might have at having white privilege exposed is then understood only in terms of antisemitism, collapsing those experiences into one. This breaks the kind of alliance that Jewish students concerned about antisemitism could have with other marginalized students on campus, reifying the narrative that only through something like exclusiveness Jewish nationalism could we possibly be rendered safe.

Islamophobia is a prominent feature of a lot of these volumes, yet Michael Whine’s chapter is the only one in this book that focuses primarily on Islamic antisemitism and, while making problematic blanket statements throughout, it does provide some interesting insight into the way that antisemitic in Islamic communities is often misunderstood or misattributed to Islam itself. One of the key problems of this book, like much of the scholarship from the various Antisemitism Institutes, is that there is also legitimate scholarship mixed in. Marc Grimm’s chapter on Alternative for Deutchsland, Dana Ionescu’s chapter on anti-Circumcision campaigns in German, and Jan Grabowski’s chapter on Holocaust Revisionism in Poland are all important contributions that deserve to be nestled in a better book.

In a conversation with a friend recently I was sharing my dismay at how intellectually bankrupt much of the recent scholarship on antisemitism has been, this book included.

“But why do you care,” he asked, pointing out that it was, after all, a couple of hundred scholars at most.

It would be easy to dismiss this, but when some degree of research and scholarship on this subject is necessary, this is what is available. Rosenfeld is the Chair of Jewish Studies at Indiana University (a department that hosted celebrated scholars like Shaul Magid), and yet he has never seemed to write anything serious on Judaism itself. This vision of Jewish Studies is one where the persecution of Jews takes center stage, where Judaism and Jewishness seem only to exist in the fight against antisemitism through exclusivist Zionism. In a world where the fight for the future of Jewish identity is relevant, particularly a secular Jewish identity, these are the people helping to define it.

They are also the people helping to codify these perspectives into law. Throughout the book, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition is taken as the standard that should be used to set policy internationally. Several chapters focus on how to get more organizations, civic, political, legal, to adopt the IHRA definition, as well as how to defend this sacred description to critics. The only deviation from this norm was from Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, whose criticism of using the IHRA in mechanisms like Title XI discrimination cases is that they are ineffective marginalizations of free speech. Instead, she takes an free speech centric approach popular on the righ today, saying that instead of heading off anti-Israel speech at the source we should defend the rights of Jewish students who feel as though they are being impeded by anti-Zionist discourse. Feeling is the operative word here, meaning that the perception that the campus is unfriendly to pro-Israel events would be the metric, as well as other groups who claim marginalization, such as conservative students who say their free speech is in jeopardy.

The ubiquity of the IHRA has become one of the most effective tools at undermining Palestinian solidarity organizing internationally as it uses a stark list of examples that defines in almost any criticisms of Israel. Since the IHRA adopted the working definition in 2016, it has been taken up by governments all around Europe, the European Parliament and the United States Department of states and Civil Service Commission. Most recently, it has been used as a way of determining the unacceptability of BDS boycotts and resolutions, creating a systemic, and even legal, backlash to Palestinian solidarity organizing, which can have a profound chilling effect. Rosenberg is a senior fellow at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, which advocates for public policy development. This kind of role is shared by many of his colleagues, helping organizations and government agencies to shape a vision of how antisemitism should be understood and confronted. During the Trump years the process of using the IHRA definition to undermine Palestinian advocacy as Trump brought on Kenneth Marcus to the Department of Education, various state school districts and agencies redefined antisemitism, and Trump did the same, leading to complaints filed on campuses. Biden has shown that he will likely continue this trend in favor of the IHRA definition, despite alternatives like the Jerusalem Declaration becoming favored by many Jewish scholars and community organizations.

