Some Disorderly Thoughts on Antisemitism and Related Matters


In response to protests at American universities against Israel’s genocidal “war” in Gaza, the United States House of Representatives accepted the “Antisemitism Awareness Act” on April 30. This act codifies the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism as well as its attached list of eleven “contemporary examples of antisemitism”. Most of those examples are antisemitic indeed by any reasonable interpretation of the term, but three of those – namely, examples 7, 8, and 10 – are a bit more dubious, largely due to their ambiguity. The text of these examples is the following:

(7) — Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
(8) — Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
(10) — Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

Example (7) effectively identifies anti-Zionism with antisemitism. This is not new, as the term “new antisemitism” has been used in the same way for about half a century. Opposing Zionism does not necessarily have anything to do with antisemitism. Of course, it is possible to oppose Zionism on antisemitic grounds, but one could also oppose it on various other (non-antisemitic) grounds. Moreover, one could also oppose (the existence of) the state of Israel, while supporting a Jewish right of self-determination, as the state of Israel is not the only possible form this right could have taken or could take. The state of Israel is a deeply colonial project – it established a Jewish colony in previous populated lands and violently removed much of its previous population. Anyone who opposes colonialism should, therefore, oppose Israel, but that doesn’t imply a denial of a Jewish right of self-determination in general.

If applying double standards to the Jewish people or to Israel1 is antisemitic as (8) proclaims, then applying double standards to any other ethnic group (or the state that gives form to its right of self-determination) would be equally problematic. So, denying the Romani people a right to self-determination would be anti-Romani, for example. And, more to the point perhaps, denying the Palestinian people a right to self-determination would be anti-Palestinian. What’s problematic is that the colonial nature of the state of Israel is an infringement on the Palestinian right to self-determination. (This point is moot, of course, as Palestinians effectively have no rights. The way they are treated and the callous disregard of their suffering suggests that – in the eyes of many – Palestinians aren’t even really human.2) If it is not allowed to apply double standards to the Jewish people or to Israel, then it’s not allowed to apply double standards in their favor either. Consistency here, would require recognition of, and support for a Palestinian state and would undermine the legitimacy of Israel itself. Consequently, consistency with regards to (8) may turn out to violate (7).

That’s not how (8) is intended, of course. Its intention is merely to denounce as “antisemitic” any kind of claim that demands Israel to be better or nicer than other states. This isn’t much less problematic, however, as this is an extremely ambiguous criterion. Let’s say that Jane is deeply concerned about the Palestinians and demands that they are treated humanely by Israel, but Jane doesn’t know much about the Rohingya, and thus fails to explicitly demand that they are treated humanely by Myanmar. Does this mean that she is applying double standards to Israel and, therefore, is antisemitic? Would it make a difference if she would know about the Rohingya, but just was concerned more with the Palestinians for some personal reason? Or does (8) merely mean that, if you’d make a ranking of countries by the atrocities they commit, as long as Israel isn’t at the very bottom of that list, criticizing Israel is antisemitic?

And then there’s (10), which doesn’t allow one to make comparisons to Nazi Germany. So, when I say that, unlike Nazi Germany, Israel doesn’t use gas-chambers to exterminate a people, I’m making such a comparison, and I’m, therefore, guilty of antisemitism. If I’d say that Israel is a much more democratic and pleasant country than Nazi Germany was, then I’m making such a comparison, and are, thus, an antisemite. That is absurd.3

What’s even more problematic is that the logically illiterate are likely to commit the fallacy of the undistributed middle and call “antisemitic” any accusation of Israel of something that Nazi Germany also committed. To give an example of this fallacy: Frogs are green. Grass is green. Therefore, frogs are grass. Somewhat similar, but applied to what (10) doesn’t allow: Genocide was committed by Nazi Germany. Genocide is being committed by Israel. Therefore, Nazi Germany and Israel are the same. This makes no sense, of course, but the point is that, to the logically illiterate, accusing Israel of genocide may seem like a comparison of Israel with Nazi Germany, because Nazi Germany also committed genocide. Unfortunately, logical illiteracy is widespread, especially among politicians.

