Someone holds a poster reading
Members of Jews Say No to Genocide at a protest in Ottawa demanding a ceasefire.

To Fight Antisemitism, We Need to Accurately Identify It. Too Often, We’re Failing.

The Feb. 20 Global News article “Investigation: The antisemitism that Oct. 7 unleashed in Canada” was maddening to read. But, as a Jewish person living in Canada, I do agree with one part: antisemitism is both real and cause for concern. Unfortunately, my praise for the article stops there. Most of the claims put forward in the piece are both baseless and dangerous in the fight against actual antisemitism, and in building solidarity between Jews and global movements for justice. 

The investigation outlines categories of rising antisemitism: physical threats; online “hate”; a story of a lone preacher who has been making concerning statements for years; conflict on university and college campuses; and an entire section dedicated to the Centre for Israeli and Jewish Affairs’ (CIJA) concerns over pro-Palestinian movements. 

While physical threats to Jewish institutions should be taken very seriously and of course constitute antisemitism, and the preacher’s words occasionally conflate Jewishness with the state of Israel, the remaining examples rest on the deeply flawed assumption that any criticism of Israel is antisemitic.

So then, what is antisemitism?

Understanding Antisemitism

Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), a Jewish organization dedicated to peace and justice in Israel-Palestine, clearly outlines antisemitism as hostility, prejudice, or discrimination against Jews because they are Jews.

Four out of five of the examples of antisemitism in the Global News article rest primarily on a much shakier definition that could be written as: hostility towards Israel is seen as directed at Israel’s Jewishness, rather than Israel’s overt violence, displacement and murder of Palestinians. That this is the basis of the article is weak journalism, was angering to read, and it contributes to a view of a monolithic Jewishness that doesn’t actually exist.

We need to recognize that historically in Europe and North America antisemitism has often served to protect those in power  — primarily the Christian ruling classes. Jews become the scapegoat of a society’s problems, blamed for the pains and troubles of life, when in fact racism, capitalism and other oppressions are at the root of these challenges.

As Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) explain, this operates “by diverting blame for hardship onto Jewish populations. Like all oppressions, it has deep historical roots and uses exploitation, marginalization, discrimination and violence as its tools. Like all oppressions, the ideology contains elements of dehumanization and degradation via lies and stereotypes about Jews, as well as a mythology. The myth changes and adapts to different times and places, but fundamentally it says that Jews are to blame for society’s problems.”

The scapegoat of many Christian societies, the white Ashkenazic Jew (as opposed to the racialized Mizrahi and Sephardic Jews) has been welcomed into whiteness at times, and cast out at others. This system of “cyclical” oppression distinguishes antisemitism from many other forms of racial or ethnic oppression: white Jews can simultaneously occupy positions of great power and be on the verge of having their religious and ethnic identity considered unacceptable. Followed to its logical end, and tracked throughout history, this “outsider” status has led to being the target of violence, expulsion, and death. 

Israels Safety vs. Jewish Safety

The cycle of being welcomed in and then cast out, is now happening in unison as the safety of Israel is being pitted against the safety of Jews living in the diaspora. The most telling example of this can be seen at the March for Israel in Washington, DC, in late 2023. John Hagee, founder and chairman of Christians United for Israel, and a known anti-semite, headlined and spoke prominently at the event. For the march’s organizers, his support for Israel overshadowed his disturbing antisemitism and violent white supremacist beliefs

This widespread acceptance goes for most Christian Zionists, who believe that for the second coming of Jesus to be fulfilled, all Jewish people must return to the land of ancient Israel, where they will ultimately perish. 

Christian Zionists outnumber Jewish people in the US, and make up an increasingly powerful Zionist lobby, at the same time espousing far-right and often hateful beliefs. This partnership between Christian Zionism and Israeli Zionism often serves to uplift fascist movement leaders, who are dangerous mostly for Black, Indigenous, and racialized people, all the while normalizing antisemitic beliefs as simply part of the ruling structures of society. 

The trade-off here is upholding the Israeli state project at the expense of solidarity with all oppressed peoples. This ultimately puts diasporic Jews like those of us in North America in a precarious, and potentially unsafe position. Jewish safety — outside of the imagined tale that it is solely achievable in Israel — becomes one piece of collateral on this sickening journey towards a “successful” Israel. 

