The Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Allies to Deny Antisemitism

Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky
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A pro-Palestinian protester holds a placard reading "BDS" during a gathering on the sidelines of an event celebrating Tel Aviv, in central Paris, August 13, 2015
A pro-Palestinian protester holds a placard reading "BDS" during a gathering on the sidelines of an event celebrating Tel Aviv, in central Paris, August 13, 2015Credit: AFP
Dmitry Shumsky
Dmitry Shumsky

The Academy of Sciences’ report on Holocaust studies at Israel's universities expressed the hope that “Israeli researchers and research institutes will take care not to abet distortions of history behind which stand governments, government organizations and quasi-governmental organizations abroad that are minimizing the direct or indirect role played by countries or nationalities in the responsibility for the Holocaust.”

In the spirit of these remarks, I’ll add that Israeli researchers must not cooperate with tendencies of any sort to distort the history of the Holocaust and antisemitism – whatever their ideological and political aims.

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One quasi-governmental organization abroad that contributes to the distorted perception of modern antisemitism is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which brings together 33 governments in Holocaust education, remembrance and research. The authors of the Academy of Sciences’ report, some of whom have connections with the alliance, admit that cooperation with such groups is “not a simple mission,” as the report says.

In one respect, it says, the alliance has much to its credit in the struggle against distortions of the memory of the Holocaust in some European countries. But in another respect its intellectual ID card, the group’s 2016 “working definition” of antisemitism, is not only biased and distorted from an ideological perspective, it reflects a profound research failure, not to say academic bankruptcy.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition states: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” This is a somewhat postmodern definition (in the vulgar sense of “everything goes”). Note that under a vague definition like this with blurred boundaries, it’s possible to include very many different perceptions of Jews – both those that express hatred toward them and those that don’t necessarily indicate hatred of Israel.

The most perplexing example of an “antisemitic perception” presented by the alliance – an example of great importance, as the authors of the working-definition document repeated it twice – concerns criticism of Israel. I mean criticism that doesn’t resemble criticism of other countries but adopts double standards regarding Israel, posing exceptional demands that no other democratic country is expected to fulfill.

Anyone can see that this obstructs any international protest against the occupation regime, the settlements and Israel’s apartheid. Israel has been behaving for more than half a century unlike any other democratic state – it maintains a military regime in occupied territories, denies people’s rights and settles its citizens there. Thus it’s clear that any criticism of it will be different from criticism of other states. Such criticism (even if any of its proponents is an antisemite) has nothing to do with hatred of Jews.

However, the remembrance alliance’s “flexible” definition, which implies that hatred of Israel isn’t a necessary condition for characterizing a certain perception as antisemitic, makes it possible to depict criticism of the occupation and the struggle against it as manifestations of antisemitism.

It’s hard to exaggerate the damage this conceptual looseness could cause the study of modern antisemitism. If the Nazis’ “final solution,” the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the call for a boycott of the settlements are all manifestations of antisemitism, then the term “antisemitism” loses any connection to the sociological and historical manifestations of modern antisemitism. It becomes an empty concept because of the multiplicity of meanings.

It’s no wonder that prominent scholars of the Holocaust and Jewish history in the modern period – such as Prof. David Engel of New York University, the author of an appendix to the Academy of Sciences’ report – despair over the many indiscriminate usages of the term “antisemitism.” Engel believes it’s time to abandon this term, as if it were an analytic category and not a concrete phenomenon in Jewish history.

It’s a short step from this position to denial of antisemitism as a historical reality – which isn’t the intention of Engel and like-minded scholars. But historians don’t always have control over distortions of their conclusions.

Nonetheless, the steep inflation in the concept of antisemitism can still be stopped. One method could be an effort by Israeli antisemitism researchers to change the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition, in the spirit of the classic definitions of modern antisemitism.

The old-new definition would re-emphasize the total uniqueness of antisemitic racism, the demonic characteristics of the Jewish stereotype and the goal of antisemitic ideology in the modern era: distancing the Jews from the family of nations while eroding their civil rights in the Diaspora and/or undermining their right to national self-determination in the State of Israel.

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