Renowned Jewish Historian: Stop Using the Term ‘Antisemitism’

Professor David Engel insists events that occurred in different eras and different places aren’t necessarily connected

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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A member of the Jewish community walks among defaced gravestones at the Jewish cemetery of Herrlisheim, near Strasbourg, eastern France, Friday, Dec.14, 2018.
A member of the Jewish community walks among defaced gravestones at the Jewish cemetery of Herrlisheim, near Strasbourg, eastern France, Friday, Dec.14, 2018.Credit: Jean-Francois Badias / AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Professor David Engel, a scholar of modern Jewish history, says he has avoided using the word “antisemitism” for 30 years in his articles or books. The word has been banished from his professional lexicon, even when he is writing about the Holocaust. As frequently as the term is heard today in the media and politics, Engel manages to avoid the taboo word, even when referencing the past, when antisemitism was certainly more prevalent,

“Instead of resorting to using the term ‘antisemitism,’ I trained myself to aim for detailed depictions of specific incidents and figures,” Engel, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University, writes in the latest issue of “Zion,” a quarterly journal of the Historical Society of Israel. For example, he categorizes a quota on the number of Jews that could be accepted to a university as “legislation that discriminates against Jews”; he ascribes a blood libel to “fantastical imagery of Jews.”

“This division did not lead me to presume an essential connection between the two episodes,” he adds. “A presumption that arises, overtly or not, from their being bound together as manifestations of a general phenomenon called ‘antisemitism.’”

Engel’s decision to shun the term bucks the consensus among many of his academic peers, though some do see it as courageous and groundbreaking.

The latest edition of “Zion,” in Hebrew, focuses on this sensitive, highly charged and political subject. Editors Guy Miron and Scott Ury, who titled the issue “Antisemitism: Between Historical Concept and Public Discourse,” say they sought “to spark a new academic and intellectual discussion about the term ‘antisemitism’ and its various uses and implications.”

In the lead article, which builds on and takes forward his 2009 essay, “Away from a Definition of Antisemitism,” Engel argues that antisemitism is an arbitrary, vague and flawed term used to refer to an overly broad array of historical, social and political phenomena from different eras and different places that aren’t necessarily all linked. He takes a stance against the leading scholarly view that says antisemitism has a long history running in a nearly straight line from ancient times until today. In this view, the Holocaust is both the pinnacle and the result of the antisemitism that preceded it. Another tenet of scholarship to date posits that antisemitism is different from other types of racism and group hatred and has unique causes and explanations.

Some historians have felt in recent years that the study of antisemitism has become fixated on these basic assumptions to the point where the scholarly research is plagued by unhealthy stagnation. Engel challenges the discourse. He calls for a reconsideration of whether there really is a connection between things like Christian hostility towards Jews in ancient times; the expulsion of Jews and denial of their rights; blood libels against Jews in medieval times; boycotts of Jewish businesses in the modern age; propagation of the belief that Jews have undue influence on the world economy; restricting Jewish immigration; the murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust; vandalism of Jewish cemeteries; and calls for boycotts of Israel and denying Israel’s right to exist.

“Is there a common denominator among all of them?” Engel asks as he prepares to slaughter one of the most sacred cows of contemporary discourse. “If I hear about an ‘antisemitic’ person, can I deduce on the basis of this moniker alone which antisemitic traits – out of myriad possibilities – he will actually display?”

From antisemitism to slavery

The debate over the term “antisemitism” is just one of a number of academic debates over the validity of different historical concepts. Some historians wonder, for example, if the term “slavery” can properly encompass something that occurred in ancient times as well as in 17th- and 18th-century America. “The fact that any term – ‘slavery,’ ‘nationalism’ or ‘ghetto’ – has changed its meaning or also exists in non-scholarly discourse does not make its use redundant, but it requires the scholar to elucidate precisely what the term he is using represents in that specific context,” Professor Havi Dreifuss of Tel Aviv University writes in the same issue of Zion.

Professor David Engel. 'Instead of resorting to using the term ‘antisemitism,’ I trained myself to aim for detailed depictions of specific incidents and figures.'