Any systematic review of antisemitism must seperate antisemitism from the Israeli state’s claims to represent all Jewish people, or more precisely, all Jewish safety. This is both because no colonial state can provide safety as it destroys and expels Indigenous populations, but also because Jewish safety will only come through the destruction of all oppressive systems. My safety as a Jewish person in Canada is directly related to fighting all oppressive systems here. As the Hagee example illustrates, it is impossible to fight antisemitism globally by pursuing the singular safety of the Israeli nation-state. This is especially true when proponents of Israel are increasingly at odds with fighting actual antisemitism, as their primary focus remains the protection of the settler colonial state of Israel.

Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories

Antisemitic conspiracy theories, which have existed for generations, today continue to proliferate as governments worldwide adopt unquestioning support of Israel’s apartheid regime even as it commits genocidal acts. When U.S. President Joe Biden or Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prioritize supportive statements, policies, or aid to Israel, while the state commits war crimes, they contribute to the longstanding antisemitic narrative that Jews have a unique stronghold over the most powerful governments in the world. This works to obscure these states’ dedication to imperial interests and control over the region. The Jewishness of Israel is taken up by bad-faith actors and by those who don’t know better as the basis for its power, rather than the alliance with colonial and imperial players, with their own interests on the land, including for oil, trade, military operations and geopolitics. 

When unchecked, the idea of Jewish power as unique can easily attach to alt-right conspiracy theories, which have been proliferating and growing in popularity around the world. The Great Replacement theory is perhaps the most widespread example. In another striking example, a story of a Hasidic community in New York and what would come of it, was weaponized online on 4chan and QAnon Telegram channels, then moving to X (formerly Twitter) and spreading in almost Pizzagate intensity to the totally unfounded claim that Jews were “engaging in ritual child rape.” 

Importantly, this story proliferated when white nationalists, claiming to be pro-Palestinian activists, used existing networks to spread this antisemitic conspiracy theory. This of course is enabled by X owner Elon Musk — who Forward labelled “America’s most dangerous antisemite” – and X’s support of white nationalist, alt-right, Great Replacement conspiracy theories

Identifying Different Types of Antisemitism

The flip side to far-right antisemitism is manifestations of anti-Jewish sentiments on the left. By now it may be obvious that I don’t believe that popular progressive, leftist, Pro-Palestinian chants “From the River to the Sea” or “Israel, Israel you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” are antisemitic. They are calls for freedom, towards liberation and justice for Palestine. But in the same way that anyone living in a patriarchal society reproduces sexism, all of us living in societies shaped by white supremacist values, including antisemitism, can further these belief structures. 

Most notably, in mid-2021, two NDP candidates resigned after antisemitic tweets surfaced online. One was from a few years earlier when as a teenager, before becoming a candidate, one individual had questioned an aspect of the Holocaust, and the other individual had reiterated a conspiracy theory around Israel and COVID-19 vaccines. These are not particularly dangerous examples, but as JFREJ wrote in 2015, “many on the left (sometimes including Jews ourselves) don’t have a clear analysis of what antisemitism is, how it works, and why it matters.” 

NDP (and NPD-aligned) leaders Jagmeet Singh, Marit Stiles and Olivia Chow have positioned themselves as weakly critical of the state of Israel, weakly supportive of Israel’s “right to defend itself,” and Singh and Chow even parroted Israeli lobby groups’ false claims of antisemitism by uplifting an unconfirmed claim that Mount Sinai Hospital in downtown Toronto was targetted during a pro-Palestinian protest. 

This narrow pursuit of a singular Jewish safety (i.e. in Israel) isolates Jewish people globally from all oppressed people’s struggles for freedom, and it can further contribute to global and local antisemitism. 

Take for example Marcus Stiller from the Global News piece; his horror that someone might accuse him of supporting genocide as he proudly displays the flag of a genocidal state at his restaurant is used by the writers to show that he is the victim of an antisemitic attack. What does Stiller think the Israeli flag represents right now? The same flag is waved in glee by Israeli soldiers who kill civilians and demolish civilian homes across Gaza. If Stiller’s restaurant had been targeted simply because he was Jewish, rather than the fact that he was displaying an Israeli flag during a genocide, this would veer into the category of antisemitism. 

The far-right slogan and swastika spray painted on his restaurant a month later are far more antisemitic than the “accusation of supporting genocide.” The article positions the online accusation as somehow linked to the alt-right slogan and swastika, or a natural next step in the progression of the antisemitism Stiller is facing. 

