Why we must change the terminology of Jew-hatred

Antisemitism? Or something else?. (Jewish News)
Antisemitism? Or something else?. (Jewish News)

A poll has revealed that over half of young UK adults – that is, under the age of 25 – don’t know what antisemitism is. And, among the adult population in general, those who don’t know what the word means hovers around 40 percent.

Should we be worried by this sobering fact? After all, we know what antisemitism is, we even so why can’t everyone else?

We even have a working definition of it. Not perfect by any means, quite confusing in parts too, as well as being a bit contradictory, but it has the advantage of widespread acceptance – even by Jeremy Corbyn (Vi Coactus, I suspect).

So no, I don’t think we should be that worried.

And I’ll tell you for why…

The problem is not the number; the real issue is the word we use to describe what it actually is – Jew Hate or anti-Jewish racism. Yes, I know we are not a race per se, but we are protected under the Equalities Act 2010, as well as under various sections of the Public Order Act.

So perhaps a little history of the term “antisemitism” is in order.

Like do many “isms”, it has its roots in late 19th-century Europe, and like so many of these “isms”, it isn’t particularly accurate or helpful. It is even less accurate or helpful today, 150 years later.

It was invented around 1880 by a German journalist called Wilhelm Marr, who published a bit of a mouthful of a pamphlet called Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum. Vom nicht confessionellen Standpunkt aus betrachtet (or, The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit. Observed from a Non-Religious Perspective). Yup, that’s quite a mouthful, even in the original German.

He used the word Semitismus interchangeably with the word Judentum to denote both Jews as a collective and Jewishness – or being Jewish.

So, where there was Semitismus there had to be “Antisemitismus”, indicating opposition to Jews as Jews, whom Marr said were infiltrating abd taking over German culture. His next pamphlet -deep breaths – Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of the Germanic Spirit over the Jewish Spirit, 1880), was where the word Antisemitismus first appears in print.

Here endeth the history lesson.

Antisemitism really is a difficult concept to grasp if it is framed in that term. After all, who are the Semites that one is anti-them?

There are semitic languages, of course – Amharic, Arabic and Hebrew, to name but three, just as there are other language families, such as Romance (French, Italian and Spanish etc) or Finno-Ugric (Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian).

Now ask yourself honestly, how well do you know a Semitic language beyond reading from your siddur or tanach? If I were a betting person, I’d wager very few.

So, if we want to make our feelings known about the hatred against us as Jews, let’s call it what it really is Jew Hate. That is a pretty easy concept to grasp and indeed, the Board of Deputies, under Marie van der Zyl, is commendably moving in that direction, preferring to use the terms Jew Hate of anti-Jewish racism instead of antisemitism.

Words are important and changing the terminology would serve only to make ourselves clearer about what we face.

About the Author
Joe Millis is an author and journalist.
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