Online Denial of Antisemitism

Denial is a common theme in antisemitic discourse – from the ever present Holocaust denial to the current case of October 7 denial. This briefing explores online denial of antisemitism itself – both in terms of denying the concept as a whole and denying specific instances of antisemitism. The examples shown in this briefing primarily, but not exclusively, come from social media accounts based in New Zealand. 

“Palestinians/Arabs are Semites Too”

One way that antisemitism is currently denied online is through the idea that “Palestinians/Arabs are semites too”, so therefore they (and by extension their supporters) cannot be antisemitic. While etymologically derived from the terms “Semite” (a speaker of a semitic language including Hebrew and Arabic) and “anti” (meaning to oppose), “antisemitism” was first coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, who wanted to overturn Jewish emancipation in Germany, to refer exclusively to anti-Jewish campaigns. More importantly, its modern usage is widely recognised and accepted as referring to hatred of Jews (for example: Oxford Dictionary, Merriam-Webster dictionary, IHRA definition). Furthermore, the very idea of “semite” as a legitimate categorisation of people is based in racialist pseudo-science. Classifying anyone – including Arabs, Palestinians, Jews or Israelis – as “semites” is no longer considered valid. 

Example 1

The comment on Linkedin shown below makes use of this rhetorical device when they declare that: “everybody is a semite in the arab world” and “Jews are not the only semites worth considering”. This is an attempt to shift a legitimate conversation about antisemitism away from its focus. While there are plenty of conversations to have about the needs and plight of Palestinians and other Arabs, they should not be used to obscure the much needed conversations about antisemitism.  

Another way the notion that “Palestinians/Arabs are semites too” is used to attempt to deny and silence concerns of antisemitism is in the claim that Israel’s war in Gaza is the actual antisemitism. This inverts Jews from being the victims of antisemitism to the perpetrators of it.

Finally, the LinkedIn user calls antisemitism a “hollow Zionist propaganda smear against those who disagree”. While it is true that some have incorrectly used antisemitism to deflect criticism of Israel, this is not an accurate portrayal of the reality of discourse around the issue of antisemitism today. By defining antisemitism in this way, Jews, and their supporters, are stripped of their ability to be able to call out and combat real instances of antisemitism and discrimination. 

Example 2

The comment below from Instagram is an example of this idea being used to defend anti-Israel “activism” that has crossed into antisemitism. On 8 November 2023, a Jewish Community Centre in Auckland (Tamaki Makarau) was vandalised with pro-Palestine graffiti and several small fires. Holding the Jewish community responsible for Israel’s actions and targeting their buildings with vandalism is clearly antisemitic. Dayenu NZ – an anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian Jewish organisation – made a post expressing their disapproval of the attack. An Instagram user then commented on Dayenu NZ’s post: “Stop using anti semitism [sic] as a crutch, arabs are semites too”. The second half repeats the above claim that “arabs are semites too” and therefore implies that any action done in the name of pro-Palestinian activism cannot be considered antisemitic, even when it clearly is. 

Furthermore, the term “stop using anti semitism (sic) as a crutch” implies that Jewish organisations are using antisemitism to deflect legitimate criticism of Israel. In this context this allegation does not make sense. Dayenu’s purpose as an organisation is to oppose Israel, so they are clearly not trying to deflect criticism of Israel. This reveals that the claim “Jews use antisemitism to deflect from legitimate criticism of Israel” is itself often a deflection from legitimate claims of antisemitism.

The key issue with this claim that “Palestinians/Arabs are semites too” is not that it references refuted racialist pseudo-science, but rather that it distracts from legitimate issues of anti-Jewish discrimination. Those who make this claim are focusing on inconsequential (and incorrect) linguistic games to move the conversation away from the actual instances of anti-Jewish hatred. 

Denial of Specific Instances of antisemitism

Example 3

On May 26, 9 News Melbourne reported that the words “Jew die” had been graffitied on Melbourne’s largest Jewish school. This is clearly an antisemitic act and one that caused a lot of fear and pain to the Jewish community, particularly as it was targeted at children. In a comment replying to 9 News’ facebook post about this, a user commented “They would of [sic] painted that themselves to get sympathy”. This unfounded accusation denies an instance of antisemitism and instead tries to portray Jews as conspirators rather than victims.

Example 4

This X (Twitter) comment below doesn’t deny antisemitism, but does attempt to downplay it. The original post is from a podcaster who hosted the President of the New Zealand Jewish council, Juliet Moses, on their podcast in May. In the early minutes of the podcast Juliet discussed specific instances of pro-Palestine activists campaigning for the expulsion of two Jewish University professors because of their Zionist views. The commenter wrote that they only got through 2 minutes before this discussion made them “want to vomit” and suggested that this discussion is unimportant/objectionable because “Israel killed Palestinian uni staff and destroyed every single university & school in Gaza”. Worst case, this user is holding these Jewish professors responsible for the actions of Israel, which is blatantly untrue and antisemitic. Best case, this user is downplaying the experiences of two Jewish professors by trying to shift the conversation towards Palestinian suffering. Yet again, while that discussion is important, it should not be used to obscure instances of anti-Jewish discrimination. In particular there is very little that either of the people on this podcast, or their presumably NZ-based audience, can do about the war in Gaza, but a lot more they can do about antisemitism in New Zealand. This makes it reasonable for the podcast to be discussing this issue and harmful for the user to try and derail this discussion. 

Denial of General Antisemitism

Example 5

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, New Zealand Cabinet Minister Chris Bishop was invited to light one of the remembrance candles at the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand’s remembrance ceremony. Afterwards his Facebook post referenced, among other things, the rise of antisemitism in New Zealand and around the world. One commenter said “Calling out Israels excesses is not anti Semitism [sic]. Calling it anti Semitism [sic] is intellectually lazy”. As Chris Bishop points out in reply, he did not make any sort of equation between legitimate criticism of Israel and antisemitism. 

Numerous organisations, including OHPI, have demonstrated a clear rise in antisemitism recently, both antisemitism that is related to Israel (not legitimate criticism of Israel) and antisemitism that is unrelated to Israel. This example shows, once again, someone attempting to defend all instances of antisemitism as valid criticism of Israel when they are not.

Example 6

In this post on GAB a user says “being anti-israel qualifies as antisemitism to the degree as being anti-Hitler qualifies as being anti-Christian”. There is no evidence historically to suggest a correlation between Hitler and Christianity thus the commenter conflates the lack of relationship between the two to say that likewise there is no relationship between being anti-Israel and antisemitism. Therefore they are refuting people who are calling out antisemitic anti-Israel stances. The issue with this claim is that while it is possible to be anti-Israel without being antisemitic, there are also demonstrable ways in which anti-Israel activism and discourse can become antisemitic. To put it more simply, no one is anti-Hitler because they are anti-Christian, but many people are anti-Israel because they are antisemitic. 

Conclusion

These examples are just a few of the myriad of cases of denial of antisemitism found by our team in New Zealand and across the world. As antisemitism has spiked so too has denial that it exists. In particular this denial is often (although not always) in relation to Israel and Palestine – confusing the idea of defending legitimate criticism of Israel with denying genuine antisemitic content. This denial of antisemitism can have many impacts: It revictimises victims by denying their experience, it normalises antisemitism and it makes it harder to call out and combat antisemitism. As such, the denial itself is harmful to Jewish people and must be considered antisemitic in its own right.