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  • Andrew Rovinsky '25

Antisemitism & Israel: Context is Key

Updated: May 2

When I talk with my Jewish friends, I often find myself disagreeing about what I consider to be antisemitism. As I read the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition, one of the most commonly used definitions, I find the examples it provides to be far too vague and up for interpretation. Many of these examples such as “[d]enying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” or “[a]pplying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” seem to be good provisions, but they are not clear on how exactly they should be applied: What does the definition mean by self-determination? Does self-determination guarantee Jews a nation-state or does it simply mean Jews can participate in a democratic process and maintain collective social rights? What is considered behavior expected or demanded of democratic states? Is that standard simply higher? What if someone is misinformed; are they an antisemite? The vagueness allows the definition to be manipulated by anyone to contort what is and what isn’t antisemitism and present it as an objectively correct view. 

The reality is we live in a world where what is and what isn’t antisemitism is debatable. When it comes to general definitions, I am a strong supporter of the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which is basically a clarification on the IHRA definition. It is more specific about what self-determination means and what criticisms are and are not allowed. It is more permitting of structural criticisms on which the IHRA definition has no comment. However, I propose a more nuanced approach to antisemitism when we actually discuss it. We need to embrace the debate and recognize that context is key—specific criteria will never be enough to satisfy every situation. 

Firstly, I need to establish some form of ground rules. I am going to use Brian Klug’s understanding of antisemitism because I think it is a good baseline. Brian Klug argues that antisemitism is the perception of a Jew as “the Jew.” “The Jew” is a false image, a projection, of the Jew—for example, portraying the Jew, or Jews as a collective, as greedy or manulative is false. Antisemitism is then a repertoire of traits that can be applied to Jews—they are greedy, control the banks and the world, killed Jesus, orchestrated 9/11, have horns, lie about or exaggerate the Holocaust and their suffering, are privileged, have dual loyalties, and I could go on. These tropes are obviously antisemitic, and should be dismissed and called out as a pure fabrication. One could then conclude that because of this image that is projected onto the Jew, Jews are deserving of harm or deprivation of rights. When one applies these typical traits to Israel itself, it is still antisemitism as it is a projection of “the Jew” onto a collective of Jews. For example, depicting Israel in a political cartoon with a large nose, hunched over, and somehow controlling the world is still antisemitic.  

How do we apply this definition to the traits used to describe Israel specifically? This repertoire can encompass new traits as ideologies and perspectives evolve over time. When one applies accusations often launched against Israel to Jews writ large it is antisemitic; assuming or implying Jews (writ large) are genocidal or oppressors or even always support the actions of the Israeli government is still antisemitic despite not being classical antisemitism because it is a false image of individual Jews. It is a projection of “the Jew” onto real Jews, just not one that existed before the State of Israel’s inception.  

But what about our discussion around Israel? Can people be antisemitic even when they avoid classical tropes? This is where I think context is key. When discussing Israel, it is important that you take all relevant context into account because of the complexity and realness of the conflict. If you believe a statement about Israel is antisemitic, think about these questions: Are they making this claim out of a genuine concern for human rights? Are they interpreting facts, in good faith, incorrectly? Do they have different base assumptions? Do they make this claim out of Arab nationalism or pan-Arabism? It is important to remember that you can disagree with someone on an issue or one can be wrong, even interpret facts incorrectly or be at moral fault, and not cross the line into antisemitism. If a statement targets an individual or group because of their Jewishness, it is likely antisemitism (this targeting does not have to be explicit). Therefore, maybe in some contexts a claim about Israel is underlined by antisemitism: What have they said about Jews in the past? What is their motivation for making the claim? How do they view Jews writ large? Are they using “Israel” or “Zionists” as a euphemism for Jews? Are they basing the claim on any real information, or do they just have a delusion about Jews? All of these are questions that should be considered when we talk about antisemitism and Israel.


I want to take a common claim that is often accused of being antisemitic as another example to illustrate my point that statements must be viewed in context: “Israel should not exist.” When confronted with this claim, I think you need to consider some important questions. To be clear, I will not be giving my opinion on this statement in this article, and even if I do not think something is antisemitic, it does not mean I agree with it. 

  1. What is their opinion on ethnostates or nation-states generally? 

    1. If they believe that ethno-national states should not exist, it is most likely not antisemitic.

    2. If they believe states that have large minority populations should maintain a secular democratic national identity, it is likely they are not being antisemitic.

    3. If they believe Jews specifically do not deserve political self determination of any kind, then it is more likely to be antisemitic.

  2. What do they think should happen to Jews living within Israel-Palestine if Israel were to be dismantled? 

    1. If they believe Jews should be expelled or lose rights, it is most likely antisemitic. 

    2. If they believe Jews should maintain equal rights under the law, it is most likely not antisemitic. 

  3. What do they mean by exist?

    1. If they believe the land of Israel-Palestine should be reorganized into a secular democratic state or other formulation where both groups continue to live there, it is most likely not antisemitic. 

    2. If they believe Jews should not be allowed to live there, it is most likely antisemitic.

  4. What do they think about Jewish claims on the land?

    1. If they believe Jews are fabricating their connection to the land, it most likely is antisemitic.

    2. If they are genuinely unaware of the Jewish connection to the land, it is most likely not antisemitic. 

    3. If they believe Jews won Israel by playing the victim in the Holocaust, it is most likely antisemitic.

    4. If they believe that despite the connection to the land, Jews are not justified in the ability to displace another group or establish a modern state construct, it is most likely not antisemitic. 

I know that I asked a lot of questions and provided few answers to many of them. Rather, I am arguing that these are questions you should think about while in discussions surrounding Israel that will help you better determine who wants to have a legitimate discussion with you. Regardless, because of such conflict in Israel-Palestine, the discussion around antisemitism has become more complicated. Not every instance of antisemitism surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be clear-cut, but if we start to recognize the context and complexity, we will better prevent ourselves from ignoring legitimate speech in the discussions around Israel with which we should actually engage. 

Update on March 18, 2024: The wording of 1c has been changed upon the author's request in order to reflect his views with greater precision.

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