Whatever Happened to Antisemitism?

Tony Richardson reviews Whatever Happened to Antisemitism: Redefinition and the Myth of the ‘Collective Jew’ by Anthony Lerman, Pluto Press 2022


This is quite a hard book to read because it seems repetitive and full of legalese.

Lerman was the longstanding head of a major Jewish research organisation, involved in compiling global statistics on antisemitism. This was sidelined by Israeli Government organisations, which wanted control of the figures. More importantly, they needed to own the definition.

It is a very important and necessary book because Lerman takes us through to the IHRA definition and walks us through the changes needed to achieve this.

Book Cover

The core of the book is his attack on ‘new antisemitism’, which has actually been around for a long time. Lerman quotes a lot of people like Irwin Cotler who has been, like a number of its protagonists, at numerous conferences over the years, pressing the view of Israel as the ‘collective Jew’. Therefore the core of anti-Semitism is defined as attacks on Israel, and not on the rights of Jews themselves.

This, as Lerman says, suppresses the right to free speech on Palestine and actually weakens the fight against antisemitism throughout the world. 

There have been many articles on the IHRA definition, but Lerman pretty comprehensively demonstrates how it was reached and became the dominant narrative, with all other views suppressed. He shows that there was a lot of opposition, even at the governmental level in some instances.

Of course, once you have defined Israel as the ‘collective Jew’, you find that some people will blame Jews for Israel’s actions, in other words, this increases antisemitism.

Once the Israeli government controls the narrative, it is able to frame attacks on Israel as antisemitism, almost to the exclusion of all other forms. So Israel is able to be big friends with Trump and Orban despite their almost open antisemitism.

When UN resolutions are proposed that condemn Zionism as racist – such as calling Israel an apartheid state – Israel’s supporters attack such resolutions as signs of rising antisemitism. After saying this they do not need to reply to the case raised of expulsions of Palestinians, the denial of their right of return, and so on.

The Zionist discourse constantly presents antisemitism as being at its worst ever level, and Lerman quotes the same academics, using almost the same words on this, over a 40-year span. Some also speak of it in medical terms, like a disease that must be eradicated, as though this is a possibility.

Many of us will know of how things have happened in the Labour Party, how Jews are much more likely to be expelled for antisemitism than others, and by non-Jews. But it is useful to have this brought together in book form, especially with particular examples.

Lermans’ case is argued really well, and the quantity of material and knowledge is powerful, so this is a useful book to read, particularly for pro-Palestinian activists in the Labour Party.

Whatever Happened to Antisemitism? Redefinition and the Myth of the ‘Collective Jew’ by Antony Lerman

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