What Is & Isn’t Antisemitism

The Israel Journal at NYU
8 min readDec 12, 2023

By a TIJ Contributor

Protestors hold a banner reading “Union against antisemitism is strength” during a demonstration against antisemitism in Brussels (Photo: Nicolas Landermard/AP)

Antisemitism has existed for nearly as long as Jews have, and it’s come from all places at virtually all times. The horrors of the Nazi Holocaust within living memory serve as a reminder of the perils of right-wing nationalist Jew hatred, antisemitism from the left was more present in the leftist dictatorship of the USSR. In recent days, Jews worldwide have seen an increase in antisemitism from all sides in basically all locations. In my own New York City, antisemitic hate crimes have increased 214% since October 7th. Antisemitic hate crimes in London increased by a whopping 1,350% in the days after Hamas’s assault on civilians in the South of Israel. This increase has come, as it always has in the past, from all sides of the political spectrum. From Neo-Nazi groups at pro-Palestinian rallies to Leftist denialism of the October 7th massacre, Jew-haters of all stripes have realized that this is their opportunity to normalize and publicize their views. I would also like to make clear that it certainly is not the fault of Israel that Jews face increased antisemitism. Antisemitsm, sad as it is, predeates 1948 by thousands of years and will continue far into the future. Destroying the Jewish homeland to satisfy the requests of antisemites shows a level of appeasement that would have made Neville Chamberlain proud.

With all this said, not everything that a pro-Israel individual disagrees with is “antisemitism.” Far from it, and the difference between upsetting speech and hate speech is a vital distinction to make. I want to look at a few examples of statements that have been called antisemitic using two different definitions of the word — The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition from 2016 and the Jerusalem Declaration on antisemitism (JDA) from 2021. Two Jews three opinions, and these two definitions diverge in important ways. Adopted by the U.S. Department of State, the IHRA definition focuses a good deal on Israel, declaring that denying the state’s right to exist and comparing the actions of Israel to the Nazis are among many antisemitic comments that can be made about the Jewish State. The JDA, by contrast, is much more narrow. It allows for the use of double standards regarding Israel and other nations, calling it “not, in and of itself, antisemitic.” By and large, the IHRA definition allows for very narrow criticism of Israel, while the JDS is much more broad. Working by these definitions, what acts that have been called antisemitic really are?

Obviously Antisemitic

Unfortunately, the large majority of incidents that have been described as antisemitic, from both ends of the political spectrum, fit the bill cleanly. Much of the real-world antisemitism present today originates online, and no one demonstrates the rampant spread of anti-Jewish hatred better than Elon Musk. Musk, the owner of X (formerly Twitter), has expressed a variety of racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and anti-transgender views, so it should come as no surprise that Musk would eventually turn his ire on Jews. When a right-wing activist Tweeted that Jews push “dialectical hatred against whites,” Musk replied that the user had “said the actual truth.” Both the IHRA definition and the JDA contain sections declaring the use of classic antisemitic tropes to be antisemitic — in this case, Musk boosts Nazi-adjecent claim that Jews somehow betrayed the white race. Musk’s right-wing antisemitism is nothing new, and reactionary hatred of minorities have existed for as long as reactionaries themselves. It is disheartening to say the least, however, that this bigot is in charge of one of the world’s largest social media platforms.

One of several prejudiced Tweets from X owner Elon Musk (Photo: Twitter)

While right-wing actors like Musk and others have been active in their antisemitism, Jew-hatred has been present and dangerous on the left. I can speak from personal experience to say that I have seen dozens of posts online minimizing the October 7th massacre, denying instances of mass sexual violence and advocating for a wide variety of conspiracies that paint Hamas as humanitarians and claim that Israel massacred its own civilians. Some of these points come from far right accounts, but by and large, I’ve seen these claims come from “progressive” sources. Even the United Nations, that bastion of liberal thought, took nearly two months to condemn the obvious use of mass rape perpetrated by Hamas on October 7th. Too little, too late, when Jewish lives are lost. Antisemitism is not, never has been, and never will be a purely partisan issue. American Jews should plan accordingly.

Borderline Cases

While it is undeniable that antisemitism is a rapidly worsening crisis for Jews in and out of the United States, it’s vital that we maintain clarity about what actions and statements are direct affronts to the Jewish people. Something can be wrong, disagreeable, and even illegal, and still not be “hate speech.” To this end, the clearest example is the attempted arson at Elbit Systems in mid-November. On November 21st, three pro-Palestine activists allegedly vandalized the New Hampshire location of Elbit Systems, an Israel-based weapons contractor that supplies the IDF with much of its weaponry. This action, in and of itself, could not reasonably be construed as antisemitic under either definition. None of the cases described in the JDA sanctify weapons contractors, and this should certainly fall under the “excessive” speech that the JDA deems non-hateful. Under the IHRA definition, the only possible category that could be used to classify this act as antisemitic would be the “double standard” clause, but given the fact that this action was taken in response to an active war in Israel with American funding, I’d say this would be a stretch. This is not to say this action was legal — it isn’t, the three alleged vandals were arrested and charged — or a force for good. But it is not hate speech, and there is a distinction.

