Home  / 3306

Contemporary Struggles over Defining Antisemitism


Publication Name

Publication Date

Publication Place



This paper focuses on struggles over how antisemitism is defined. Struggles over definition are themselves part of the wider struggle between those who say that hostility to Israel is important in understanding contemporary antisemitism and those who say that these two phenomena are quite separate. A key question, therefore, is what kinds of hostility to Israel may be understood as, or may lead to, or may be caused by, antisemitism?

In this paper I analyse three case studies of struggles over how antisemitism is defined. First, I trace a genealogy of the EUMC (European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, now the Agency For Fundamental Rights, FRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism. I show how this definition emerged out of a process of splitting between the global antiracist movement on the one hand and Jewish-led opposition to antisemitism on the other. At the Durban ‘World Conference against Racism’ in September 2001, there was a largely successful attempt to construct Zionism as the key form of racism on the planet; this would encourage people to relate to the overwhelming majority of Jews, who refuse to disavow Zionism, as if they were racists. In response, some Jewish NGOs found that they could get a hearing for their concerns within the structures of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the European Union. If Durban is thought of as a non-white global forum and if the OSCE and the European Union are thought of as networks of white states, then the antagonism between non-white antiracism and white anxiety about antisemitism becomes visible and concerning. The clash between anti-Zionism on the one hand and the claim that antizionism is related to antisemitism on the other plays out within the realm of discourse and then it is also mirrored institutionally in these global struggles over the definition of antisemitism.

Second, I go on to look at a case study of alleged antisemitism within the University and College Union (UCU) which was related to the partial success within the union of the campaign to boycott Israel. The explicit disavowal of the EUMC definition during the 2011 UCU Congress can be understood as the climax of a process of struggle within the union over the recognition of a relationship between hostility to Israel and antisemitism.

The third case study is an analysis of two formal processes which were asked to adjudicate whether hostility to Israel had become antisemitic: the UCU v Fraser case at the Employment Tribunal in 2012 and the Shami Chakrabarti Inquiry into Antisemitism and Other Racisms in the Labour Party in 2016. The EUMC definition of antisemitism offers a framework for understanding the potential of certain kinds of hostility to Israel to be antisemitic. The further argument was made within the UCU, as well as to the Employment Tribunal and to the Chakrabarti Inquiry, that cultures of hostility to Israel and of support for boycotts tend to bring with them, into institutions which harbour them, cultures of antisemitism. The structures of the Union, as well as the two inquiries, wholeheartedly rejected both the claims: first, that a politics of hostility to Israel manifests itself in antisemitism in these cases; and second, that a cultural or institutional antisemitism, analogous to institutional racism, could be identified in the UCU or the Labour Party.

This paper asks whether these wholehearted rejections of claims about antisemitism are themselves implicated in the functioning of contemporary antisemitism. Denial of racism is a necessary element of those kinds of racism which do not see themselves as racist. Perhaps the hostility to the EUMC definition and to arguments about cultural or institutional antisemitism is a necessary component of the anti-Zionist discourses and cultures themselves which arguably relate in complex ways to antisemitism.




Geographic Coverage

Original Language

Page Number / Article Number





Link to download in university repository, Contemporary Struggles over Defining Antisemitism

Bibliographic Information

Hirsh, David Contemporary Struggles over Defining Antisemitism. Unity and Diversity in Contemporary Antisemitism: The Bristol–Sheffield Hallam Colloquium on Contemporary Antisemitism. Academic Studies Press. 2019: 17-39.  https://archive.jpr.org.uk/object-3306