Julia Neuberger 
Antsemitism: What it is. What is isn't. Why it matters.
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2019

ISBN-13: 978-1474612401


With reports showing anti-Semitism is, sadly, on the rise in places like the UK, in France, in Germany and in the US, Julia Neuberger's book comes as a timely read and, given her position as senior rabbi at the West London Synagogue and a baroness who sits on the cross-bench in the UK's House of Lords, she's well-placed to write it.

Neuberger's book, one of several published on the subject in recent months, starts with an historical survey of the origins of anti-Semitism before getting to more current events with a particular focus on the UK context.

But its her discussion of what anti-Semitism is and isn't that gets to the heart of what this book is all about. And her conclusion is, broadly speaking that while it's not ncessarily anti-semitic to criticise the state of Israel over its policies and actions, it does become anti-Semitic when it crosses over into questioning Israel's very right to exist.

"It is one thing to deny Israel a right to exist at all," Rabbi Neuberger writes. "But arguing about Israel's borders, or criticising its treatment of its Arab population or of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, is another thing entirely. The argument is about policies, not about a right to exist."

That said, as Neuberger admits, there remain grey areas. 

"I do not believe that criticising Israel for disparity of treatment and rights between Jews and Arabs in the West Bank is antisemitic," Neuberger writes. "Nor do I believe it is antisemitic to criticise Israel for the evictions of Arab families in East Jerusalem. What is, or can be, antisemitic is to do this to the exclusion of criticising any other state with far worse human rights abuses, and to do this is a tone so shrill that rational argument, and understanding the context, let alone the opposite point of view, is impossible."

The book also rebuts some of the common tropes of anti-Semitism - for example, that Jews control the world's money markets and the media as well as the abhorrent claim that the Holocaust never happened or was exaggerated.

At just 160 pages (plus footnotes), it's short book but a dense read on issue we should all care about. In support of that, Neuberger cites a quote from a conversation between writer Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens at a Jewish Book Week event in 2007 which she says "nails" the danger of anti-Semitism. Here's part of it: "Antisemitism is a very, very serious cultural danger, and it's only a fool who thinks that it is a threat only to Jews. Antisemitism is a very, very toxic threat to everything we can decently call 'civilisation'."