What is anti-Semitism?

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.

The Anti-Defamation League’s website notes that comparing the victims of Nazi crimes to those who carried them out “serves to diminish the significance and uniqueness of the Holocaust” and is “an act of blatant hostility toward Jews and Jewish history.” As Foxman puts it: “The moment you compare the Jews to those who consciously and systematically determined to wipe them off the face of the Earth -- that’s anti-Semitism.”

Is that a reasonable line to draw?

Robinson certainly doesn’t think so. He says that the charge of anti-Semitism is a smoke screen designed to intimidate Israel’s critics. “Israel and its supporters intentionally use it to quash debate about the country’s policies,” he says. “It’s a political ploy.”

How does Robinson defend forwarding the offending e-mail?

He doesn’t think it needs defending. He says he’s teaching a controversial, provocative subject, and that it’s his job to challenge students to examine their assumptions as he puts contemporary events into historical context.

And does he meet the Goldhagen test? Does he criticize other nations for their transgressions?

He says he tells his students that there can be no double standard when it comes to human rights, and that the targeting of one Iranian or Palestinian or Jew or Rwandan is equally condemnable. “But at the same time,” he adds, “it’s unreasonable to suggest that each time I critique one state for a human rights violation that I must also, in the name of balance, run off a litany of all the other human rights violations in the world.”

Where does Robinson draw the line between what’s acceptable and what’s not?

It’s fine, he says, to criticize Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe for driving his country to the brink of collapse, but it would be unacceptable to say that he has done so because he is a biologically inferior black African. Similarly, it is acceptable to argue that Israel’s offensive in Gaza was wrong -- but it would be anti-Semitic to criticize Israel on the grounds that Jews are dirty, greedy or sinister.

What does Robinson say to the idea that comparing Israelis to Nazis is simply out of bounds?

First, he defends the comparison of Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto. He says that, like the ghetto, Gaza is sealed off. As in the ghetto, the delivery of food and medical supplies is controlled by the hostile power outside, so that poverty and malnutrition are building. As in the ghetto, he says, rebellions are put down with disproportionate force. According to Robinson, it may not be an exact comparison, but it’s hardly ridiculous.

Moreover, Robinson insists that such analogies are essential to understanding history. Would it be wrong, he asked, to compare the apartheid regime in South Africa to the Jim Crow laws in the American South, even if the situations were not identical? As for whether it’s OK to compare contemporary figures to the Nazis, he notes that President George H.W. Bush once likened Saddam Hussein to Hitler and that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compared Iran to Nazi Germany.

But those are not cases where victims are compared to their persecutors.

Robinson says that comparing victims to their persecutors shouldn’t be off-limits. In fact, that’s the very irony that makes the analogy so important. “I’m saying that the people who suffered the most nightmarish crime of the 20th century are now using tactics and practices that are eerily similar to what was done to them,” he says. But he acknowledges that the analogy has its limits: “Extermination,” he says. “Obviously that’s the key difference.”

So what’s the bottom line?

The Foxmans and Dershowitzes say that comparing Israelis to Nazis is, in the final analysis, anti-Semitic because it is so demonstrably untrue and so patently disingenuous. Even Israel’s fiercest critics, they argue, ought to concede that the country’s actions have been taken in its own defense -- even if one believes that defense was misguided or disproportionately violent or even criminal. Further, they say that the number of Palestinian deaths during the 60-year conflict can’t begin to compare to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. To suggest a moral equivalency is anti-Semitic because it’s so absurd.

Robinson’s bottom line is this: Whether you accept the analogy or find it “absurd,” the real principle at stake is that of open debate and academic freedom. A professor engaging in a controversial conversation with his students may not be shut down by the defenders of a particular ideology. Deeply held beliefs are there to be challenged; that’s how critical thinking is developed.

You be the judge.