Today, our focus lies on the term “antiSemitism” and the multifaceted issues it brings upon the global Jewish community and our quest for liberty and self-determination. By the end of this discussion, I aim to persuade you to reconsider using the term to describe discrimination or prejudice towards Jews. We’ll delve into the term’s inception, its deliberate ambiguity, and the ways it has been used historically as a weapon against Jews. Additionally, I’ll offer an alternative vocabulary for your everyday conversations.
Before we begin, here is a short note on spelling. Following the guidance of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, we will use the unhyphenated form “antiSemitism” throughout this post. The exception will be when referencing direct quotes containing the term with a hyphen.
The Origin of the Term AntiSemitism:
The term “antiSemitism” is a fusion of the prefix “anti,” conveying opposition, and “semitism” rooted in the biblical figure Noah’s son, Shem. Interestingly, “Semitism” encompasses a diverse array of ethnic groups, spanning beyond Jews to include Arabs and Assyrians. This prompts a thought-provoking question: If “Semitism” doesn’t exclusively denote Jewish identity, why limit the term “antiSemitism” solely to the prejudice aimed at Jews? The persistence of ‘antiSemitism’ in singling out Jews is an echo of outdated racial classifications, contrasting sharply with the current trend of abandoning such categorizations. In an era where racial delineations are largely discarded, the lingering label of ‘antiSemitism’ remains, pointedly targeting Jews within the narrative of hate.
The History of the Term AntiSemitism:
According to Robert Michael and Philip Rosen in their work ‘Dictionary of Antisemitism,’ Wilhelm Marr introduced the term ‘antiSemitism’ in 1879 during Germany’s turbulent reunification. Figures like Marr resisted the integration of Jews into German society. Marr’s alarmist publication titled “The Victory of Judaism Over Germandom” pulls no punches from the outset, emphatically claiming, “There is no stopping them...” – “them” being an unfavourable reference to Jews. Marr argues that Jews have dominated society, politics, and the press, alleging they’ve conducted an 1800-year campaign against the Western world, overpowering it and causing the demise of many non-Jews. He expresses begrudging respect for “the Jew’s” ability to achieve dominance, saying, “Dear reader, while you are allowing the German to be skinned alive, I bow my head in admiration and amazement before this Semitic people, which has us under heel.”
This narrative perpetuated by Wilhelm Marr, along with blood rituals and the accusation of Christ killing, not only depicted Jews as both inferior and cunning scapegoats but also left a permanent mark of vilification of Jews in modern History. Marr, whose controversial views emerged during Germany’s 19th-century quest for identity consolidation amid nationalist fervor, laid the foundations of “antiSemitism.” His creation of this term remains relevant in comprehending today’s geopolitical landscape, resonating through time to intricately entwine itself in contemporary discourse.
The Problematic Obscurity of Jew-Hatred in the Modern Era:
It’s odd that in this era of cultural sensitivity, the term “antiSemitism” persists, particularly when it is derived from the broad concept of ‘Semitism’. This not only applies to Jewish people but, much like the term Orientalism, is drawn from antiquated racial classifications. Contemporary language has evolved to use more direct, understandable terms for various prejudices. The term “antiSemitism” stands out as archaically obscure when society favors explicit language—like “racism” or “sexism”—that needs no qualifier. “Antisemitism” was designed by Marr to desensitize the maliciousness of Jew-hatred, presenting it under a ‘scientific’ facade that blurred the Jewish connection with diluted ‘Semitic’ origins.
Wilhelm Marr sought a ‘scientific’ veneer for his views, consciously avoiding blunt terms like ‘Judenhass’ or ‘Jew Hatred,’ opting instead for a seemingly academic and neutral term – ‘antiSemitism’.” In this way, he veiled deep-seated bigotry behind a seemingly dispassionate and sterile term that incorrectly categorized Jews by linguistic and geographic connections. An ironic twist in this origin becomes evident as Yasser Arafat delivers his famous 1974 speech to the UN General Assembly (more on this later).
Remarkably, James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), once speculated that the term “anti-Semite” was a fleeting one and even went as far as to exclude it from the dictionary. This assumption, noted in a letter uncovered by Israel National Library archivist Rachel Misrati, reflects the underestimated endurance of antiSemitism, which has continued to haunt societies long past its expected expiry.
The Persistent Use of “Antisemitism” in Today’s Discourse:
The term “antiSemitism” is deeply woven into modern societal discourse, its meaning having evolved to refer exclusively to prejudice against Jews. This specificity prompts one to question its singular application. It’s not expected to hear references to a “Semitic” institution in the neighborhood or a “Semite” someone might be dating. Historically, the term “Jew” has been aptly used, originating from “Judea,” a region that was home to Hebrew speakers and was overtaken by the Babylonians. Records indicate that this event led to the destruction of Solomon’s Temple, located at the site where the Temple Mount and Al Aqsa Mosque stand today.
So why does this term persist in modern discourse despite its historical, scientific, and cultural inaccuracies? Unlike accusations of racism or homophobia that inherently carry a heavier societal stigma and concrete definition, the intentional obfuscation of what constitutes antiSemitism allows individuals to quickly skirt responsibility. Whereas there is no context for racism to hide behind, using terms like antiSemitism and Zionist take the sting out of the subtext. An intentional lack of a universally clear understanding and intolerance of Jew Hatred means that individuals can easily disguise or rationalize their bigotry as mere disagreement or political stance.