None of this, however, stopped people from calling the incident antisemitic. Most notably, New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen seemed to label the vandalism as hate speech, saying, “At a time of rising antisemitism in America, this must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.” This statement feels quite divorced from reality, and the author finds the insinuation that weapons manufacturers are somehow sacred institutions of the Jewish people to be quite insulting. With that said, this case is borderline for a reason — while the act itself is illegal but not hateful, some of the perpetrators have antisemitic histories. One of the accused vandals is a New Hampshirite by the name of Calla Walsh, who boasts a stunning track record of antisemitism for her 19 years of age. Walsh was deeply involved in the “Boston Mapping Project,” an effort to, in their own words “reveal the local entities and networks that enact devastation [on Palestine], so we can dismantle them.” The map released by Walsh and her compatriots was composed almost exclusively of Jewish institutions. As the ADL noted, they “essentially name, shame and blame Jewish communal organizations in Massachusetts for many of the world’s problems.” They accused these groups of spreading “violence worldwide,” bringing to mind obviously antisemitic tropes about Jewish power over all of the ills of the world. The mappers ended their credo with a clear threat: “Every entity has an address, every network can be disrupted.” While Walsh’s alleged sabotage of Elbit systems was not antisemitic, her actions before clearly were, and I can’t blame anyone for judging her actions in this context.

The “Boston Mapping Project” contained the addresses and veiled threats to many Jewish institutions (Photo: the ADL)

Another interesting case comes from Michigan’s 12th Congressional District from Representative Rashida Tlaib. Tlaib, herself a Palestinian-American, has long opposed many of Israel’s policies. She is one of the furthest left Representatives in Congress, and recently was censured for her alleged antisemitism. Specifically, Tlaib was punished for her use of the “from the river to the sea,” a slogan that describes a desire for a Palestinian state in all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. This phrase is perhaps the most common rallying cry of the Pro-Palestinian movement, and its meaning is hotly debated. Many (but certainly not all) Palestine supporters in the United States see the phrase as an aspirational one, calling for co-existence. The majority of fighters in Palestine, obviously, see the phrase quite differently. Khaled Mashal, former leader of Hamas, has said “Palestine is ours from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on any inch of the land.” Understandably, many pro-Israel activists hear a call to genocide in this phrase. A removal of some 8 million Jews from where they live in Israel sounds like a call to murder.

This may feel like a cut-and-dry case — and the JDA and IHRA definition certainly make it seem this way. The IHRA definition forbids “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” and the JDA says antisemitism can take the form of “Denying the right of Jews in the State of Israel to exist and flourish, collectively and individually, as Jews, in accordance with the principle of equality.” Obviously a call for all the land to be taken by the Palestinians and the destruction of Israel flies in the face of these two definitions, but I urge caution. Calls for all land to be taken by one side are clearly abhorrent, but this standard must also apply to the Israeli side. The Likud Charter, for example, seems to call for a “River to the Sea” approach, saying that “Settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel is of national importance and part of Israel’s defense strategy.” To my ears this sure sounds like a call for one ethnic group to take the entire strip of land for itself. If someone condemns the call for exclusive Palestinian control over the land, the same kind of outrage should also be reserved for the Israeli government. If someone considers “river to the sea” to be genocidal — I personally don’t — they should question what Netanyahu and Ben Gvir are asking for.

Obviously Not Antisemitic

I won’t spend too much time on these, but there are many ways to comment on the current situation without running afoul of the IHRA definition or the JDA. Calling for increased vigilance around Islamophobia does not minimize antisemitism — attacks against Muslims have increased substantially as well in recent days. Furthermore, calling Israel’s actions “genocidal” or “illegal” are not inherently antisemitic. They may be wrong and should be treated as falsifiable claims, but should not be dismissed outright as racist. It often feels pathetic to advocate for civility in a time of war — entire families have been killed, hostages have been taken, and the war in Gaza involves some of the ugliest fighting you’ll find anywhere on Earth. I have seen the photos of bombed out neighborhoods in Gaza and heard firsthand accounts from the survivors of the October 7th massacre. And yet, with all this conflict, the rhetoric we use in person and online has concrete consequences for diaspora communities in the United States and around the world. Actions have consequences, and the words we use lead to hate and, increasingly, real-world violence.



The Israel Journal at NYU

The Israel Journal at NYU is an explanatory journal dedicated to clearing up the conversation around Israel.