TORONTO — Jewish and non-Jewish commentators alike have deplored a recent upsurge in anti-Semitism. In Europe, journalist Andrew Sullivan says, "Not since the 1930s has such blithe hatred of Jews gained this much respectability in world opinion."
Yet, Jews like myself and the Israeli journalist Ran HaCohen feel quite differently. He writes: "It is high time to say it out loud: In the entire course of Jewish history, since the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, there has never been an era blessed with less anti-Semitism than ours. There has never been a better time for Jews to live in than our own."
Why would a Jew say such a thing? What is anti-Semitism, and how much of a danger is it in the world today?
If both sides agree on anything, it's that the definition of "anti-Semitism" has been manipulated for political ends. Leftists accuse ardent Zionists of inflating the definition to include -- and discredit -- critics of Israel. Zionists accuse the left of deflating the definition to apologize for covert prejudice against Jews.
It's a sterile dispute. Even in this age of intellectual property, no one owns the word. But the definitional sparring does have its missteps and dangers.
The first tells against deflationists who claim that anti-Semitism is really hatred of Semites (including Arabs), not just Jews. This confuses etymology with meaning. You might as well say that, in reality, lesbians are simply those who live on the Greek island of Lesbos.
On the other hand, to inflate the definition by including critics of Israel is, if not exactly incorrect, self-defeating and dangerous. No one can stop you from proclaiming all criticism of Israel anti-Semitic. But that makes anti-Semites out of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu, not to mention tens of thousands of Jews.
What then prevents someone from concluding that anti-Semitism must be, at least in some cases, justifiable, courageous, highly moral? Is this a message any prudent Jew or anti-racist would want to encourage?
Similar worries arise when Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, tells us: "The classic canards of 'Jews control,' 'Jews are responsible' and 'Jews are not loyal' continue to be peddled in America. While anti-Semites have usually been on the fringes of our society, today we find they and their views have made it into the mainstream."
Well, it might be anti-Semitic to hold Jews responsible for everything, but it would be bizarre to claim anti-Semitism whenever Jews are held responsible for anything. In a survey conducted by Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 87% of American Jews said that Jews "have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed and minority groups"; 92% said that Jews are obliged to help other Jews who are "needy or oppressed." What Foxman calls an anti-Semitic canard is deeply rooted in traditional and contemporary Jewish thought. A Web search will find dozens of rabbis attributing to Jews, generally, not just responsibilities but collective responsibility.
We hold groups responsible for things, good and bad, all the time: The Germans started World War II, the French opposed us in Iraq, the British supported us. The strongly pro-Israel columnist Jonathan Rosenblum states, "The Jews have built an advanced, industrial state, while the Palestinians have built nothing."
Clearly, it is not just anti-Semites who attribute responsibility to the Jews. And just as clearly, this is neither racist nor to be taken literally. Rosenblum does not mean that every last Jew, including children and the mentally disabled, built that state. He means that most adult Jews made some contribution to it.
If so, should definitional inflation be allowed to make anti-Semites out of all those who hold Jews responsible for Israel's actions and character? My childhood, in largely Jewish suburbs of New York and Boston, was full of Israel bond drives and calls to support Israel. Can't Rosenblum say that "the Jews," meaning a substantial majority of adult Jews, have some responsibility for what Israel has become? And can't Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch say that Israel has committed war crimes and violated human rights?
One might justly call it dangerous to conclude that Jews, generally, had some responsibility for war crimes and human rights violations. But to call it anti-Semitic seems just as dangerous, because in some loose, though not unreasonable, sense, the conclusion is hard to escape. That's why there are whole Jewish organizations, like Not in My Name, that exist to enable Jews to dissociate themselves from Israel's actions.
In short, you can't have it both ways. You can, if you like, inflate the definition of "anti-Semitism" to capture even Jewish political opponents of Israel. But you can't do this and keep "anti-Semitism" as a term of intense moral condemnation. Nor will the inflationary gambit successfully isolate the truly reprehensible anti-Semites.