On the Semantics of Semitics
If you have ever expressed concerns about anti-Semitism, chances are that you soon heard the line that “Arabs are Semites too”. Often, this is coupled with the (demonstrably false) accusation that Jews are not Semites at all, but ‘Khazar’ impostors. This is used to say that Arabs, therefore, cannot possibly be antisemites — and Jews should not insist on monopolising the term as if it applies to them alone, if at all.
This retort ranks among the most distracting examples of ignorance over anti-Semitism, and the most asinine attempts to belittle it.
Firstly, there is no such thing as a hatred of all Semites. Yes, there are misanthropes who hate Jews and Arabs equally, but I have yet to come across a unique prejudice against all Semitic peoples. There is no tradition of despising Jews, Akkadians, Arabs and Phoenicians as a collective. There are no common slurs, tropes, stereotypes, symbols, movements or doctrinal tracts associated with bigotry against all Semites. Hence, there is no such phenomenon of anti-Semitism in a broader sense in want of a name: the use of the term to refer to anti-Jewish bigotry does not deprive another prejudice of a name. There is no need to redefine ‘anti-Semitism’ to cover a hypothetical hatred when it already covers one that does.
Secondly, ‘anti-Semitism’ might not be the best term – but it is by a very long way the most accepted one. The term Anti-Semitismus was coined by Wilhelm Marr in 1879 as a supposedly more scientific version of Judenhass (Jew-hatred), and it has stuck ever since. Another option is ‘Judeophobia’, but ‘-phobia’ suggests an irrational fear, whereas anti-Semitism is more a prejudice than a fear. (This reason also makes ‘homophobia’ a bizarre coinage.) ‘Anti-Judaism’ is another option, but it already has quite a specific, subtle application: opposition to Judaism rather than Jews. In his masterful book Anti-Judaism, David Nirenberg explores in depth the centrality in Western intellectual history of hostility towards the values that Judaism is taken to represent, in contrast to anti-Semitism as a racial prejudice. Personally, I think Judenhass works just fine – especially in the original, harsh-sounding German.
But ‘anti-Semitism’ is now the accepted term for prejudice against Jews, used as such by the European Union and United States. It is also the only definition supplied by the Oxford English Dictionary (and dictionary.com). To demand that Jews redefine a term used to describe their oppression for the last 135 years before expressing concern about it is hence either ignorant or malicious. It is a cynical attempt to deprive Jews of the language of their persecution, for reasons of pedantry at best or anti-Semitism itself at worst. It is as ludicrous as reproaching black people for complaining about racism because ‘black’ isn’t a race.
Thirdly, there is something exceptionally sinister about this ‘proof’ that Arabs cannot be anti-Semites in light of the uncomfortable fact that the vast majority of them are, according to the ADL’s landmark Global 100 poll. A full 92% of Iraqis believed that at least six of a list of twelve anti-Semitic propositions were ‘probably true’ (including that ‘Jews are responsible for most of the world’s wars’). Saudi Arabia, perhaps surprisingly, is ranked as the least anti-Semitic Arab state – with a score of 74%. In this context, this quibbling over semantics should be understood as an attempt to deflect attention from the substance of the question and examination of anti-Semitic prejudice in Arab society: to derail debate, so to speak, at the procedural stages.
One suspects that people who protest the term ‘anti-Semitism’ are motivated more by a desire to belittle allegations of anti-Semitism than to promote awareness of bigotry towards all Semites. It is hard to imagine that they would take anti-Semitism seriously if reframed as ‘Judeophobia’: the ‘Jews are Khazars’ trope is in large part motivated by a desire to deny the Jewish people’s connection to the Land of Israel as a means to undermining the legitimacy of the Jewish state, simultaneously presenting the Semitic Palestinian Arabs as its indigenous occupants. It turns the Jewish claim to the Holy Land on its head by reinforcing the linkage between blood and title to soil and blood and then implying that Jews do not belong because they are an alien race. Perhaps more repugnantly, this line suggests that if the Jewishness of Jews is fake or inauthentic, they are not victims at all of the prejudice they decry, but are rather trying to usurp an identity that is not theirs for their own nefarious ends.
There is nothing to be gained from playing with semantics over Semitics. Insofar as anti-Semitism is here to stay, the descriptor ‘anti-Semitism’ should stay too.