The Jerusalem Declaration, as a positive alternative, holds a unique opportunity for how to better understand antisemitism, and defines antisemitism as “discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).” Antisemitism is hatred or bigotry against Jews as Jews, with that hatred hinging on the uniqueness of their Jewishness. This can be racial, or religious, or even political, but it has to be demonstrated that it emerges from the target’s Jewishness or perceived Jewishness. While the IHRA definition is not wholly different from the Jerusalem Declaration, what changes between them is their examples. Instead of hinging almost solely on how Israel is criticized, the Jerusalem Declaration takes an almost analytical approach to parsing out good examples from poor ones. It gives examples of antisemitic critiques of Israel and also shows how some criticisms are not necessarily antisemitic, such as “[supporting] the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights, as encapsulated in international law.” By focusing on making distinctions, and bringing the weight of many scholars to its construction, the Jerusalem Declaration offers a needed counter-definition to that hailed by the IHRA and academics like Rosenfeld. This distinction is at the heart of what is missing from books like Contending with Antisemitism in a Rapidly Changing Political Climate, where a lack of sophistication allows for blanket statements that appear politically opportunistic.

The reason that conservative voices on this issue have come to dominate these discussions is that the left has been largely silent on antisemitism or even downplays its importance, assuming every accusation is in bad faith. There are organizations that are taking this seriously, such as the recent Jews Against White Nationalism project that sought to educate people around the latent antisemitism creeping into America’s political right. Groups like IfNotNow and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice have taken up this mission, integrating consciousness on antisemitism into political education so that participants can have a more clearly intersectional view of oppression. Without a clear understanding of what antisemitism is we cannot have a program to fight it, and so we need real alternatives to what Rosenfeld and his institute are offering. Groups that emerge from the Jewish left, such as historic organizations like New Jewish Agenda or groups that contemporarily take on Israeli politics from a progressive bent like Tikkun or many of the organizations associated with the political side of the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements, have shown that supporting Palestinian rights can be an important part of Jewish political life. These organizations clearly have no antisemitic content and, conversely, are intensely involved in the preservation and continuity of Jewish life, and see repairing ethical wrongs in the Israeli context is in line with their conception of Jewish spirituality. When the this kind of activism is discussed as though it holds antisemitism as a piece of its DNA, it erases the rich part of Jewish life that has also committed itself to Palestinian survival and autonomy. By assuming that opposition to Zionism or Israeli state policy is a defining characteristic is a way of silencing a growing population of young Jews who are trying to critically engage with these issues, and refuse to let establishment organizations define Jewishness for them.

By looking towards alternative definitions like the Jerusalem Declaration and the history of the Jewish left’s fight against antisemitism, we have a more holistic option for how to confront the issue. By seeing antisemitism as a piece of the larger matrix of oppression rather than a perennial, unstoppable and incomparable force, we can actually intervene by building solidarity with others.

The imprint that Rosenfeld runs has published other titles in the same vein, some of which, such as 2006’s Resurgent Antisemitism depend mostly on combining frantic fears around antisemitism with both inconsistent and illogical allegations leveled mostly at young activists and minorities. Rosenfeld wanted to build up the field of Antisemitism Studies, and he has: into an almost unrecognizable basket of hyperbole and scholarly fraud, the worst examples of which end up overshadowing the quality works. As heated debates continue over how to define antisemitism and, more importantly, what to do about it, these forms of academic imitation act as little more than performance art to obscure the issue to make larger political points. It’s easy to point out the damage this does to those on the butt end of trumped up allegations, but the other casualty in this story is the fight against antisemitism itself. These sorts of historiographies undercut antiracist attempts at taking antisemitism seriously, lending to the charge that claims of antisemitism are owned by the political right. For those that think political centrism and Israeli nationalism does little to unseat any form of oppression, antisemitism or otherwise, Rosenfeld’s game has pushed generations out of the fight and into a passive malaise.

There is good scholarship in Contending with Antisemitism in a Rapidly Changing Political Climate, just like there quality research dotted throughout the Antisemitism Studies canon, but they will need better colleagues if they want their work to have an influence. If we want to have alternatives to what the institute is offering, then we are going to have to build it. Ignoring the issue won’t get us there.