In practice, the problematic and ambiguous “contemporary examples of antisemitism” support the abuse of the “antisemitism” accusation to embarrass, incriminate, marginalize, and/or repress opposition to policies and actions by the state of Israel (and/or agents acting on its behalf). This kind of abuse doesn’t need the IHRA Working Definition, of course, as supporters of the state of Israel have been perfectly capable of launching the “antisemitism” slur at their opponents without it, but the acceptance by the US House will embolden and strengthen this abuse.

addendum (May 4)

The more I think about (7), the more problematic this “example of antisemitism” becomes. Why would “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” necessarily be antisemitic? What if you deny every people a right to self-determination? It is, of course, antisemitic to deny the Jewish people a right to self-determination just because they are Jews, but there may be very many other reasons to deny that right. What gives a people a right to self-determination anyway? And is there such a thing as “the Jewish people”? What identifies them as a people? What defines/identifies any people, for that matter? Do the Romani have a right to self-determination? And Native Americans? Australian Aboriginals? Scots? Catalans? Corsicans? Palestinians? Who has that right and why? As mentioned, there may be very many reasons to deny some, many, or all of these people – including the Jewish people (assuming that they are “a people” in the relevant sense) – their right to self-determination that have nothing to do with antisemitism.

Moreover, as already mentioned above, even if you grant the Jewish people their right to self-determination, this doesn’t mean that you have to accept Israel as the form taken by that right. Let’s say that you grant a homeless man a right to housing. That doesn’t mean that that homeless man has the right to occupy your neighbors house (even if his great-great-grandfather lived there) and lock your neighbor in an ever-shrinking part of the basement. But that’s essentially what Israel has done and continues to do, supported by the West. It should be glaringly obvious that this is deeply problematic. It should also be glaringly obvious that there is nothing “antisemitic” about reaching that conclusion.

Going over the list of “examples of antisemitism” once more, I realized that there also is a problem with (6): “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” I agree that such an accusation is antisemitic if it is groundless. However, if there would be evidence that (all?, most?, many?, a majority of? − this is another problematic ambiguity) Jewish citizens of other countries are more loyal to Israel than to the countries they are citizens of, then saying that this is the case cannot be antisemitic. No claim that is backed up by evidence can be “antisemitic”. That said, I don’t think that there is such evidence, and I believe that (6) is very likely to be false.

I’m also starting to wonder about (1) “Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.” The problem here is twofold: (i) Is calling for harming Jews in the name of something that is neither a radical ideology nor an extremist view of religion not antisemitic? Note that (1) doesn’t imply this, but it does suggest it, or raise the question, at least. More importantly, (ii) What defines a “radical ideology” and what counts as “calling for harming Jews”? Is, for example, the Palestinian struggle against occupation and for survival a “radical ideology”? If so, why? And does a slogan like “From the river to the sea, Palestine shall be free” calling for harming Jews? I don’t interpret it as such, but others might interpret it differently.

addendum (May 7)

The student protests mentioned in the first sentence of this article are not (overall!) antisemitic, by the way. Or at least not by any reasonable definition of “antisemitism”. However, there appear to have been some (or perhaps even many) antisemitic incidents at several of those protests.4 This is a serious problem because antisemitism it itself a problem, but also because it undermines the aims and message of those protests.


