It’s happened before and it will invariably happen again but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t irksome. I was following a Twitter discussion about a certain anti-Semitic incident and it wasn’t long before some wannabe linguist was holding court that anti-Semitism isn’t a real thing. The basis for this assertion is the brilliant and unassailable logic that Jews and Arabs are both Semitic peoples. The Palestinians are Semites, so how can their attacks against the Jews be “anti-Semitic?” At most, we have some intra-Semitic squabbling! But anti-Semitism? That’s not a real thing.
I have a tough time accepting that anyone actually believes that. Whenever I hear someone say such a thing, I give them benefit of the doubt that they’re being disingenuous because the alternative reflects poorly on their intelligence. Regardless of one’s sincerity in this belief, it is typically introduced into a conversation for one purpose: to derail the conversation by delegitimizing acts of hatred perpetrated against Jews.
The problem with this objection is that the phrase “anti-Semitism” is a well-known misnomer. To explain the concept of a misnomer I will cite author Daniel Handler, AKA Lemony Snicket, from the second volume of A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Reptile Room:
Oh, I’m sorry, my dears,” Uncle Monty said, wiping his eyes with his hands. “You must be very frightened. But the Incredibly Deadly Viper is one of the least dangerous and most friendly creatures in the animal kingdom. Sunny has nothing to worry about, and neither do you.”
Klaus looked at his baby sister, who was still in his arms, as she playfully gave the Incredibly Deadly Viper a big hug around its thick body, and he realized Uncle Monty must be telling the truth. “But then why is it called the Incredibly Deadly Viper?”
Uncle Monty laughed again. “It’s a misnomer,” he said, using a word which here means “a very wrong name.” “Because I discovered it, I got to name it, remember? Don’t tell anyone about the Incredibly Deadly Viper, because I’m going to present it to the Herpetological Society and give them a good scare before explaining that the snake is completely harmless! … Won’t that be hysterical?”
The book doesn’t mention it but, aside from being friendly and harmless, it appears that the Incredibly Deadly Viper is also a boa and not a viper at all, so that part of its name is a misnomer as well. But as Uncle Monty says, he discovered it, so he got to name it.
So who named anti-Semitism?
The term is credited to Wilhelm Marr, a German agitator, who coined the phrase in 1879 to refer to the anti-Jewish campaigns in Europe. (Actually, the term Marr coined was “Antisemitismus,” because he spoke German.) This word was intended to replace the term “Judenhaß” (“Jew-hatred” – the letter ß, called an Eszett, is the functional equivalent of a double-S). This change in terminology was pretty much for marketing purposes. “Jew-hatred” sounds vulgar and irrational, motivated by one’s emotions. “Anti-Semitism,” however, sounds clean, rational and scientific.
Giving credit where due, a similar term, antisemitisch, was coined in 1860 by Moritz Steinschneider, an Austrian Jewish academic. It should be noted that, unlike Marr, Steinschneider’s motivation was not to promote anti-Semitism. Rather, he was complaining about the “antisemitische Vorurteile” (antisemitic prejudices) of French academic Joseph Ernest Renan, who considered the “Semitic races” to be inferior to the “Aryan races.”
While Renan certainly meant to include all Semitic peoples in his antisemitische Vorurteile, popular usage in 19th-century Europe was to equate “Semite” with “Jew.” Marr used Semitismus and Judentum interchangeably in his writings, hence his proposal of Antisemitismus as a replacement for Judenhaß. Marr also founded Die Antisemitenliga (The League of Anti-Semites), whose stated purpose was to protect German culture from those pernicious Jews, and not from Arabs, Arameans, Ethiopians, or any other Semites.
So we know that the term anti-Semitism is a misnomer. We’ve always known it. People have been complaining about this for as long as the term has existed. Both Jews and Nazis have complained about it! Dr. Leon Pinsker, founder of the early Zionist movement Chovevei Tzion, used the term “Judeophobia” in his 1882 pamphlet “Auto-Emancipation.” German theologian Johannes Leipoldt preferred the term “anti-Judaism” in his 1933 book Antisemitsmus in der alien Welt (Anti-Semitism in the Old World). [It may be worth noting that Leipoldt was a member of The Institute for the Research and Elimination of the Jewish Influence on German Ecclesiastical Life. Isn’t that nice?] Dutch historian Hendrik Bolkestein put “anti-Semitism” in scare quotes his 1936 article Het “antisemietisme” in de oudheid (“Anti-Semitism” in the ancient world), opining that “Jew-hatred” was more accurate. And then there’s The Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, an affiliate of Joseph Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda. Founded in 1934, it changed its name to “Anti-Semitic Action” in 1939 and from there to “Anti-Jewish Action” in 1942. (I mean come on, when you get Goebbels and Pinsker on the same page….)
Because it’s a misnomer, many authorities promote the use of “antisemitism” (unhyphenated, with a lower case S). The spelling “anti-Semitism” suggests that Semitism is a thing and that some people oppose it. Writing “antisemitism” makes it clearer that it’s a single concept, not a root with a prefix.
None of this even acknowledges the reality that the “Semitic peoples” are bound together by common linguistic ancestors. They are not necessarily related racially or ethnically.
Lots of things in this world are misnomers but they still exist. Peanuts aren’t nuts and strawberries aren’t berries. Iceland is green and Greenland is icy. Panama hats come from Ecuador and white chocolate isn’t chocolate. Not only do Native Americans not come from India, just try explaining “the French and Indian War” to someone. And guinea pigs – which are not pigs – don’t come from Guinea (which is in Africa), they come from the Andes (in South America).
Whether the term is accurate or not, anti-Semitism exists. If you don’t like the word because it’s inaccurate, feel free to go with anti-Judaism; Judeophobia or good, old-fashioned Jew-hatred. The only ones who would deny anti-Semitism exists because of a linguistic gaffe are Judenhasser (Jew-haters). Which is ironic given that they’re the ones who coined the word in the first place.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.
Like this article?
Sign up for our Shabbat Shalom e-newsletter, a weekly roundup of inspirational thoughts, insight into current events, divrei torah, relationship advice, recipes and so much more!