Why Is Antisemitism Defined Differently to Racism?

07/06/2016 11:18 | Updated 07 June 2016

The recent spate of antisemitic comments within political and civil society has caused a much wider debate on what is and what is not considered offensive, particularly when it comes to antisemitism. But there is another question that I believe underpins this whole discussion; why is it that we are living in times where antisemitism is defined so much more narrowly in comparison to racism against other races, ethnic groups and nationalities?

For as long as I have been involved in anti-racism, it was clear that the definition of "racism" was wide enough to cover antisemitism, and antisemitism was not regarded as a separate category of racism. Something has happened in the last 10 years. Now people talk about racism and antisemitism as though they are two separate things. Why has this come about?

Society is rightly sensitive in both language, speech and writing to ensure that nothing is said which might inadvertently be held to be racist. We seem to be sufficiently aware of how we might offend people of other races and nationalities that we take particular care in what we say and what we write to ensure that we are not engaging in anything that is racist. But, in recent years, the same care and concern has not been taken in relation to comments about Jews. That is why we are finding such a debate about what is or is not antisemitism. Racism and antisemitism are not separate things. From a definitional perspective they should be exactly the same. And yet we see signs that civil society, sport and political discourse is beginning to treat them separately. There is even a debate about how to define antisemitism, in a way that there is not a debate in relation to the definition of other forms of racism against other nationalities, religions and races.

That is why, it seems to me, people do not exercise the same degree of sensitivity or take the same degree of care to ensure that their comments are not offensive and racist when they are referring to Jews in particular. Whereas it is always rightly unacceptable to use certain words when referring to a black person, there seems to be no such acceptance when it comes to words that are offensive to Jews and a complete denial of whether the word Zionist could ever be a form of abuse. In football, there is still the tiresome debate about whether the use of the Y word should risk disciplinary sanction.

Jews are often described using particular ethnic characteristics, which some would describe as "tropes" - perhaps relating to money, influence, or control - in a way that people of other races would never be described. One would not use caricature or tropes or general descriptive characteristics without people being held to account.

Historical occurrences relating to the Jews are often mined for comparative purposes. Jews face Holocaust denial, Holocaust equivalency and Israel is often criticised using language that was used to describe the Nazis. On the other hand, society is rightly sensitive to never use past occurrences that have happened to other races and nationalities to describe their current activities.

It is this very separation of antisemitism from racism which is creating such a debate now within the Labour Party and within civil society. I am not sure how we got to this place. But being able to regard antisemitism as a form of racism and being as sensitive to it as we are about other forms of racism would be a constructive outcome from the current debate.

We should aim to live in a society where, if a politician makes a generic, historical, questionable accusation about the role of Jews, then we should be sufficiently sensitive to ask that politician whether the same accusation would be made against people of other ethnic and racial backgrounds. Such comments should be condemned and appropriate disciplinary action taken as though it were any other form of racism.