I’ve never liked the term anti-Semitism; it’s a misnomer. It assumes the existence of something called Semitism. Its real name is Jew hatred and calling it anything else masks its true nature.
Until the 19th century, European Jews were forced to live in designated, usually gated areas – Judengasse, Judenstrasse, rue des Juifs, Juderia, Joodenplatz, Ghetto, the Pale of Settlement – in the towns and cities where they were tolerated at all. Many cities banned Jews outright except for certain days when they could enter to do business in the limited activities permitted them. Even then they had to enter through designated gates – often called the Jews gate.
The advent of social justice and ethnic minority-rights-movements in late 18th-century Europe often called for Jewish civil-rights too. And by the early 19th century those physical barriers to Jews were largely gone.
In the mid and late 19th century, emancipation, along with a degree of social and economic tolerance permitted Jews to enter and succeed in science, literature, art, philosophy, and industry, and many Jews rose to prominence.
But the social, professional, and physical mobility that allowed Jews to move into the societies around them, and afforded them the chance to blend in to a certain degree, also changed Jew hatred from an essentially Christian religious doctrine into the quasi secular conspiracy theory it was to become.
Although the term Semite had been used in the mid-19th century to describe speakers of the Semitic languages (Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic etc), and had been used to characterize views that sought to separate Jews from other Europeans according to pseudo-scientific racial traits, it was Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904) who popularized it and made it what it is now.
Marr, a minor German political activist, believed that not only were Jews different from Germans, but that they controlled German society. He disseminated his views his 1874 pamphlet – Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (the Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism) – named the phenomenon Semitism, and established Die Antisemitenliga (the League of Antisemites). Thus, the league’s members were known as the anti-Semites. Marr didn’t invent the conspiracy theory; he merely joined the ranks of other European pseudo-scientific racial philosophers such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Joseph Arthur – Comte de Gobineau, and Edouard Drumont. But it’s the term he popularized that stuck.
Semitism is the conspiracy theory that gave us the Czarist Russian forgery, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Hitler’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe, the non-religious anti-Judaism (as opposed to the anti-Judaism inherent in Islam) in the Arab countries, the screeds of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, and the ravings of the alt-right in the United States to name just a few of the its greatest hits.
Yet despite the delusion that Semitism exists, the term anti-Semitism has stuck and we generally don’t use the terms anti-Jewish or Jew hatred. But with anti-Jewish speech and anti-Jewish violence on the rise in the United States and elsewhere it’s time we used its real name. Anything else obscures what it is and weakens attempts to fight it, and we turn away from using its more appropriate descriptions.
Of course disguising something specifically anti-Jewish is nothing new. We have taken so many anti-Jewish events and obscured their origins by describing them in universal terms. When we characterize the Holocaust as a crime against humanity, we ignore the fact that it was developed specifically to rid Europe of Jews; when someone draws a swastika on a synagogue or on someone’s property, it’s not just a hate crime; fliers, posters, ads, and tweets don’t depict just anyone as money-grubbing, the words and images are designed to evoke the common currency of those who hawk the Semitism conspiracy.
Even those who should know better rarely include Jew hatred on their lists of ideas nice people are supposed to eschew. Take Lauretta Charlton, editor of Race/Related, a weekly New York Times newsletter. In an introductory email Charlton stated it was “you will not replace us” chanted by white nationalists in Charlottesville that convinced her to focus on race. But it was “Jews will not replace us” they were chanting.
We can’t begin to fight Jew hatred if we don’t understand or acknowledge its nature and call it by its name.