During capaigning for the 2016 London mayoral election, much media coverage was given to accusations of antisemitism against Labour party members who had expressed support for the Palestinian cause.
The media coverage inadvertently highlighted a problem with the word ‘antisemitism’. We know what it means – but it doesn’t mean what it says. Call me pedantic, but Arabs are Semitic as well as Jews, aren’t they? So why do we use the word to refer only to anti-Jewish racism?
The dodgy origin of the word ‘antisemite’ is instructive. The word was invented by 19th-century German proto-Nazi ‘race’ theorists to provide a scientific-sounding substitute for the word they were using: ‘Judenhass‘, meaning Jew-hatred.
‘Semite’ (derived from the biblical character Shem, one of the sons of Noah) was a term in use then – but now considered obsolete – for people who speak Semitic languages.
330 million people currently speak Semitic languages. The world’s Jewish population is 14 million.
Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages. So, in the original (now obsolete) meaning of the word, Arabs and Jews are indeed both Semitic. It’s therefore ironic – and ridiculous – that supporters of (Arab) Palestine accused of anti-Jewish racism are described as antisemitic. After all, no one calls Jewish people Semitic people.
The original use of the word was clearly pretentious pseudo-scientific nonsense. Nevertheless, despite having been disputed as inaccurate and misleading since the 1930s, it has been in common use ever since.
Racism is a difficult enough problem without complicating it with linguistic tripwires. (See my analysis of racism, Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct.)
Information about the offensive and deceptive origin of this mealy-mouthed misnomer is easily available. Continuing to shelter behind its bland euphemism is a lazy and bad habit.
We should say what we mean. Anti-Jewish racists should be called ‘anti-Jewish‘. Anti-Jewish racism should be called ‘anti-Judaism.
Postscript: I put this to some Jewish anti-racism campaigners. Disappointingly, the replies so far all say the same thing: it’s an irrelevant and confusing distraction from the cause.
Admittedly, addressing this issue would mean making costly changes to campaign names, websites and literature.
However, words matter. The continuing use of the confusing misnomer ‘antisemitic’ will continue to muddy the debate. Perhaps campaigners and their supporters should accept some transitional cost and confusion for the sake of long-term clarity.
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