Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Mideast Fight Finds Another Front: Semantic Battle over Anti-semitism

April 12, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Among the propaganda assaults on Israel and the Jewish people is one that may seek to dilute the meaning of “anti-Semitism.”

During the past year, say Jewish activists and academics, the Arab and Muslim worlds have intensified efforts to broaden the definition to encompass “Semitic” peoples like themselves, and to reject any charges of anti-Semitism — whether it be through Holocaust denial, blood libels, or Israelis-as-Nazis comparisons — with the mantra: “How could we be anti-Semitic when we, too, are Semitic?”

“It’s not only anti-Semitic, then, it’s also anti-semantic. Anti-Semitism is a phenomenon that has a unique meaning,” Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, says.

“I’m also against anti-Islamaphobia and anti-Arab discrimination, but don’t fight prejudice with a semantic debate.”

In the printed version of Melchior’s recent speech to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, “antisemitism” was spelled as one word, — with no hyphen and a lower-case “s.”

Likewise, many academics have adopted “antisemitism.”

Says Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum: “One of the reasons that many of us pushed for ‘antisemitism’ is because there is nothing literally known as ‘Semitism’ ” — which the term anti-Semitism implies.

As the American Jewish Committee, which uses both terms, notes on its Web site, “The term ‘antisemitism’ has never referred to a hatred of so-called ‘Semites,’ which actually designates speakers of a group of languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Babylonian, Assyrian and Ethiopic. Rather, the term ‘antisemitism’ is directed at the Jews; it is a modern linguistic formulation for Jew-hatred.”

A perusal of the Internet reveals no universal agreement on the issue.

Even references to the man who first coined the term, Wilhelm Marr, alternate between “anti-Semitism” and “antisemitism.”

Marr, a German political agitator and polemicist, is said to have introduced the term in 1879 in an effort to form a political movement that broadened hatred of Jews from religion to race, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Web site.

The prefix “anti” was attached “to gain general currency.”

There was no Arab population in Germany at the time, so the reference to Jews was said to be clear.

However, while Marr’s League of Anti-Semites failed, the term thrived.

And endured.

In time, it not only became part of the Jewish experience, but the Jewish identity.

As a result, some Jewish activists react fiercely to efforts to co-opt or manipulate its meaning, or to deny its existence outright.

In Durban, South Africa, late last summer, Jewish activists fought to have anti-Semitism included within the final document of the U.N.-sponsored World Conference Against Racism whose full title was actually the “World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance.”

Pro-Palestinian supporters resisted, but Jewish activists prevailed, one of their only victories in a forum that was otherwise hostile to Israel and Jews.

But over the past few months, as the document has worked its way through the U.N. system toward final approval, efforts have continued to expunge the reference.

In a Feb. 1 speech to the Third Committee, which is responsible for social, humanitarian and cultural affairs within the world body, Israel’s deputy permanent representative to the U.N., Aaron Jacob, explained: “Hatred and persecution of the Jewish people is nearly as old as history itself, so much so that the Jews are the only people in the world for whom a specific word exists that gives expression to this hatred anti-Semitism.”

On Feb. 26, Jacob followed up: “We regret that in the course of consultations on these resolutions, certain delegations sought to eliminate any reference to anti-Semitism at a time when there is a worrisome surge in attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions in various parts of the world.”

The effort to expunge has so far failed.

As for the debate of anti-Semitism versus antisemitism, not all Jewish activists are animated by it.

“I don’t care, I really don’t care,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, which uses the term “anti-Semitism.”

“If some people are more comfortable with a lower-case ‘s,’ fine. Some have also suggested we call it ‘anti-Jewish activities.’ I don’t want to get caught up in that. Just as long as people understand that ‘anti-Semitism’ means hatred of Jews.”

Recommended from JTA