What is antisemitism?

Two weeks ago, Bradford West MP Naz Shah and former Labour Mayor of London Ken Livingstone were suspended from the Labour Party following accusations of antisemitism. While Shah has accepted that her comments, such as “The Jews are rallying”, were antisemitic, Livingstone continues to deny that his remarks, such as “Hitler was a Zionist”, were. This debate shows the need for a clear understanding of what antisemitism is, and when it differs from criticism of Israel. 

Definitions of antisemitism

Fundamentally, antisemitism is defined by the dictionary as “hostility or prejudice towards Jews and people of Jewish origin”.

However, a number of authorities have developed more complex and detailed definitions. Many of these definitions have sought to differentiate antisemitism from other forms of racism. Helen Fein, a Holocaust scholar, defines antisemitism as a pervasive structure of hostile beliefs regarding Jews which are grounded in myths, ideologies, folklore and imagery. 

Another academic, Dietz Bering, builds on Fein’s definition to create the following criteria of antisemitism:

  1. Jews are viewed as a collective rather than individual
  2. Jews are essentially alien in the surrounding societies
  3. Jews secretly conspire to bring disaster to their ‘host societies’

The Jews secretly conspiring against non-Jews is a central part of many academic definitions of antisemitism. This is why the phrase ‘Israel lobby’ - which purports to describe groups who seek to influence British (and American) foreign policy in support of Israel - has been so controversial. 

The United Kingdom does not have a specific offense which defines antisemitism. Instead, antisemitic offences will be criminalised by the anti-discrimination clauses which aim to protect ethnic minorities and religious groups in the Equality Act 2010. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Antisemitism has explained that the Equality Act therefore prohibits any remark, insult or act which violates a Jewish person’s dignity or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment. 

The Government does have a non-legal definition which is broader and derives from the Lawrence Report which was published in 1999. In keeping with other definitions of racism and hate crimes, the Government’s overall policy is that it is up to the victim to determine whether a crime against them was motivated by antisemitism. This purpose of this definition is to build trust in the police among minority communities, and to allow flexibility in the response.

There is also a European Union definition of antisemitism, which was produced by the the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EMCRX) (now the Fundamental Rights Agency), a former agency of the European Union. They defined it as:

 "A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities."

Antisemitic or anti-Israel?

Almost all authorities accept that criticism of Israeli Government policies is not necessarily  antisemitic. For instance, the EMCRX states that "criticism of Israel is similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic." 

However, this does not mean all criticism of Israel is not antisemitic. A number of organisations have developed a set of criteria to determine when criticism is legitimate and when it is antisemitic. The Community Security Trust (CST), a charity which aims to protect British Jews from antisemitism and related threats, argues that criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic when it denies Israel’s right to exist or when it demonises Israelis. 

Natan Sharansky, a former Israeli politician and Deputy Prime Minister, suggested that we should use the ‘3D’s’ to determine when anti-Israel criticism becomes antisemitism: demonisation, delegitimisation and when Israel is held to a double standard. These 3D’s are now endorsed by a number of Jewish organisations such as the Board of Deputies and the US Department of State. It can be explained as follows:

  • Demonisation. Most sources agree that criticism of Israel becomes antisemitic when it employs traditionally antisemitic themes. If the criticism implies that Israel is conspiratorial, or if the criticism closely resembles myths such as ‘blood libel’, or if it builds on common antisemitic themes and folklores then it is argued that it is reasonable to believe the criticism is motivated by antisemitism. 

        A particularly pervasive form of this type of antisemitism is to compare Israel to Nazi                 Germany. The charity, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), explains that any comparison             between the Jewish state and the people who committed the most systematic act of               antisemitism in history cannot be considered impartial or dispassionate. They argue that           it is an accusation which is purposefully directed at Jews in an attempt to create an                 association between the victims of the Nazi crimes and the Nazi perpetrators. They                   conclude that to make such a comparison is an act of blatant hostility toward Jews. . 

  • Delegitimisation. Delegitimisation refers to when critics of Israel deny it’s right to exist. It is argued that this is antisemitic because it denies the Jewish people the right to self-determination and is not applied to other countries. For instance, critics of the British Government do not regularly deny Britain’s right to exist. This argument has been supported by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. This is why the Chief Rabbi stated that “anti-zionism is the new anti-semitism”. Zionism is the philosophy that emerged in the early 20th century which sought to the re-establish a Jewish homeland in the territory defined as the historic Land of Israel.                                           
  • Double standard. This refers to criticism which unfairly focuses on supposed injustice committed by Israel and ignores similar or worse injustices committed by other countries. For example, it is argued that many critics of Israel deliberately ignore the serious atrocities committed by Hamas and instead only focus on the actions of Israel.


Fundamentally, antisemitism is hostility or prejudice towards Jews and people of Jewish origin. This hostility often grounds itself in age-old myths about supposed acts of evil committed by Jewish people. Criticism of Israel is not manifestly antisemitic. However, if it utilises themes of antisemitism, denies Israel the right to exist or holds Israel to a double-standard then it is now widely argued that there is reasonable grounds to believe the criticism may be motivated by antisemitism.