This is exemplified in Yasser Arafat’s UN General Assembly address in 1974, in which he stated, “Zionist theology was utilized against our Palestinian people: the purpose was not only the establishment of Western-style settler colonialism but also the severing of Jews from their various homelands and subsequently their estrangement from their nations.” Arafat continues, “When it is proposed that the only solution for the Jewish problem is that Jews must alienate themselves from communities or nations of which they have been a historical part, when it is proposed that Jews solve the Jewish problem by immigrating to and forcibly settling the land of another people — when this occurs, exactly the same position is being advocated as the one urged by anti-Semites against Jews.”
Utilizing Wilhelm Marr’s concept of antiSemitism and the alienation of Jews from European society, Yasser Arafat ingeniously manipulated this theory to erase any historical Jewish connection to the Southern Levant, now known as Palestine, recasting it purely as settler colonialism. At the same time, he portrays Jews as victims of Zionism while simultaneously blaming them for ostracising themselves from European society. This distortion has been perpetuated so frequently that it has embedded itself into accepted truth.
Despite the significant Mizrahi heritage of over 60% of Israeli Jews, the prevailing narrative derived from Arafat’s nationalist Judenrein agenda frames Jews as Western colonialists encroaching on Palestinian land. Zionism, the movement advocating for Jewish sovereignty in their historical homeland, is now twisted into a vehicle for anti-Jewish animosity, hidden beneath the assertion that anti-Zionism does not equal antiSemitism.
The argument that anti-Zionism differs from antiSemitism becomes ironic when considering the Hebrew language’s Semitic roots alongside the Jewish pursuit of self-determination in Israel. Critics often bypass these facts, as customary throughout the discourse on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Israelis, and by extension, any Jew who supports Israel or Zionism, are often disparagingly cast as white supremacist colonizers despite the historical reality that contradicts this label.
On the other side of the “antiZionism is not antiSemitism coin” we can reflect on one of the outcomes of the Holocaust that is counter-intuitive to Arafat’s claims. Yiddish is a language rich with the tapestry of Jewish life that nearly met its end alongside its speakers in the Holocaust. Millions were systematically decimated by the Nazis, who viewed them Jews as subhuman—not white, not European, and certainly not German. While antiZionists are eager to perpetuate the false narrative that Zionism killed Yiddish, the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yair Rosenberg, a journalist frequently facing the brunt of antiSemitism and a discerning voice amidst the cacophony of misinformation, deftly counters this fallacy by pointing out the renaissance of Yiddish from the U.S. to Israel, highlighting cultural milestones like the recent translation of ‘Harry Potter’ into this resilient tongue. It’s a sobering thought that save for the birth of the modern state of Israel, Yiddish might have joined the sombre list of dead languages of a vanished people—imagine the hollow lamentations in Western halls. The near-extinction of Yiddish can only rightfully be laid at the feet of those who sought the genocide of the Jews, not the survivors of this atrocity who literally rose from the ashes of the Holocaust anew.
Blaming the victim, as Arafat so expertly did, distorts historical truth and exonerates the architects of genocide. This distortion echoes in today’s geopolitical discourse, denying Jews refuge and recognition, leaving them without a homeland while denying them a place in the world. No slogan better encapsulates this thinking than “From the river to the sea…”.
In David Baddiel’s must-read book “Jews Don’t Count”, the author provides numerous examples of how bigotry against Jews seems to be almost immediately dismissed or explained away. One egregious example comes to mind – when 8 Jews were murdered at a Synagogue in Pennsylvania in October of 2018, Baroness Jenny Tonge was quick to explain away the antiSemitism pointing at Netanyahu’s government and its handling of the Palestinian conflict. Post-October 7th, incidents of harassment, attacks, and discrimination against Jews have skyrocketed in major cities and prestigious academic settings, often unrelated to the context of Israel. A notable instance is British Airways’ removal of a British sitcom from their in-flight entertainment. The show, set in a Jewish news publishing house in London, bears no relation to Israel except for the Jewish identity of its characters.
Conclusion and Alternative Terms:
“Antisemitism” emerged as a masquerade—a term that ostensibly softened the stark reality of racism and the systematic efforts to purge Jews from German society in the 19th century. The continued use of this term through the 20th and 21st centuries blurs the stark reality of Jewish suffering: the historical loss of homelands, the stripping of national identities, and the erasure of languages.
The prevailing narrative around antiSemitism and the aggressive rejection of Zionism as a valid Jewish goal must be seen for what it is—an intentional obfuscation. We need to adopt terminology that precisely articulates the animosity towards Jews, such as “Jew-hatred” and “racism.” We must take ownership of correcting misconceptions about Jewish heritage and our intrinsic links to our ancient homeland. We are responsible for taking a stand against being mislabeled or treated like a thought experiment by Schroedinger, our “Occidentalism” dependent on the observer.
As a collective responsibility, we must address the ambiguous language surrounding “antiSemitism,” opting instead for terms that vividly expose the discrimination and historical injustices concealed within it. By making this shift in language, we not only enhance the clarity of our discussions but also spotlight the deep-rooted prejudices faced by the Jewish community.
This effort cannot happen in isolation. We must advocate for educational systems, lawmakers, and the media to actively champion this shift in vocabulary. This fosters better understanding and amplifies our support in the ongoing battle against intolerance. We have an obligation to hold to account those who persist in employing deceptive terminology and narratives. To do any less is to perpetuate the legacy of Jewish oppression.