Dreifuss, an expert on the Holocaust of Polish Jewry, takes a more nuanced view. “Certainly not every example of harm to Jews is antisemitism, but there is also no real basis to the assertion that there isn’t a single event worthy of being examined within the conceptual framework of antisemitism,” she writes. “Ultimately, our challenge as scholars is to try to describe the whole without blurring its various parts. Just as blurring the differences between parts of the whole will harm our understanding of it, the total avoidance of addressing the overall phenomenon also has a cost.” She warns that abstaining from fundamental conceptual categories like “antisemitism” could undermine the ability to discuss other important concepts like enlightenment, socialism and liberalism and “pull the rug out from under historical analyses of a comparative nature.”

Engel thinks otherwise. He writes that he found that all the weighty discussions of the subject that have been going on intensively for more than a century could not produce reliable tools by which to determine if certain people or actions were tainted with antisemitism.

A Swastika, painted on the wall of the Stedelijk Museum overnight, is seen in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Feb. 22, 2019. The graffiti were discovered ahead of a match between ADO and Ajax.Credit: Peter Dejong / AP

“Not only that, it wasn’t clear to me just what the term ‘antisemite’ was meant to indicate,” he adds. “Despite having delved into the vast literature that purports to explain ‘what is antisemitism,’ I came up emptyhanded.”

A common denominator?

The term “antisemitic” entered wide usage in Germany in the early 1880s. Originally, it referred to people and groups who sought to end what they viewed as the Jews’ undue influence over their country’s cultural and social life, its economy and its politics. Engel argues there were various religious, racial, political and economic causes for this movement rather than “a specific and commonly shared ideological platform.”

The usage since then has expanded greatly and is currently used to refer to various types of statements and actions by non-Jews that menace Jews, across time and place. But is there really a single common denominator that binds the rioters who attacked Jewish homes and shops in France during the Dreyfuss affair in the late 19th century, murderers of Jews in post-Holocaust Poland and the Americans who told a 1955 pollster that they would “vehemently object to any attempt by a Jew to buy a house on their street”?

Egyptian demonstrators burn an Israeli flag during a protest outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo on August 20, 2011. Credit: AFP

Engel believes we should be wary of lumping together such different events under a single label. Each one, he says, should be analyzed separately. “There is no reason to preserve antisemitism as the title of a category,” he writes. “There is no reason why historians cannot separate and redistribute the data that the standard discourse calls ‘antisemitism’ into objective categories, each in accordance with his scholarly agenda.”

And what about the Holocaust?

Predictably, Engel’s thesis sparked widespread debate among leading scholars of Jewish history. If you forgo the term “antisemitism,” some fear, historians may eventually propose forgoing the term “Holocaust” too. In fact, we aren’t all that far from that. While Holocaust is a much narrower term chronologically, geographically and subject-wise than antisemitism, for just that reason it can serve as a test case for the question of whether it is possible to lump different phenomena together into one category. A few historians already argue the term has a problematic aspect that adversely affects the study of genocides perpetrated in other places and times. Dreifuss notes in her essay how other studies claim the Holocaust was no more than “a series of events… whose victims were also, but not only Jews, who were murdered for a variety of local reasons.”

Professor Havi Dreifuss of Tel Aviv University. Dreifuss, an expert on the Holocaust of Polish Jewry, takes a more nuanced view. Credit: Moti Milrod

Dreifuss asks how one can compare the reality of 1933 to that of 1943? Or the fate of French Jewry and Lithuanian Jewry? And what links the Jewish man who fought in the Slovak underground with the Jewish woman from Poland who was sent to a German labor camp?

“The vast variety of human experiences during the Holocaust raises difficult questions about the price pai d by research that unites them under a single conceptual category, ‘the Holocaust,’” she writes. “Certainly a very large variety of events and human interactions took place during the Holocaust. The Jewish victims of the Holocaust did not have a common identity. They did not speak the same language and their paths never crossed before the Holocaust. Their allies and enemies also differed from one another as did the direct motivation for their persecution.”

Still, Dreifuss does not reach the same conclusion as Engel. “There were many different concrete causes for the murder of European Jewry during the Holocaust and yet they still had something in common. Deliberately ignoring the similarity of their fate, which is conceptualized with the aid of the word ‘Holocaust,’ creates an artificial demarcation of the events and could give rise to a fundamental distortion in our understanding of the events and the period,” she writes. In her view, the same applies to the use of the term “antisemitism.”

A demonstrator stands near a flag of Israel that has a swastika painted on it, as he attends a protest in Buenos Aires in 2017.Credit: Natacha Pisarenko,AP



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