It must be noted that neo-Nazi groups have been opportunistically attaching themselves to and infiltrating Pro-Palestinian movements in order to try to push antisemitic beliefs, incite violence, and pass off blame on Palestinian liberation movements. Although I can’t be certain who spray painted Stiller’s restaurant, I am quite confident that the question of whether he supports the ongoing genocide should be considered separate from having neo-Nazi symbols and graffiti spray painted on his building. Those symbols are completely out of sync with the language, symbols, and beliefs of Palestinian liberation movements. 

This example displays just how limited the analysis around antisemitism can be; ultimately flattening criticism of Israel and actual neo-Nazi antisemitism into one far too simplistic story. 

So then, when is critique of Israel antisemitic? 

Can Critique of Israel Be Antisemitic?

When criticism of Israel focuses on its colonialism, violence, displacement, torture, and murder of Palestinians, it is entirely legitimate — just as any other criticism of any other state. 

This veers into antisemitism when it is assumed that the Jewish-Israeli settler state inherently possesses some kind of unique power globally. In fact Israel, and any unique power it does hold, has been bestowed by the most powerful and violent settler colonial states in the world. The state of Israel is, after all, modeled and propped up by the UK, the US and Canada. 

Further, when we become fixated on Jewish trauma from the Holocaust as the only reason something so extreme has been allowed to happen, rather than focusing on the global imperialist project of aligning British, American, Canadian, and other interests in the region, our discussions tend towards antisemitism. There is no Jewish conspiracy to amass power, rather there is a variety of ‘successful’ settler colonial projects backing the state of Israel, along with rampant and unchecked capitalism and imperial interests that align to maintain the Israeli state’s near global impunity.  

Time to Get it Right

A recent Time article titled “The New Antisemitism” outlines why we must take these debates much more seriously. The author Noah Feldman utilizes a weak definition of antisemitism to posit that genocide claims against Israel veer into antisemitsm because Jewish people have been subject to one of the greatest genocides of all time. 

Feldman may as well have been quoting the now-infamous International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, adopted and championed by Canada, many EU nations, 30 US states, a range of NGOs, educational institutions, and more, as the basis for his concerns. He, along with the IHRA, makes a mockery of Jewish pursuits for justice and safety by blurring the line between Jews and Israel and attempting to codify anti-Zionism as antisemitism. The effect of this has been the silencing and increased criminalization of Pro-Palestinian activists

Although it is difficult for many Jews, we must endeavor to separate the Holocaust from the settler colonial project of Israel, which involved Zionist Jews arriving in Palestine, forcibly clearing the land of Indigenous inhabitants, taking control of the resources, and ethnically ensuring Jewish-Israeli dominance. This is complicated by the fact that Lord Balfour (architect of the Zionist 1917 Balfour Declaration) and many other prominent British decision-makers were well-known antisemites, trying to solve the ‘Jewish question’ and achieve a self-interested deal to end World War I. 

The trauma of the Holocaust during World War II, and many hundreds of years of Jewish oppression and hate before that reverberate through Jewish communities today, but this must not be collapsed into a justification for the Israeli state’s historical violence, current occupation, and ongoing genocide. 

As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, partnered with a Jewish person, raising a Jewish kid and with another one on the way, my primary focus right now is on stopping Israel’s brutal genocide — something I do alongside thousands of Jewish people involved in Pro-Palestinian movements, including in Showing Up for Racial Justice – Toronto and Jews Say No To Genocide. And longer term, it means ensuring an end to the occupation, the return of Palestinian lands, and full statehood and self-determination for all Palestinian people. However, I believe that for Jewish people invested in Palestinian liberation, and all fights for justice, we must pair this with a sharp and nuanced analysis of what is and is not antisemitism. This goes for Jews and non-Jews alike. 

The weaponization of our collective trauma has led to the absurd, draconian, and dangerous treatment of Palestinian liberation movements — propped up by governments worldwide with ulterior motives and deeply held interests in maintaining a particular type of control over this region. This is most dangerous for Palestinian communities and people fighting for their liberation. To combat this we must take antisemitism seriously, fighting it alongside all intersecting oppressions. There will be no Jewish safety without an end to white supremacy, colonialism, imperialism, and all forms of oppression. And much to the contrary of Israel’s stated claims, Jewish safety will remain precarious if the genocide and occupation aren’t immediately stopped.