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What is anti-Semitism?

A UCSB professors controversial e-mails underscores the need to define a sensitive subject.

May 12, 2009|Nicholas Goldberg | Nicholas Goldberg is deputy editor of The Times' editorial pages.

William I. Robinson, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, probably shouldn't have been surprised when he found himself in the news earlier this month. He had, after all, forwarded an e-mail to his students that juxtaposed images of Palestinians caught up in Israel's recent Gaza Strip offensive with Jewish victims of the Nazis. The e-mail included graphic photographs of dead Jewish children from the 1940s alongside similar photos from Gaza. In a cover note, Robinson called the images "parallel" and compared Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto.

The outcry built slowly. First, a few students complained; then, organized groups became involved. Two national Jewish leaders accused Robinson (who is himself Jewish) of anti-Semitism, and the university's Academic Senate opened an investigation and is considering disciplinary proceedings. Articles about the controversy have been published all over the world and have given rise to fundamental questions:

Is it ever acceptable to compare Israelis to Nazis? When does criticism of Israel become anti-Semitism? And who should make these calls? Below, The Times asks and answers a few questions to help frame the debate.

Let's start with an easy question. What is anti-Semitism?

Actually, that's not easy at all; scholars, philosophers and policymakers have debated the question since the 19th century. The U.S. State Department has defined the term simply but vaguely: "Anti-Semitism is discrimination against or hatred toward Jews."

So how do we recognize it?

That was easier in the bad old days. Who could mistake the violent attacks on Jews across Europe during the First Crusade in 1096? Or the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 and from Spain in 1492? Demonization of Jews, forced conversions, ghettoization, pogroms and the Holocaust -- all were manifestations of classic European anti-Semitism. So were Shakespeare's Shylock and Dickens' Fagin (described as "shriveled" and "repulsive," and referred to simply as "the Jew" more than 200 times in "Oliver Twist").

But today, determining what is or is not anti-Semitism is generally a more nuanced business, at least in the West. Is it anti-Semitic or merely factual to say that Hollywood is controlled largely by Jews? (Remember: Most of the big studio chiefs are Jewish.) Or to note (as some critics of the Iraq war did) that many of the neoconservatives who helped devise the war's intellectual rationale were Jewish -- and possibly harbored a dual loyalty to Israel? Or to point to the existence of a powerful "Israel lobby" that wields substantial influence on Capitol Hill?

So it's a minefield, right?

In 2004, the European Union Monitoring Centre Centre on Racism and Xenophobia tried to bring some rationality to the debate by drawing up a "working definition" of anti-Semitism. Here are some of the examples of anti-Semitic behavior it singled out: Calling for the killing or harming of Jews in the name of an extremist ideology; making dehumanizing or demonizing stereotypical allegations about Jews; accusing the Jews as a people of being responsible for wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group; trafficking in Jewish conspiracy theories; denying the Holocaust; and accusing Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to their own nations.

The organization also noted that anti-Semitism "could also target the state of Israel."

Does that mean it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel?

To criticize Israeli policies? Of course not. Even Abraham Foxman, the outspoken national director of the Anti-Defamation League, acknowledges that there's nothing wrong with criticizing, say, Israel's recent offensive in Gaza. Alan Dershowitz, the vehemently pro-Israel Harvard Law School professor, agrees that it would be "absurd" to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. So if it's OK to criticize Israel's policies, what's the big deal? Professor Robinson objected to the Gaza offensive, and he made that clear.

Yes, he made it clear, but it's how he did so that got him in trouble, according to his critics. There are acceptable ways to criticize Israel, while others cross the line into anti-Semitism, says Daniel Goldhagen, author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners." For instance, if a person repeatedly singles out Israel for attack without subjecting other countries to similar scrutiny, that's questionable, Goldhagen says. Or if he opposes Zionism -- and therefore, Israel's right to exist as an explicitly Jewish state -- altogether.

Another way to cross the line, according to the EUMC, Foxman, Dershowitz, the State Department and others, is to compare Israelis to Nazis. "Any comparison between Israeli efforts to defend its citizens from terrorism on the one hand, and the Nazi Holocaust on the other hand, is obscene and ignorant," Dershowitz wrote in December.

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