05/29/2013 04:10 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2013

Road Testing Natan Sharansky's 3 Ds of Anti-Semitism


The participation of relevant European officials at this week's Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism, hosted by the Government of Israel, should help those countries absorb the metrics, mechanics and passion of fighting anti-Semitism. More importantly, Israeli and Jewish leaders need to hear these outside perspectives, because by definition anti-Semitism is primarily an external manifestation.

As an additional step, it's time we laid to rest the catchy and convenient "3-D" test devised by Natan Sharansky, the human-rights icon and current Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. First popularized about eight years, Sharansky's three telltale "D"s are "demonization," "double standards" and "delegitimization".

The purpose, premise and practical application of Sharansky's test are intrinsically problematic, and can hold back the fight against old-fashioned, real-world anti-Semitism. Within our own circle of believers, saying we "know it when we see it" is fine, if imprecise. But convincing others to the point of taking action requires a results-oriented strategy, which will differ depending on whether we're trying to fight anti-Semitism or more broadly trying to defend Israel in the court of world opinion.

The purpose of Sharansky's test is specifically to combat anti-Semitism against Israel as the Jewish State. Conceptually, the idea that "classical anti-Semitism" has transcended from hatred against individuals to hatred of the Jewish State is very compelling. But in reality, Jews and classical anti-Semitism are alive and well in many societies, and ignoring that reopens the door to classical shlilat hagolah (Hebrew: negation of the Diaspora), one of David Ben-Gurion's requisite nation-building myths for creating a new type of state for a new type of Jew.

Most societies now acknowledge that attacks targeting Jews and Jewish institutions as such constitute anti-Semitism. And most governments with Jewish communities under their jurisdiction agree they have a responsibliity to protect Jews, if not all of their citizens. Now that most nations finally acknowledge anti-Semitism as a scourge, adding criticism of the Jewish State to the list undermines the precious credibility of a hard-fought brand. It clouds rather than clarifies.

As to Sharansky's premise, demonizing Israel and its leaders definitely seems to qualify as anti-Semitism. Delegitimization is less obvious, especially for those who honestly (if wrongly) see Israel as a religiously exclusivist colonial vestige. A double-standard may or may not be unfair to Israel, but calling that "anti-Semitism" is a stretch; if Israelis rightly brag about their dozens of Nobel Prizes and aspire to be a "light unto the nations," they can't expect to just be judged against neighbors like Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia -- nor do they aspire to that. Of course, if delegitimization is applied with a double standard -- i.e., every group has the right to a national homeland except for the Jews -- that would be patently anti-Semitic. But the real world can be very unclear and uncooperative.

If we're trying to convince others, and not just ourselves, then Jews need to think about which strategies and tactics will achieve real results. Even if we know some diplomat's attack on Israel is anti-Semitic, is it effective to hold up a pair of blue-red glasses and warn, "Your comments meet the 3-D test for anti-Semitism," or might it be better to show how the comments are unfair and out of order by objective standards and without blowing the anti-Semitism whistle?

The practical application of Sharansky's test is where the rubber hits the road, or what the automobile industry calls a "road test." He wraps it all up in a nice, neat package. The problem is, the real world is not a nice, neat package. Unlike the Cold War era, today's world is not divided into righteous and wicked. How can we operationalize a fight against anti-Semitism if major world leaders raised on anti-imperalism, decolonization and post-nationalism -- the ones we need to convince -- don't see "anti-Zionism" as anti-Semitism?

The problem lies not in identifying extreme, explicit examples of anti-Semitism, but in responding to the subtle, ambiguous and possibly unintended manifestations. "Moral clarity" very easily becomes a broad brush.

If everything is anti-Semitism, then nothing is anti-Semitism. There is no shortage of examples for what Sharansky carefully calls "anti-Semitic bias," but other than my own recent attempt, there are few examples of "valid criticism" of Israel that could be offensive and unfair but not "anti-Semitic." And there are many cases where we may know it's anti-Semitism, but convincing others is unlikely.

Even as a weapon for defending Israel, which only matters with those countries that don't love Israel but don't hate Jews, the anti-Semitism card has its limits. Around the time Sharansky was promoting his "3-D" test, I was involved in efforts to stop a major regional power from hosting the first follow-up to the infamous "Durban" World Conference Against Racism, which devolved into anti-Zionist acrimony tinged with anti-Semitism. The country's leadership was openly anti-Zionist, but resolute against any anti-Semitism -- could we demonstrate that Durban was anti-Semitic? Though "anti-Israel" examples were plentiful, tracking down documented incidents of "anti-Semitism" proved daunting, and fortunately other pressures kept "Durban II" at the low-profile U.N. headquarters in Geneva.

Strategically, even where anti-Semitism can be proven, labeling a crime "anti-Semitism" can unnecessarily delimit the scope. Five years ago, when Iran was opposing Interpol action against perpetrators of the 1994 bombing of the AMIA headquarters in Buenos Aires, international police delegations were persuaded to hold the line without invoking "anti-Semitism." That would have allowed some governments to dismiss the attack on a Jewish institution as a purely Jewish and religious concern, possibly even excusable given Israeli practices in the Middle East. Instead, the effort succeeded by presenting the murder of 85 Argentines as a straightforward terrorist attack on Argentina.

Opening up this year's Global Forum to more outside input and visibility is a useful step on the path toward effective strategies for combating anti-Semitism in the real world, outside the Knesset and the United Nations. Reconsidering Sharansky's "3-D" test as both a lens and a blueprint will go further still.