For years, I have dedicated the second class meeting of my Introduction to Philosophy course to the Holocaust. To emphasize the seriousness of the topic, I usually start by reading a short passage from Robert Nozick’s “The Holocaust”:

It is difficult enough even to chronicle what occurred – knowledge of much of the suffering and bestial cruelty has disappeared along with its victims – and simply reading the details staggers and numbs the mind: the wanton cruelty of the German perpetrators in continual beatings, the forcible herding of people into synagogues then set on fire to burn them alive there, dousing gasoline on men in prayer shawls and then burning them, dashing children’s brains against walls while their parents were forced to watch, so-called “medical experiments”, machine-gunning people into graves they were forced to dig themselves, ripping beards off old men, mocking people while inflicting horrors on them, …5

I find this passage hard to read, and I’m sure there have been occasions when that was quite obvious to my students. For well over a decade I have practiced a kind of meditation on death and suffering aimed at better understanding their nature, and as a result of that practice it has become very hard for me not to feel some of the terror, horror, and despair. I find reading reports about other atrocities – like those committed by Hamas on October 7 of last year, for example – similarly horrific and distressing. While I think it is possible to (at least to some extent) understand the actions by Hamas, they cannot possibly be excused. However, the same is true for the Israeli response to those atrocities. That response is sometimes referred to as the “war” in Gaza, but appears to be better described as a genocidal extermination campaign (complete with orchestrated starvation, mass graves, and a long list of other wanton cruelties and war crimes).

The topic of my class on the Holocaust is a couple of questions: How was it possible – how could we, humans, do something like that? And how does it matter – that is, how does the answers to the previous question matter – to philosophy in particular? Of course, the question about how it is possible for humans to something like that cannot possibly be answered in a single class meeting, so my focus has always been on two cornerstones: (1) the kind of thoughtless acceptance and obedience associated with what Hannah Arendt has called “the banality of evil”, and (2) othering.

According to Arendt, SS Obersturmbahnführer Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief organizers of the Holocaust, was a bureaucrat dutifully and unthinkingly doing his job and uncritically accepting the circumstances he found himself in.6 Cristopher Browning’s research on German Reserve Police Battalion 101, which systematically executed thousands of Jews in Poland, reveals a similar unthinking adherence to duty and uncritical acceptance of circumstances.7 This is “the banality of evil” – it starts with not-thinking. But this isn’t the whole story. Eichmann was not just not thinking – he was not thinking about non-humans. He was a bureaucrat manipulating numbers and symbols on paper.

Reflecting on the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Slavenka Drakulić wrote:

I understand now that nothing but “otherness” killed Jews, and it began with naming them, by reducing them to the other. Then everything became possible. Even the worst atrocities like concentration camps or the slaughtering of civilians in Croatia or Bosnia.8

Note (May 4)
In “Othering, an Analysis”, I described othering as follows:
❝Othering is the simultaneous construction of the self or in-group and the other or out-group in mutual and unequal opposition through identification of some desirable characteristic that the self/in-group has and the other/out-group lacks and/or some undesirable characteristic that the other/out-group has and the self/in-group lacks. Othering thus sets up a superior self/in-group in contrast to an inferior other/out-group, but this superiority/inferiority is nearly always left implicit.❞9
(While it was never intended as such, this – or a similar passage from the paper’s abstract – is often quoted as a definition of “othering”.)

“Othering” is the identification of one’s own group in opposition to others or other groups in such a way that one’s own group turns out to be superior. Such construction of the other as inferior or backward justifies exclusion and oppression, but the main purpose of this unequal identity construction is self-affirmation. People need a more or less positive self-image, and the easiest way to achieve that is to construct one’s own identity and the identity of the social groups one belongs to as superior. Consequently, othering is common, easily triggered, and extremely widespread. It is also – as Drakulić observed – extremely dangerous.

As mentioned, Eichmann was a bureaucrat manipulating numbers and symbols on paper. This is the limit of negative empathy – reducing the other to something, to something non-human, to some thing – then indeed, anything becomes possible. The Nazis depicted jews as subhuman, and then indeed, everything became possible. A powerful current within Israeli society depicts Palestinians as subhuman. And on the other side, many Palestinians dehumanize Israelis. These Israelis and Palestinians are locked in a cycle of mutual othering fed by violence and hate, reproducing violence and hate, reproducing othering.

