Factsheet: Antisemitism

Image credit: Beny Shlevich

By Lianne Kolirin and Ben Rich

Antisemitism is prejudice against Jews based on race, nationality, religion or culture. This long-standing hatred has recently become more prominent in western countries, including the UK


How is antisemitism defined?

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) is an intergovernmental body comprising 31 members that promotes the need for Holocaust education, remembrance and research. In May 2016 its new definition of antisemitism was adopted during a meeting in Bucharest.

Though not legally binding, the definition has been adopted by many governments and institutions. On 12 December 2016, the UK Government formally adopted the IHRA’s working definition of antisemitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”.

In a speech that day, Theresa May, then prime minister, said: “There will be one definition of antisemitism – in essence, language or behaviour that displays hatred towards Jews because they are Jews – and anyone guilty of that will be called out on it.”

The IHRA definition came to the fore over the summer of 2018, after a dispute over whether it should be adopted (in full or part) by the Labour Party. In particular, Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) initially rejected the examples, arguing that they risked inhibiting legitimate criticism of Israel and free speech. In September, 2018, the NEC accepted the definition and examples in full. It added a caveat: “This does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians.”

How is antisemitism expressed?


Antisemitism often relies on age-old prejudices that depict Jews as greedy, uncaring, power-hungry, hook-nosed and so on. These are known as antisemitic tropes, all of which were frequently used in Nazi Holocaust propaganda. Among the most common is the claim that there is some powerful “Jewish conspiracy” controlling politics, business, finance, and the media or world events.

Conspiracy theories

In the most transparent and absurd cases, antisemites ascribe to a wide variety of conspiracy theories, such as the assertion that Jews use the blood of Christian babies to make unleavened bread (matzah), were behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, or are simultaneous controlling left-wing and right-wing governments across the globe.

Coded lexicon

Where explicit antisemitism is less acceptable, we see implicit “nods and winks” to the prejudices above, such as irrelevant references to people’s religion, which play to these prejudices (such as the supposed Jewishness of those convicted in the Guinness scandal in the late 1980s). Alternatively, negative stereotypes might be used to describe somebody Jewish – as in the case of the investor and philanthropist George Soros or the men in the artist Mear One’s mural in Spitalfields – without a direct reference to their Judaism.

Indeed, antisemites have developed a new lexicon substituting the word “Jew” or “Israelite” or “Hebrew” or “Zionist”. Terms such as “rootless cosmopolitans”, “international financiers”, “globalists” or even “New Yorkers” have been used instead of “Jews”. In these cases, the context is everything.

Holocaust denial

Another prevalent form of antisemitism is to seek to justify the Holocaust, or deny its existence, or diminish it in some other way. Holocaust denial is rarely total but questions the numbers, the role of the Jews, and their complicity in their own destruction.

It might take the form of suggesting Jews are “obsessed” by the Holocaust or use/exaggerate it to “justify” Israeli policies, its creation, or the general mistreatment of others.

Antisemitism and anti-Zionism

The most complex area is where Israelis or Zionists – rather than Jews per se – are apparently the subjects of criticism. It is not antisemitic to criticise the government or policies of Israel, but there are important red lines and caveats (some are laid out in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition’s examples).

Nevertheless, in some cases “Zionist” is simply used instead of “Jew” and the reader needs to ask whether the statement really does apply to those who support a Jewish homeland, or whether it is actually a comment on Jews as a whole, often utilising the stereotypes above. The use of “Zio” as an abbreviation of “Zionist” is derogatory and was coined to be so, and so can always be regarded as antisemitic.

How has antisemitism played out in history?

Anti-Jewish prejudice can be traced back to the ancient world where Jews were the target of attack simply for being different. This greatly increased after the rise of Christianity, which cast Jews as “Christ killers”.

During the Crusades, the prejudice worsened with many European Jews forced to wear identification badges and cone-shaped hats, pay extra taxes and, from 1215, they had to live in ghettoes. Many were massacred. The worst pogroms – riots against Jews, often condoned by the state – were built upon the ideas of the “blood libel”, that Jews killed Christian children to make matzah at Passover. Jews were expelled en masse from several countries: England (1290), France, Provence and Spain (1492) not returning to Britain until the 1650s.

In the 1700 and 1800s, there were frequent attempts to legalise the Jewish presence in England, leading to the Jews Relief Act of 1858 that allowed Jews to stand for parliament without taking the Christian oath. Moves towards religious tolerance and emancipation overcame resistance, including expressions of antisemitism, and led to a period of tolerance, allowing migration from Eastern Europe.

In 19th-century Europe, in parallel with increasing civil and political emancipation, antisemitism was becoming more racial and political in nature. In France, Colonel Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army, was falsely accused of spying for Prussia and towards the end of the century antisemitic political parties were formed in Germany, France, and Austria, precursors to Nazism. A growth in nationalism across Europe, coupled to insecurity based on the treatment of Jews across the continent, led to the revival of Zionism at the end of the 19th century, the desire that Jews should have their own nation state in their historic and religious homeland of Palestine.

Millions of Jews lived in the Russian Empire: they were restricted to the Pale of Settlement – a western area including Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova, parts of eastern Latvia and eastern Poland – until the 19th century. They also faced discrimination and, from the 1880s, pogroms. The Tsarist authorities faked a notorious antisemitic text, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claimed to be minutes of a meeting of Jews trying to take over the world. It continues to be widely used even today, even though it was exposed as a forgery by The Times of London in 1921.

Building on such sentiments and the huge resentment at the terms of the end of the First World War, Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 on the explicitly antisemitic platform that ended in the Final Solution: the systematic murder of more than six million Jews.

