To start with a reminder. The goal of the Radicalism of fools project is “rethinking anti-Semitism”. It is driven by the conviction that the mainstream understanding of Jew hatred is all too often inadequate.

To me this was amply illustrated by a lecture by Deborah Lipstadt in London on Wednesday. She has a formidable reputation as a historian but more importantly in this context, she is an official Biden administration envoy on anti-Semitism.

Lipstadt is no doubt an intelligent woman who is extremely well informed on the question of anti-Semitism. She spent decades of her career in academia studying it and related subjects. However, her superficial understanding of anti-Semitism has led her to disastrous political conclusions on how best to meet such a formidable challenge. 

In that context Wednesday’s lecture was instructive. Lipstadt started from first principles and then worked her way up to endorsing the Biden administration’s strategy on anti-Semitism. It was an object lesson in how flawed premises can lead to disastrous conclusions.

Lipstadt started by defining anti-Semitism, as many others do, as a prejudice. She also accepted the widespread view that it can be seen as the oldest hatred. 

In her view anti-Semitism has features in common with other prejudices but also unique characteristics. She identified four of the latter:

*It appeals to all parts of the political spectrum. Anti-Semitism exists on the right, left and centre of the political spectrum. It is not confined to the fringes of society. She also mentioned Islamists as a force that engages in Jew hatred.

*It can come from different communities. This includes Christians, Muslims and indeed Jews themselves.

*It relies on what she called a conspiracy myth. She preferred this to the idea of a “conspiracy theory”. In her view – and this is an important point – it is the cornerstone of anti-Semitism. The extent of an individual’s anti-Semitism tends to be closely correlated to their adherence to conspiracy theories.

*Anti-Semites can punch both up and down. They can punch down, for instance, by portraying Jews as dirty and revolting. But they can also punch up in the sense of attacking a force they regard as rich and powerful. In the current context they also deride Jews as having white privilege. “They revile Jews but they also fear them,” she said.

Lipstadt then went on to discuss other themes. These included the far right such as the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the Unite the Right neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville in 2017. She also touched on the anti-Semitic upsurge, often under the cover of anti-Zionism, at American universities.

Towards the end of her lecture she lauded the Biden administration’s National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism announced last May. This is a good place to pause for a moment as I wrote a piece on this strategy shortly after it came out. With the benefit of hindsight it shows what can be the result if anti-Semitism is seen as merely a particular type of prejudice. 

As my piece argued: “The most striking feature of the 60-page document is how it de-judaises anti-Semitism. In other words it strips out its specifically Jewish character. It portrays anti-Semitism as just one of the many types of hate that plagues American society. Almost like one of a range of brands on a supermarket shelf.”

The relatively short document mentions the word “hate” 240 times. It goes on to link anti-Semitism to other forms of hate including that directed towards “Black and brown Americans; Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders; LGBTQI+ individuals; Muslim Americans; women and girls; and so many others”

I went on to point out that: “Another way of gauging the way in which it diminishes anti-Semitism is to look at the frequency of many key words. Islamophobia / Islamophobic is mentioned 21 times, LGBTQI is at six, there are three mentions of AANHPI (which evidently stands for Asian American and Native Hawaiian / Pacific Islanders) and even one specific mention of transphobia.”

In other words the report essentially views anti-Semitism as just one of multiple types of hate. From this perspective it is simply one form of hate among the many that plague American society.

The problem with this approach is that it vastly downplays the pernicious power of anti-Semitism. All forms of hate directed at these target groups are regrettable but they are not all equal in their malevolent effect.

No doubt if Lipstadt was given a free hand she would write a more sophisticated strategy for the Biden administration. Nevertheless she is publicly endorsing the document and it does take the premise of anti-Semitism as prejudice to its logical conclusion.

Even without the Biden report’s absurd extremes the notion of anti-Semitism as just a prejudice is problematic. Consider, for example, the way the Holocaust is all too often framed nowadays as just one of many regrettable violent incidents in history. The centrality of anti-Semitism to Nazi ideology, and the consequent drive to rid the world of all Jews, is forgotten.

The Biden report is also compatible with the identity politics which is currently rampant. From its perspective the most important characteristic of any individual is the identity group to which they belong. Starting from this premise it is only a short step to start arguing that Jews constitute a privileged identity.

My alternative to the notion of anti-Semitism as prejudice is to see it as a genocidal ideology which views Jews as key source of evil. Some, such as David Nirenberg, prefer to call this conception anti-Judaism rather than anti-Semitism.

In classic European anti-Semitism, at its peak from the late nineteenth century to 1945, Jews were regarded as the personification of modernity and speculative capitalism. So if people were suffering as a result of economic dislocation or high unemployment the anti-Semites would blame the problems on capitalism’s supposedly Jewish character. 

In more recent years the state of Israel has more widely come to be seen as the personification of evil. That is the meaning of constantly deriding it as representing apartheid, colonialism and imperialism. These terms are all too often separated from their specific meanings and used to symbolise Israel as the devil incarnate.

I did get the chance to put my alternative conception to Lipstadt in the question and answer session but she played down its significance. In her view the notion of anti-Semitism as a prejudice can account for it becoming a lethal obsession (citing the title of a mammoth study by Robert Wistrich).

In my view the two conceptions are mutually exclusive. Only the notion of anti-Semitism as a flawed way of understanding the world can explain its pernicious power. In that respect anti-Semitism cannot be seen as equivalent to multiple other forms of hatred.

Lipstadt concluded her talk (adapting the wording of the third sentence of the Jewish שמע shema prayer ) with a call to “fight the lethal hatred with all your power, your soul and your might”.

Amen to that but it is not going to work if the starting point is to view anti-Semitism as merely a prejudice.

PHOTO: Official portrait of Deborah Lipstadt from the US Department of State.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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