Barely a week goes by without a fresh controversy involving the word "anti-Semitism." And every time anti-Semitism rears its head, it is agonizingly clear that there is little consensus on what this most ancient of prejudices means in our own time.
Two articles from the last month illustrate this point. The first, by Amira Hass in Haaretz, argued that the researchers who monitor anti-Semitic incidents were ignoring assaults by Jewish residents of the West Bank on neighboring Palestinian Arabs, whom she referred to as "Semites", and contended that the assaults could thus be termed "anti-Semitic". By expanding the definition of who can be a victim of anti-Semitism, Hass removed, in a single stroke, its historic association with Jews alone.
The second article, by Anna Breslaw in the U.S. Jewish magazine Tablet, centered on the author's disturbing confession of her dislike for, and distrust of, the survivors of the Holocaust. Thanks to Breslaw's unfiltered candor - which included the approving use of the word Judenscheisse, an old German slur linking Jews with excrement - people normally on polar opposite sides of the anti-Semitism debate found themselves united in condemning her words as brashly and crudely anti-Semitic. On the right, John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine, described Breslaw's article as "the most egregious piece of anti-Semitic filth in years," while on the left, Katha Pollitt of The Nation – a magazine that has not shied away from portraying accusations of anti-Semitism as cheap, politically-motivated smears – tweeted her regret that she and Podhoretz found themselves in agreement.
So is the meaning of anti-Semitism as elastic as Hass implies? Or is it simply that we know it when we see it, as the furious reaction to the Breslaw piece suggests?
The word itself is the most sensible starting point. "Anti-Semitism" was not a word coined by Jews, but by anti-Semites in late 19th century Germany. A bizarre assortment of third-rate thinkers, most notably the rabble-rouser Wilhelm Marr, sought to reinvent Christian hostility to Judaism for a secular era as a scientifically valid theory of race.
As the historian Leon Poliakov noted in writing about Marr, there was an air of envy embedded in his 1879 work, "The Victory of Judaism over Germanism," in which an emphasis on supposed Jewish racial characteristics melded with a fantasy about the extraordinary power of the Jews. "You will not be able to stop the great mission of Semitism," Marr wrote bombastically.
By "Semitism," Marr meant not the speakers of Semitic languages, nor the members of the non-existent "Semitic" race. He was speaking specifically of Jews.
Why, then, the attempt to expand anti-Semitism's remit to include Arabs? Why not simply employ the term "racism" in any discussion of discrimination faced by individuals of Arab origin? A generous interpretation would put this down to a misuse of the term "Semitic." However, the historical record demonstrates that the deployment of the word "anti-Semitism" in an Arab context is a long-established technique aimed at forcing the Jews to share it with another people for whom it was never intended.
Everyone has heard or read some variation of the theme, "We are Semites, so how dare you call us anti-Semites," from Arab sources. The method underlying this protestation is fairly easy to decipher: Firstly, the acknowledgement that, especially since the Holocaust, it is no longer respectable to call oneself an anti-Semite, even while pushing anti-Semitic ideas; secondly, the insinuation that there is an equivalence between the historic persecution suffered by Jewish communities all over the world and the fate of the Arabs of Palestine in 1948; thirdly, the implication that anti-Semitism is a smear casually tossed out to strip the harshest critics of Zionism and Israel of their credibility, including "Semites" themselves.
One might say that the distinguishing feature of anti-Semitism in this age of Jewish empowerment -- by which I mean that a Jewish state exists, and that the vast majority of Jews live in countries free of discriminatory legislation -- is that it is coded. Expressions like "Israel-Firster" (the notion that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the countries of which they are citizens) have a definitively pejorative feel, but those who deploy them invariably bristle at the charge that they are trafficking in older, more noxious tropes.
Which brings us to Anna Breslaw. Perhaps the greatest disservice her piece performed was that it enabled those pundits who normally sneer at any mention of anti-Semitism, and who are often accused of anti-Semitism themselves, an easy opportunity to declare their disgust at what she wrote.
This group includes the Jewish blogger, MJ Rosenberg, who has done more than anyone else in America to popularize the term "Israel-Firster." In a recent blog entry bemoaning the link drawn between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, Rosenberg conceded that the word "anti-Semitism" is meaningful "...to real victims of anti-Semitism like those French kids in France who were killed because they are (sic) Jewish." He then went on to declare: "It is not about Israel."
Assuming that the "French kids" Rosenberg refers to are the ones slaughtered at a Toulouse Jewish school by a self-professed Al Qaida terrorist, it is quite absurd to argue that the issue of Israel is unrelated, as even the most superficial understanding of contemporary Islamism would grasp. (Osama Bin Laden himself, in an October 2002 'letter to America,' called Israel's creation a "crime which must be erased," before adding that the "people of Palestine are pure Arabs and original Semites.")
But the overriding point is this: Hatred of Jews qua Jews, particularly in the type of language used by Anna Breslaw, is the only time when anti-Semitism can be called by its name. Everything else is an invention.
This semantic game has enabled the ugliest themes of traditional anti-Semitism -- notably, the sinister tribal imperatives at work in the activities of the "Israel Lobby" -- to establish themselves in apparently respectable discourse. It is a game, moreover, that has worked. Hence the paradox: The more coded the words are, the more dangerous they are. The 2006 book The Israel Lobby by Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt -- slammed by the prominent commentator Walter Russel Mead as "a book that anti-Semites will love, but it is not necessarily an anti-Semitic book" -- has been infinitely more influential than Anna Breslaw's article could ever be, and has encouraged readers to think of Jewish power as shadowy and unaccountable.
What all this proves is that a writer can enable anti-Semitism irrespective of whether that was his or her intention. What this also proves is that, as far as a large swathe of writers and intellectuals are concerned, anti-Semitism can only be identified as such if it comes in the form of a Mein Kampf-like screed against Jews.
In 2012, as in 1879, the Jews themselves do not own the word "anti-Semitism," even as they experience its real-world effects.