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the Soviet Union supported the establishment of the state of Israel. But by the 1960s it had developed a doctrine of anti-Zionism, reviving classic antisemitic tracts and tropes, as the Cold War played out in the Middle East with Israel, America’s ally. By the 1970s – and particular after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 – this approach was also widely adopted by many hard-left groups in Britain.

How bad is antisemitism in Britain?

The Community Security Trust, a charity providing security advice for Jewish communities in the UK, recorded 1,805 antisemitic incidents in 2019, the highest total recorded in a single year and seven per cent up on the previous year.  Its report says antisemitism on social media formed the largest single contributor to the record total.

The CST recorded more than 100 antisemitic incidents in every month. This, it says, is unprecedented: for comparison, CST recorded monthly totals above 100 incidents on only six occasions between 2006 and 2016. In the 1990s, bombs were placed outside Jewish communal buildings and the Israel Embassy in the UK. Perceived Jewish targets are now fitted with bomb-proof windows and metal detectors and visible security guards, paid for in part by a £13.4m government grant.

An earlier report said antisemitism had played an “unprecedented role” in public life since 2018 when it “became a regular feature in national politics and media to an extent not seen before”. The problem is partly attributed to the allegations of antisemitism within the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

While more than a third of incidents involved social media, the CST does not trawl for online hatred and records only antisemitic episodes that have been reported. Among the other episodes reported are incidents where Jewish victims have been punched, kicked and attacked with stones, bottles and eggs. Swastikas and anti-Jewish slogans have also been sprayed on a range of Jewish buildings.

The CST’s findings were reflected in a Home Office report about the level of hate crime in Britain. In 2018-19, where the perceived religion of the victim was recorded, 47 per cent of religious hate crime offences were targeted against Muslims (3,530 offences). The next most commonly targeted group were Jewish people, who were targeted in 18 per cent of religious hate crimes (1,326 offences).

What about in other countries?


Speaking at the Fifth World Holocaust Forum in January 2020, the French President Emmanuel Macron described antisemitism as a “scourge” that had returned in the 21st century. A study by France’s interior ministry revealed a 27 per cent increase in antisemitic incidents in the year to 2019 — 687 were recorded last year, compared with 541 in 2018 and 311 in 2017.

After Israel and the United States, France is home to the world’s third-largest Jewish population. Yet the rise in antisemitism in recent years has led to a wave of emigration of French Jews to Israel. This exodus was sparked in 2012 after a French-born Islamic extremist opened fire at a Jewish day school in Toulouse. Three years later, a supporter of the so-called Islamic State opened fire at a kosher supermarket in Paris, killing four.


In Germany, anti-Jewish insults and attacks, online and off, have become “a daily occurrence”, according to the country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas. In an article for Der Spiegel, Mr Maas revealed that almost one in two Jews had considered leaving the country because of mounting antisemitism. In 2018 police recorded 307 antisemitic crimes in Germany, an increase of almost a third from 233 the previous year.

Mr Maas’s words came came three months after a gunman tried to storm a synagogue in the eastern city of Halle on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Failing to enter, the far-right attacker turned his gun on a passer-by and a man in a kebab shop, killing both. Days earlier a man wielding a knife climbed over a barrier at Berlin’s New Synagogue. He was overwhelmed by security and arrested, but was later released without charge.

In addition to rising hate crime, there is a public perception of increased antisemitic attitudes. After the attack in Halle, a poll by public broadcaster ARD revealed that 59 per cent of Germans believed antisemitism was spreading. Meanwhile, a study by the World Jewish Congress suggests that more than a quarter of Germans hold antisemitic beliefs.


In the United States, five orthodox Jews were seriously injured when a man armed with a knife went on the rampage during a Hanukkah celebration just outside New York in December 2019. The attacker is said to have burst into a rabbi’s house in Monsey armed with an 18in machete.

The incident was the latest in a growing trend of antisemitic attacks in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1913 “in response to an escalating climate of antisemitism and bigotry”. More than a century later, the organisation is busier than ever.  After the Monsey incident, the league issued a statement saying the attack was “at least the 10th antisemitic incident to hit the New York/New Jersey area in just the last week”.

Earlier that month, six people were killed when two gunmen opened fire at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City. In 2018, 11 people were shot dead at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the deadliest attack on Jewish Americans in the United States. The suspect, a 47-year-old man from Pennsylvania, is awaiting trial. The attack was one of 1,879 antisemitic acts in 2018, says the Anti-Defamation League.

Jewish schools, synagogues and cultural centres have been among the institutions targeted. In August 2017, the country saw a disturbing manifestation of antisemitism at the alt right “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. According to an audit by the league, hundreds of marchers threw Nazi salutes, waved swastika flags and shouted “Sieg Heil” and “Jews will not replace us!”

Around the world

In 2018 the Kantor Center at Tele Aviv University published a report on antisemitism worldwide. Researchers revealed that the number of significant violent incidents was relatively high, though still below levels seen around the times of Israeli conflicts in Gaza in 2008-09 and 2014, for example.

It found that the countries with the highest number of major violent cases were the US (more than 100 cases), the UK (68), France and Germany (35 each), Canada (20) Belgium (19) the Netherlands (15) and Argentina (11). In contrast, the number of cases in Eastern Europe have been much lower than in the western part of the continent.

Lianne Kolirin is a freelance journalist and Ben Rich is a communications consultant and think tank director


Useful contacts

Simon Round, communications officer, Board of Deputies of British Jews, 020 7543 5437, simon.round@bod.org.uk

Mark Gardner, director of communications, Community Security Trust, 020 8457 9999, Mark.G@cst.org.uk

Richard Verber, communications director, United Synagogue, Union of British Orthodox Jewish synagogues, 020 8343 8989, RVerber@theus.org.uk