There is a stanza from Thich Nhat Hanh’s famous poem Please Call Me by My True Names that I sometimes use for (a variant of) the aforementioned meditation practice:

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.10

It is simultaneously easy and very hard to adapt the text of this poem to the conflict in Israel/Palestine. The Hamas terrorist and the Israeli teenage girl he raped and murdered on her bed. The IDF fighter emptying his rifle and the Palestinian child dying in a haze of bullets. It’s easy to come up with such pairings. The hard part is meditating on them.

The point of Nhat Hanh’s poem, which is partially intended as a meditation exercise, is to truly understand these different, interdependent roles. To “be” them. The dehumanization involved in othering – that is, the perception of the other as something subhuman or mere thing, which makes it possible to treat the other as a mere thing – is the limit of negative empathy. Or more precisely, it is the complete lack of empathy. By “being” or becoming the other, the other ceases to be other. Empathy is the remedy for othering.

But that’s not easy. It’s easy for me – having no stake in this conflict – to say that people should develop an understanding of, and empathy for others. (Easy to say indeed, but meditation on something like Nhat Hanh’s poem is not easy at all.) But once othering is entrenched – and being part of a conflict will usually have that effect – breaking the cycle of othering by developing an understanding of (and preferably even empathy for) the other is hard (and meditating on being the other is even harder). In fact, it is often even actively resisted. It is (at least partly) for this reason that findings like those by Arendt and Browning are rejected by some people – they rehumanize the dehumanized other. They make Eichmann and others who are responsible for genocide and other atrocities too human, too much like us. It is so much more convenient if enemies are savages, subhumans, or beasts – that at least justifies their oppression or even extermination. And, at least as importantly, it doesn’t mess with our self-image as good people who cannot do things like that.

That those who are directly involved in conflict often refuse to rehumanize their enemies is understandable, but that people who aren’t (directly) involved can be just as entrenched in their othering and refusal to (try to) understand the other is more troublesome and (even) less forgivable. It is sometimes claimed by people on the left of the political spectrum that conservatives and others on the right are lacking in empathy. This isn’t exactly true and is actually an example of othering of the right by the left. (It has all the hallmarks of othering, most notably, the depiction of the conservative other as significantly different in a way that boosts the in-group’s superiority.) Conservatives and others on the right tend to be more selective or restrictive with their empathy than people on the left. (The latter can also be quite selective, as illustrated by occasional left-wing gloating about the misfortune of prominent representatives and heroes of the right.) Right-wing people tend to empathize more with people who are like them; left-wing people are less restrictive in this respect. So, white conservatives empathize more with white Jews than with brown Palestinians. Or to put it more bluntly, right-wing support for Israel and the right-wing refusal to try to understand the Palestinian other have racist and Western-supremacist roots.

This isn’t the case for the common left-wing refusal to (try to) understand the Israeli side in the conflict, however. That is, the othering involved isn’t (usually) based on racism, and is rarely antisemitic, as right-wing supporters of Israel like to claim. It is based largely on a typical left-wing sympathy with the underdog – Palestinians in this case – and a rejection of the nationalism or jingoism that permeates a powerful segment of the state of Israel. I think that the left-wing lack of understanding of Israel (rather than the othering itself) is mostly associated with a lack of appreciation of key aspects of the historical context. Jews have experienced persecution for centuries. This culminated in the Holocaust in the 20th century, but there have been pogroms, legal restrictions, massacres, and acts of oppression before that. Because of this history, providing a safe home for Jewish people has always been priority number one for Israel. And because of this history, any threat to that safe home is perceived to be part of the same antisemitic cluster of enemies that persecuted Jews for centuries. It is entirely understandable, then, that a powerful current in Israel and many of its allies elsewhere consider critique of Israel “antisemitic”, even if it really isn’t. If you have been persecuted for centuries and finally find a somewhat safe home, anything that threatens that might just look like another flare-up of the same persecution again. (Ironically, after decades of persecution, banishment, and repression by Israel, Palestinians may have been developing the exact same attitude.)


