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What is anti-Semitism?

The results of a recent investigation into an attack on Jewish teens in Paris once again raises a question that’s been asked time and time again since 2001’s almost infamous World Conference Against Racism in Durban.

The lofty-sounding conference, which took place only days before 9/11, quickly descended into anti-Zionism so virulent the Jewish community was forced to ask, when does anti-Zionism become anti-Semitism? Most commonly, anti-Semitism is defined as negative behavior or statements based solely on Jewishness. In the case of Israel, the definition is more nuanced. The general – and most rational – conclusion is that when protest and/or condemnation of Israel is disproportionate to similar situations elsewhere, it is anti-Semitic.

Both of these definitions share two factors: the “perpetrator” and the “victim;” and the motivations of the former and identity of the latter inform the degree to which an act or statement is called anti-Semitic.

Now how does this all relate to the Paris attacks?

The basic facts of the case according to Israel’s Haaretz, when the story first broke: three B’nei Akiva teenage boys, ages 17 and 18, were attacked on Saturday evening, September 6, by at least three people, allegedly Arabs of African origins. The victims, who were sporting kippot, were hospitalized, one with a broken nose.

Seems a clear case of anti-Jewish motivated behavior.

Not that simple.

JTA’s breaking news* today that, according to Richard Prasquier, president of CRIF (France’s Jewish umbrella organization), one of the assailants may have been Jewish, challenges our commonly held notions of anti-Semitism.

And it poses a tough question from a legal perspective: how do we classify such an assault? According to JTA, there is a debate taking place in France as to whether these attacks are strictly racially motivated, or whether they are the result of a mix of gang mentality and economic situation.

If we still want to call this act anti-Jewish, we are shifting the emphasis from the perpetrator to the victim. Prasquier, of CRIF, adopts that line: “The police say it’s not anti-Semitic if a Jew is involved, but for me, if you throw a stone at a youth wearing a kipah, it’s anti-Semitic,” he said.

And we tend to agree – especially when it’s a group of three Jewish kids attacked.

That’s not to say that economic factors and social behavior don’t play a vital role. But all factors should inform a police investigation. The fact that one of the assailants could be Jewish doesn’t mean anti-Semitism should be immediately dismissed as a motivator – especially as five to six individuals have been detained for questioning.

If indeed one of the perpetrators of this attack is Jewish, this latest attack in Paris – and its legal resolution – should be tracked. Not least because it will undoubtedly effect how Western society defines and deals with anti-Jewish behavior.

*JTA’s breaking news is available on our homepage, via live feed

One thought on “What is anti-Semitism?

  1. Jon Goldschmidt:

    I think this is Anti-Semitism, whether or not one of the attackers was Jewish. You’re spot on when you say ‘especially when it’s a group of three Jews being attacked’. That’s not random – that’s pointed.

    Yet it’s correct to say the definitions of Anti-Semitism are evolving. Look at this article on Wikipedia ( entitled New Antisemitism.


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