What is antisemitism and how to best understand it
A guide from American Jewish Committee (AJC) to understanding what is antisemitism and where it comes from.
To combat antisemitism, one must understand it. AJC’s State of Antisemitism in America 2022 report revealed that almost one-third (31%) of Americans are not even familiar with what antisemitism is. First, to understand the hatred of Jews, one needs to know who Jews are.
Who are Jews? Jews account for 0.2% of the world’s population—only 15.2 million people—and only 2% of the U.S. population. Jews are more than a religious group: They reflect diverse ethnic, racial, and national characteristics while exhibiting a strong sense of group identity. Jews have continuously lived in the land of Israel since Biblical times, and today half of the world’s Jewish population are citizens of the State of Israel. Jews span the full political and socio-economic spectrum. Jews by choice (those who convert to Judaism) add additional diversity. The Jewish people include Ashkenazi Jews descended from Eastern Europe, Black Jews from Ethiopia, Brown Jews from India, and Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, and Iran. Given this diversity, characterizing Jews as only “white” and “privileged” ignores history and present reality.
What is antisemitism? For governments, law enforcement agencies, and others who have a practical need to identify and respond to antisemitism, the best tool is the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism, which defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” It also includes practical examples to determine whether something is antisemitic, such as discrimination and hatred of Jews, conspiracy theories, Holocaust denial and distortion, and antisemitism related to Israel. Internationally recognized as the authoritative definition, it has been adopted by more than 800 bodies, including more than 30 countries and multilateral organizations such as the European Union and the Organization of American States. It informs the U.S. State Department’s work on global antisemitism and guides the U.S. Department of Education to address antisemitism on college campuses. Scores of universities, sports teams and leagues, states, and local governments have formally adopted it.
Where does antisemitism come from? Contemporary antisemitism can be difficult to pinpoint as it stems from the far-right, including white supremacism, white nationalism, and neo-Nazi antisemitism; the far-left, arising from identity-based politics or anti-Israel antisemitism, including denying Israel’s right to exist; and religious extremism, including Islamist extremism and factions of some religious sects such as Black Hebrew Israelites and Nation of Islam. AJC’s Translate Hate glossary includes tropes and phrases that are reused and recycled, often unknowingly. More information on the origins of antisemitism is available here.
Is criticism of Israel antisemitic? Political protest is an essential part of democracy, and criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country is legitimate. However, it is antisemitic to target or attack Jews and Jewish institutions as a response to Israeli policies or actions. These examples—which occurred amidst and after the May 2021 flare-up between Israel and Hamas—show when anti-Israel statements and actions are antisemitic.1