definition of antisemitism

The Definition of Antisemitism, Explained

VWB Blog 1 year ago 13

In 2021 alone, there were over 7,000 reported hate crimes in the US. These are crimes motivated by bias against someone’s religion, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.

While race and ethnicity are some of the most common reasons for hate crimes, religion-based hate crimes are also unusually common. Among the victims of these crimes, Jewish people make up almost a third.

When discussed outside of the legal framework, the general term used for bias against Jewish people is antisemitism. Yet, that definition of antisemitism often fails to capture the overall character or the bias.

If you’re looking for a better working knowledge of what antisemitism is and what it means, keep reading for our overview.

What is Antisemitism?

While most people have heard the term antisemitism, asking for a definition will often prompt broad or vague answers. Those answers typically boil down to something along the lines of hating or discriminating against those of Jewish descent.

These broad definitions provide at least a partial answer to the question: “What does antisemitism mean?” Yet, these broad definitions are inaccurate by omission if nothing else.

The Definition of Antisemitism

In the US, there is no legally binding definition for antisemitism. Instead, acts or rhetoric against Jews typically fall beneath the existing hate crimes or hate speech laws that are already on the books.

The generally accepted definition of antisemitism comes from the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. They generally characterize antisemitism as a perception of or an attitude about Jews that often manifests as hate. They also fold in negative actions, speech, and writing that target specific individuals or Jewish institutions.

Roots of Antisemitism

The exact roots of antisemitism are likely lost to history but some educated guesses are possible. As a small culture with a different religion, Jews made an excellent out-group for ancient cultures.

One of the more easily traceable sources of antisemitism comes out of ancient Christian culture. The Jews are often held responsible for the death of Christ, something known as the deicide. This is also sometimes referred to as the blood curse.

Persecution of the Jews from the Medieval era straight on through to the Enlightenment was well-documented. Jews were routinely denied basic rights, such as:

  • Citizenship
  • Holding public office
  • Participating in common trades

Jews were often portrayed with demonic features in the art of the day. It was also common practice for countries to simply expel their entire Jewish population or force resident Jews into ghettos.

Antisemitism in Culture

The most horrific and pronounced example of antisemitism in the modern world is the Holocaust. That was Nazi Germany’s systematic attempt to commit genocide against the Jews of Europe.

Sadly, antisemitism survived that appalling time in history and remains a social ill in many societies. The exact nature of antisemitism in culture does vary. Let’s dig into a few of the common examples.

Conspiracy Theories

One of the more persistent tools used by those who embrace antisemitism is anti zionism conspiracy theories. The exact details of the conspiracy theory vary by source.

In some instances, people believe that the Jews are engaged in a conspiracy to gain complete control of the world’s governments. Less ambitious theories suggest that Jews are involved in an international banking conspiracy or that they control media outlets.

While these conspiracies fail to meet any credible standard of proof, they keep getting recycled over and over again.

Holocaust Denial

One of the more abhorrent examples of antisemitism in modern culture is Holocaust denial. Holocaust deniers take different tacks, but the through-line is always that the Holocaust simply never happened.

These denials not only downplay the horror and suffering that individuals and the Jewish community at large suffered, but attempt to rewrite history.


Jews are subject to a number of stereotypes. For example, Jews are often portrayed as greedy. There are also the stereotypes of the overbearing Jewish Mother and the entitled Jewish-American Princess.

There are also common stereotypes about the appearance of Jews, such as large noses.

While comedy, even Jewish comedy, sometimes plays with these stereotypes, they are most often deployed as insults.


Another common refrain is that all Jews automatically value and support Israel above their home nations. This goes hand in hand with blaming all Jews when Israel takes unpopular actions.

Why Is Antisemitism Bad?

Antisemitism is bad for the same reasons that any entrenched bias against a group is bad.

Right at the top, it promotes continued negative behaviors, such as:

  • Discrimination
  • Harassment
  • Violence against Jews

These attitudes make it more difficult for Jews to integrate into the countries where they live. They also discourage Jews from participating in the culture that surrounds them.

That creates conditions where Jews are more likely to isolate themselves, which can often exacerbate problems, rather than solve them.

Fighting Antisemitism

In many cases, the most effective weapon against antisemitism, or any other kind of bias, is simple information. If you hear a claim about Jews that sounds ridiculous or far-fetched, research it. If you hear it again, refute it with information.

Eliminate antisemitic jokes and stereotypes from your everyday conversations. Even if you don’t intend for a comment to come off as antisemitic, you can’t control how people receive it. You can offend one person, and reinforce someone else’s bad opinion of Jews in one fell swoop.

Engage with members of your local Jewish community. They can answer questions you may have about how antisemitism expresses itself.

Antisemitism and You

While the definition of antisemitism is a good place to start, it suffers from a certain lack of nuance. Antisemitism has a long history. It’s also alive and well in the modern world.

You can see it in everyday conversations, stereotypes, conspiracy theories, and the activities of Holocaust deniers. It’s also a problem that no one person can solve.

What you can do is arm yourself with information and refute baseless claims when you hear them.

Looking for more culture news and info? Check out the education section in our General News category.

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