In his short paper titled “The Holocaust” (i.e., the source of the first block quote in the previous section), Nozick argues that after the Holocaust, “mankind has fallen” and “humanity has lost its claim to continue”.11 Of course, he doesn’t deny or even play down the many other horrendous atrocities committed by men, but he maintains that the scale and extent of the Holocaust is such that it “alone would have been enough”, and that “the Holocaust sealed the situation and made it patently clear”.12 Nozick imagines alien observers looking at human history:

It would not seem unfitting to them, I think, if that story came to an end, if the species they see with that history ended, destroying itself in nuclear warfare or otherwise failing to be able to continue. These observers would see the individual tragedies involved, but they would not see … any further tragedy in the ending of the species. That species, the one that has committed that, has lost its worthy status.13

The first thing that comes to my mind in association to the word “Jews” isn’t Israel, but a list of names: Spinoza, Marx, Einstein, Popper, Wittgenstein, Tarski, Berlin, Derrida, Chomsky, Putnam, and so forth. Many great philosophers were Jews, and the same is true in many other sciences. The Jewish contribution to Western thought is quite disproportional to the size of the (historical) Jewish population.

Nozick suggests that the Holocaust “sealed the situation” and that there would be no “further tragedy” in the ending of the human species. If we can commit that (i.e., the Holocaust) we lost our “worthy status” and do not deserve to continue. But even if the Holocaust hadn’t entirely sealed it yet, there surely can be no doubt anymore. Looking at the genocidal extermination campaign in Gaza, one can wonder, “How can they do that?”, where “they” refers to the descendants of the survivors of Nozick’s “that”, and to the people that made the disproportional contribution to Western civilization mentioned in the previous paragraph. If even those people (i.e., “they”) can do that, then surely we lost any right to continue indeed.

This argument, of course, depends on putting Jews on a pedestal. It suggests that Jews are somehow better than the rest of us because they included such luminaries as Spinoza, Popper, and Putnam (to pick three random names from the already random list above). Because even such a special people can do things like “that”, we as a species lost our claim to continue. Because, moreover, history should have made that “special people” more aware of the horrors of “that” than anyone else, and they can still commit “that”, it is even more clear-cut: we are a horrible species. We should just die.

Although I’m not sure whether the conclusion of this argument is false, there are probably several things wrong with the argument itself. The one thing I want to mention here is that while putting Jews on a pedestal may seem the opposite of antisemitism it is (almost?) similarly dehumanizing. While antisemitism reduces Jews from humans to subhumans, this “semitophilia” elevates Jews from humans to superhumans. Jews are neither – they are just as human as the rest of us. But that means that they are just as susceptible to human weaknesses, including othering and the lack of independent/critical thinking associated with the banality of evil. In other words, Jews are just as “evil” as the rest of us.

addendum (May 7)


There is a general moral principle that virtually everyone agrees on, namely, that arbitrary discrimination is wrong. Even sexists and racists typically agree with this principle – they just believe that the kinds of discrimination they advocate is arbitrary. Rather, they believe that there are good (i.e., non-arbitrary) reasons to treat certain genders or ethnic groups differently.

This principle matters for antisemitism in two ways. Firstly, in a general definition of antisemitism (i.e., a definition that doesn’t depend on or include specific historical or context-dependent examples), the definiendum “antisemitism” and the word “Jews” in the definiens should be simultaneously replaceable with another appropriate definiendum and the name of another ethnic or religious group, while remaining equally valid as a definition of a sentiment that is unacceptable for the same reasons. In other words, what – according to the definition – is problematic about antisemitism should be just as problematic if the target isn’t Jews but some other ethnic or religious group. If this would not be the case, the definition of antisemitism would effectively advocate for some kind of special treatment of Jews (some special or extra kind of protection from discrimination, perhaps), which would be a kind of arbitrary discrimination, and therefore, wrong.

