On Antisemitism by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP): book review

By Yael W.

On Antisemitism is a timely collection of writings given the current increase in popularity and organisation of the Right and far Right. The work is relevant not only given the overt antisemitism from the far Right in Western countries, but also in light of Israel’s most Right-wing government, which highlights the problematic discourse around the definition of antisemitism. That is, ‘new antisemitism’, which asserts that criticism of Israel is antisemitic.  It is refreshing to see such a brave, critical and articulate collation of works addressing such an important issue for us. Indeed, if we don’t engage with the issue of antisemitism, it is left in the hands of pro-Zionist groups who use new antisemitism as a weapon to stifle dissent.

Featuring contributions from activists, academics, students, and religious leaders, the book brings together a broad diversity of voices and views on antisemitism, its definition, history, narratives and impacts, and reiterates the necessity of addressing the complexities of this issue.  It is also the first book on the topic to include the voices of Christian and Muslim Palestinians, and Jewish and Christian African Americans. In the foreword, Judith Butler argues that to challenge antisemitism it needs to be defined, and emphasises having a nuanced approach which considers the different historical experiences of Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrachi and Jews of colour.  Indeed, JVP has done a great job including Jews who are often marginalised, and sometimes completely erased, in conversations around antisemitism. Tallie Ben Daniel is one such writer, articulately examining the Eurocentric deconstruction of antisemitism and Mizrahi erasure and oppression in the Left. She has given us permission to republish her chapter in this issue of Just Voices.

Each chapter engages with various issues pertinent to an examination of antisemitism, and while I would love to credit all contributors it is beyond the scope of this review. The book is split into sections on histories and theories of antisemitism, confronting antisemitism and islamophobia, and fighting false charges of antisemitism.  Some of the topics covered include new antisemitism, a historical look at Christian antisemitism, the specificities of anti-Black racism in Jewish communities and antisemitism in Black communities, racism, orientalism, oppression of Mizrahi and Sephardi Jews, Islamophobia in the context of Imperialism and the ‘war on terror’ and Israel’s role in this, as well as colonisation, the influence of Christian European antisemitism introduced to the Middle East, and much more.

The Muslim and Palestinian voices presented in the book are inspiring, and a solid reminder of the intersections of our struggles, as Linda Sarsour writes: “Islamophobia is one branch on the tree of racism. Islamophobia, homophobia, anti-Black racism, and antisemitism are all connected and we cannot dismantle one without the other.” Omar Barghouti tackles the false charges of antisemitism levelled at Palestinian solidarity movements and activists with a balanced approach which acknowledges the hurt caused by antisemitic language and advocating vigilance in accurate and respectful communication.

A strong theme in the book, one addressed by many of the contributors, is that of new antisemitism. New antisemitism is critiqued for obfuscating real antisemitism, thereby enabling it, and as some argue, also fuelling antisemitism by implicating Jewish communities at large with Israel’s crimes. Antony Lerman provides an interesting look at the politicisation of antisemitism and Israel’s hegemony over monitoring and countering it.  The only shortfall of the book is that despite the strong focus on new antisemitism, there is little engagement with attempts to illustrate the location and definition of antisemitism and how we can challenge it.  I believe that failure to engage these issues provides a platform to discredit the fantastic work of the book, almost presenting an apologist approach to antisemitism in the Left and within Arab communities, but also reveals that defining and challenging antisemitism is a work in progress.

The importance of this body of work is best encapsulated in Rabbi Alissa Wise’s remarks in the conclusion:

‘The truth is that everyone who organizes for justice in Palestine must wrestle with antisemitism, either because a false accusation is being lobbed at them, or because of a need to be vigilant to ensure that critique of the Jewish state doesn’t become blanket criticism of Jewish people…

‘I have been asked countless times: “How do I deflect accusations that I am antisemitic?” I always respond: “Well, are you?”’

You can purchase a copy of the book through the website: http://onantisemitism.com/ 


This article has been published in the AJDS magazine Just Voices, Issue 14, Nov. 2017: Antisemitism.