Anti-Semitism revisited

Saturday 22 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Pit Theatre Moral Dilemmas
Watch the video of this session at the bottom of this page.

Over the past year, the public manifestation of anti-Semitism has become more frequent and explicit. Incidents have occurred on university campuses on both sides of the Atlantic. In June, York University paid £1,000 in compensation to a student who had endured anti-Semitic abuse throughout his university career. At UC Berkeley, a campus building was defaced with the message: ‘Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber’. And Google recently uncovered a browser extension that highlighted Jewish names so as to demonstrate the prevalence of Jewish involvement in the media. The conspiratorial tone with which the app was conceived suggests the semantics of contemporary anti-Semitism draw on the old idioms of hate. But the fact that anti-Semitic incidents take place on university campuses rather than in beer cellars or other far-right hangouts is a clue to the fact that something new is going on. Many incidents condemned as anti-Semitic have to do with criticism of Israel and the Israeli government, or of ‘Zionism’ as an ideology. While anti-Zionists point out that there is nothing necessarily anti-Semitic about these criticisms, and protest that charges of anti-Semitism are being used to shut down legitimate criticism of Israel, many observers are concerned that pejorative terms like ‘Zio’ are being thrown around in a way more reminiscent of racism than political debate. And when the President-elect of the NUS dismissed Birmingham University as a ‘Zionist outpost’, was she really talking about ideology or demography? What really is the intention behind these statements?

However we understand it, the entanglement of anti-Semitism with hostility to Israel means the phenomenon is now more closely associated with the political left than the right. Former London mayor Ken Livingstone was suspended from the Labour Party over comments suggesting Hitler was a Zionist, which the co-chair of Oxford University’s Labour Club also resigned over allegations of anti-Semitism, but an inquiry led by former Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti found the party was ‘not overrun by anti-Semitism’. Critics were not placated and insist the left has a deep problem with anti-Semitism, but others counter that a rise of anti-Semitism is also evident in the anti-PC so-called ‘alt-right’.

So, in a society constantly warning against Islamophobia and homophobia, is anti-Semitism just another phobia to be bandied about for political purposes? Or does its tragic history give it a deeper significance? Most important of all, what if any are the distinct features of 21st century anti-Semitism, and does it represent a clear and present danger? If so, how should it be challenged?