Is it time to rethink antisemitism?

April 2023
Gustavo Rymberg

I recently had the privilege of being one of 16 North American Jewish communal professionals chosen to participate in the inaugural cohort of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Leadership and Learning’s  Leadership Certificate in Combating Antisemitism. The goal of the seven-month course is to give Jewish leaders the tools and training to respond to the troubling rise in antisemitism.

The term “Antisemitismus” (Anti-Semitism) was invented in 1879 by German political activist Wilhelm Marr as an alternative to the term “Judenhass” (Jew-hatred) out of his desire to align with new racial ideologies that were gaining acceptance in his day. 

Marr, according to Mosaic Magazine columnist Philologos, was seeking  to differentiate hatred that stemmed from the religious conflict between Christianity and Judaism to a “struggle between the Aryan race and the Semitic one, of which the Jews were the foremost representatives.”  This makes antisemitism a racist term, “since Jews, with their admixture of genes from all over, have long ceased to be a distinctly Semitic people—certainly less of one than are tens of millions of Arabs whose ancestors never left the Middle East.”  

Philologos believes that the term “antisemitism”  is too imprecise, not least because being “anti”-something is an extremely vague notion.

“There is a great difference between someone who thinks that Jews care too much about money and someone who thinks that the Jews are eternally responsible for the death of Jesus or engaged in a conspiracy to take over the world. It is one thing to say that Jews are clannish and another to approve of their having been sent to the gas chambers ... Is there anything to be gained from lumping such dissimilar types under a single rubric?”

Philologos concludes by suggesting the term “antisemitism” be used more discriminatingly. “Either we reserve the term “anti-Semite” for those who truly despise the Jewish people, or we acknowledge that we often employ it for real or perceived infractions that are, relatively speaking, not such a big deal.”

I found another powerful perspective in Deborah Lipstadt’s book, “Antisemitism Here and Now,” where she writes that as horrific as the Holocaust was, it is firmly in the past. Contemporary antisemitism is not. It is happening in front of us almost every day and everywhere. More, it is not also about the present and today. It’s about the future.

Some questions we can all reflect on are: Is today’s antisemitism the same or different from what we have seen before? Where is it coming from: the right of the left? Is it all about Israel? Are we seeing antisemitism where it is not? Are others refusing to see antisemitism where it clearly is? 

Deborah Lipstadt says that, no matter how we define it, “what should alarm us is that human beings continue to believe in a conspiracy that demonizes Jews and sees them as responsible for evil,” she writes. “Antisemites continue to give life to this brand of age-old hatred. They justify it and the acts committed in its name. The historical consequences of this nefarious passion have been so disastrous that to ignore its contemporary manifestations would be irresponsible.”