When I first started professionally monitoring and studying anti-Semitism almost 30 years ago, there was, broadly speaking, a shared understanding of what it was. True, historians differed over a precise definition - quite understandably, given that the term was coined only in the 1870s, and was then used to describe varieties of Jew-hatred going back 2,000 years. There was also a degree of political manipulation of the phenomenon, with both the right and the left blaming each other for causing it.
Data on anti-Semitic incidents then were often crude and sometimes deliberately misinterpreted to generate aliyah (immigration to Israel), and controversy was developing about whether anti-Zionism, or extreme vilification of Israel, was anti-Semitism.
We Jews knew who the enemy was. Since Jews do not cause anti-Semitism, we fought those who peddled theories of the world Jewish conspiracy, Holocaust denial, blood libels. Except at the very margins, we didn't fight Jews.
How things have changed. Today, bitter arguments rage about what constitutes anti-Semitism. When Jew-hatred is identified, it's mostly in the form of what many call the "new anti-Semitism" - essentially, anti-Zionism. Others (this writer included) fundamentally dispute that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are synonymous.
But whatever position you take, it's clear that a revolutionary change in the discourse about anti-Semitism has occurred: Practically no discussion about current anti-Semitism now takes place without Israel and Zionism being at its center. Judging by the vast number of books, pamphlets, articles and conferences on the subject, this trend is widely welcomed.
The equation "anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism" has thus become the new orthodoxy, and has even earned the seal of approval of the European Union. Its racism and anti-Semitism monitoring center (the Federal Rights Agency) produced a "working definition" of anti-Semitism, with examples of five ways in which anti-Israel or anti-Zionist rhetoric is anti-Semitic. The 2006 report of the U.K.'s All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Anti-Semitism urged the adoption of the EU definition, and the U.S. State Department's 2008 report "Contemporary Global Anti-Semitism" is also based on it.
The redefinition of anti-Semitism has led to a further radical change in confronting the phenomenon. Many Jews are at the forefront of the growing number of anti-Israel or anti-Zionist groups. So, perceived manifestations of the "new anti-Semitism" increasingly result in Jews attacking other Jews for their alleged anti-Semitic anti-Zionism.
Anti-Semitism can be disguised as anti-Zionism, and a Jew can be an anti-Semite. In principle, therefore, exposing an alleged Jewish anti-Semite is legitimate. But if you read the growing literature that does this - in print, on Web sites and in blogs - you find that it exceeds all reason: The attacks are often vitriolic, ad hominem and indiscriminate. Aspersions are cast on the Jewishness of individuals whom the attacker cannot possibly know. The charge of Jewish "self-hatred" - another way of calling someone a Jewish anti-Semite - is used ever more frequently, despite mounting evidence that it's an entirely bogus concept.
Anything from strong criticism of Israel's policies, through sympathetic critiques of Zionism, to advocacy of a one-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, is defined as anti-Zionism, when none of these positions are prima facie anti-Zionist. Many attackers endow their targets with the ability to bring disaster and dissolution to the Jewish people, thereby making it a national and religious duty for Jews to wage a war of words against other Jews.
I realize that many readers will regard these attacks as fully justified. But think for a moment about who benefits. Can it really help the fight against anti-Semitism to place the fantasy of the anti-Semitic Jew at its center? There are many issues about which Jews should argue robustly with each other, but the attack by Jew on Jew is acrimonious and demeaning - Can it do us any good? I would say no to both questions, for overwhelming reasons.
Serious discussion of current anti-Semitism - rational, objective, academically grounded - is virtually nonexistent. It is being replaced by internecine Jewish political battles and endless controversies over the alleged anti-Semitic implications of comments on Israel by public figures. Practically the entire business of studying and analyzing current anti-Semitism has been hijacked and debased by people lacking any serious expertise in the subject, whose principal aim is to excoriate Jewish critics of Israel and to promote the "anti-Zionism = anti-Semitism" equation. The new EU-approved definition fundamentally subverts the term because to warrant the charge of anti-Semitism, it is sufficient to hold any view ranging from criticism of the policies of the current Israeli government, to denial of Israel's right to exist - without having to subscribe to any of the elements that historians have traditionally regarded as constituting an anti-Semitic view. And it puts out of bounds the perfectly legitimate discussion of whether increased anti-Semitism is a result of Israel's actions.
This is no basis on which to develop effective policies to combat anti-Semitism.
It's a long way from the oft-repeated mantra that "anti-Semitism is not the Jews' problem, but that of the non-Jews," to this war against Jews who allegedly offer comfort to, or are themselves, anti-Semites. So far, indeed, as to suggest that we have lost our way.
As befits a time when fear is in vogue, we have successfully widened the pool of our enemies - as if by doing so, we are somehow going to be safer.
Antony Lerman is director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London. He writes here in a personal capacity.