Unless, of course, there would be a reason why Jews deserve some kind of special treatment (such as extra protection) in addition to what other ethic/religious groups deserve for non-arbitrary reasons. I can imagine that some people might want to point at the Holocaust as that non-arbitrary reason, but that argument would give the Romani, for example, the same rights to special treatment. Furthermore, singling out the Holocaust is a dubious argument as there have been many other genocidal atrocities committed by humans that differ from the Holocaust merely in scale or degree. It could even be argued that the Nakba and recent Israeli actions in Gaza would give the Palestinians the same right of special treatment. There is, then, no good argument why Jews deserve special treatment, and consequently, what is wrong about antisemitism should be the same as what is wrong about similar actions, sentiments, and so forth directed at other ethnic/religious groups.

Secondly, antisemitism is often defined as a kind of racism, and what is wrong about racism is that it is a kind of arbitrary discrimination. As mentioned, racists typically believe that they are not discriminating arbitrarily, but they are invariably mistaken. That is, the ground they appeal to that is supposed to justify discrimination is false or invalid.

The term “racism” is a bit problematic because of its obvious association with the term “race”, which doesn’t really apply to humans – that is, there are no human races. However, in the 19th century the English word “race” and its functional equivalents in other European languages were often used as a translation of Latin gens, which refers to a group of people with shared ancestry. The gens-derived use of “race” became extremely broad and flexible, with the notion of the “human race” as its broadest descendant. In practice, “race” in this sense was and is very similar to the modern notion of “ethnicity” – it can refer to a shared ancestry, but also to a shared culture, history, or tradition, or more often, to a combination of (at least) some of those. Racism, as it is commonly understood nowadays, depends on this broad gens-derived interpretation of the notion of a “race”. Hence, arbitrary discrimination targeted at an ethnic or religious group is racist, regardless of whether that group would or could be considered a “race” by some outdated interpretation of that term. And consequently, the association with “race” is no reason to reject a definition of antisemitism as a kind of racism.

Moreover, it is highly doubtful that antisemitism could be reasonably defined as anything else or anything more than a kind of racism because of the first point above (in this section) – that is, any definition of antisemitism as more than just racism targeted at Jews would highly likely violate the principle against arbitrary discrimination. Assuming that this conclusion is right, antisemitism is just racism targeted at Jews. Period. That, however, implies that many of the “contemporary examples of antisemitism” attached to the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism are nonsensical. They confuse or conflate antisemitism (which, again, is nothing but racism targeted at Jews) with something else (most likely anti-Zionism).

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  1. It is not entirely clear what “it” in (8) refers to, although “democratic nation” suggests it is Israel. Grammatically that is strange, however, as the previous sentence is about “the Jewish people”.
  2. See also a recent column in The Guardian by Arwa Mahdawi.
  3. In fact, even saying that Israel has nothing in common with Nazi Germany is making a comparison between the two, and therefore, according to this example, antisemitic.
  4. See, for example, this Guardian article.
  5. Robert Nozick (1989), “The Holocaust”, in: The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations (New York: Simon and Schuster): 236–42, at 236.
  6. Hannah Arendt (1963), Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking).
  7. Christopher R. Browning (1998), Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: HarperCollins).
  8. Slavenka Drakulić (1993), The Balkan Express: Fragments from the Other Side of the War (New York: Norton), p. 145.
  9. Lajos Brons (2015), “Othering, an analysis”, Transcience: a Journal of Global Studies 6.1: 69-90.
  10. Thich Nhat Hanh (1987), Being Peace (Berkeley: Parallax), p. 67.
  11. Nozick, “The Holocaust”, p. 238.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., pp. 238–9.

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