THE “SEMITIC RACE”
The word “Semitic” comes from Semitic languages, a branch of Afroasiatic languages. Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew (the ancestral language of the Jewish People), for instance, are three examples of Semitic languages.
In the Middle Ages, Europeans believed all Asiatic peoples — including Jews — descended from Shem (where the term “Semite” comes from), one of the sons of Noah. By the 19th century, Europeans believed that Jews were members of a distinct “Semitic” race. Once again it’s important to remember that race is a changing social construct, and as such, what is or isn’t a race is defined differently among different cultures, places, and time periods.
In the 1800s, race theorist Arthur de Gobineau claimed that three distinct races existed: white, black, and yellow. Among the “white” races was the “Aryan” race, which had remained “the purest” over time. Meanwhile, other “races,” such as the “Semitic” Jews from Southwest Asia (the Middle East), were a “dirty,” mixed race made up of white, black, and yellow ancestry. This idea that the Jews were “diluting” or “soiling” the white Aryan race was later adopted by the Nazis. It’s still very much present among white supremacists, who claim Jews are trying to “trick” their way into the white race to enact a “white genocide.”
Semitic languages exist. Semites don’t.
As alluded to in the previous slide, “Semites” is a pseudoscientific, white supremacist, Darwinian racial term to describe the “race” of peoples who speak Semitic languages, such as Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic, Tigrinya, Maltese, Tigre, and more. Semitic languages are among the oldest in the world, their origins dating as far back as the 30th century BCE.
In the 19th century, racist European scientists conflated linguistics with ethnicity, believing that the language one spoke could define “racial character.”
Of course, today we understand (or *should* understand) that race is a social construct generally based on phenotype (i.e. physical characteristics), and as such, your native language or your race have absolutely no bearing on your character.
The correct term to identify people who speak Semitic languages is “Semitic-speaking peoples,” not “Semites.”
Antisemitism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based on religion, culture, and/or ethnicity.
The word “antisemitism” itself was coined in the 1870s by a self-proclaimed antisemite in Germany to replace the previously used term “Jew-hatred,” as “antisemitism” sounded scientific, which “legitimized” it. In other words, the term implied that it was legitimate to be an antisemite, because, as the logic of the time dictated, Jews were an inferior race. So while Jews weren’t the only so-called “Semites,” the word was specifically conceived to legitimize Jew-hatred, not hatred of any other “Semites,” and as such, it is only applicable to anti-Jewish bigotry.
Antisemitism is sneaky and notoriously hard to catch. It moves through conspiracy theories and euphemisms. Most importantly, antisemitism presents differently than all other forms of bigotry. While other forms of bigotry (e.g. racism, homophobia, etc.) generally see their victims as “inferior” in some way, antisemitism positions Jews as both inferior *and* “superior,” powerful, conniving evil wrongdoers. For this reason, historically, Jews have become a scapegoat for virtually any and all ills to befall society, from the Black Plague to even 9/11.
It’s important to note that many Jews — as many as 27% of American Jews, for example — are atheist or agnostic, and yet, they, too, are victims of antisemitism. Why? Because, as a form of racism, antisemitism targets Jews regardless of religiosity. This has always been the case. Nazi antisemitism, for example, was exclusively racial antisemitism. Of course, religious Jews tend to be the most visibly distinguishable because of their garb, and, as such, unfortunately are the target of the majority of antisemitic hate crimes.
Anti-Judaism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based only on religion. Antisemitism is bigotry, prejudice, and/or discrimination of Jews based on religion, culture, and/or ethnicity. In other words, anti-Judaism is always antisemitism, but antisemitism is not always anti-Judaism.
Though Jews are an ethnoreligious group (an ethnic group united by a common religious practice), not a race, antisemites have racialized Jews for thousands of years. For this reason, antisemitism is often classified as a very specific form of racism.
Much — but not all — of the early anti-Jewish sentiment and persecution in Europe was motivated by anti-Judaism, on the basis that we had chosen to reject Jesus and Christendom. *However,* anti-Judaism has had a racist component from the start.
Some examples of the racialization of Jews include the concept of a polluted “Semitic race” in the Middle Ages, the ideology of “Limpieza de Sangre” during the Spanish Inquisition, antisemitic stereotypes about the Jewish body (e.g. large, hooked noses, which were depicted as ugly or even grotesque), tropes that dehumanize Jews (e.g. tropes about Jews drinking blood; the persecution of Jews on the basis of “witchcraft” between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries; antisemitic caricatures depicting Jews as vermin, wolves, or insects), and, of course, the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, which positioned Jews at the absolute bottom of the Nazi racial hierarchy.
Hitler himself said, “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human.”
Jews today overwhelmingly agree that “antisemitism” should be spelled as a single word, rather than as a hyphenated word (“anti-Semitism”). Why?
The spelling “anti-Semitism” perpetuates the racist, pseudoscientific, Darwinian theory that there is such a thing as “Semites” or a “Semitic” race. Additionally, the spelling gives credence to non-Jews who speak Semitic languages to co-opt the term to deflect from their own antisemitism.
Though the spelling “anti-Semitism” technically is not incorrect, Jews are pushing for it to become obsolete, and thankfully, its usage is becoming less and less common; for example, in 2021, The New York Times, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, and the Associated Press updated their style guides in favor of “antisemitism” rather than “anti-Semitism.” Among the biggest proponents of a hyphen-less spelling is Deborah Lipstadt, the renowned Holocaust historian and current United States Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Antisemitism in the Biden administration.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which has coined the most widely-accepted definition of antisemitism, explains: “The IHRA’s concern is that the hyphenated spelling allows for the possibility of something called ‘Semitism,’ which not only legitimizes a form of pseudoscientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by association with Nazi ideology, but also divides the term, stripping it from its meaning of opposition and hatred toward Jews…the conjunction of the prefix ‘anti’ with ‘Semitism’ indicates antisemitism as referring to all people who speak Semitic languages or to all those classified as ‘Semites.’ The term has, however, since its inception referred to prejudice against Jews alone.”
One of the main concerns over the spelling “anti-Semitism,” besides its racist origins, is that it easily makes room for non-Jews to co-opt the term, particularly with negative motives.
Following World War II, and particularly within in the context of the Israeli-Arab Conflict, many non-Jews who speak Semitic languages have attempted to co-opt the term because they are “Semites too,” or they claim that they couldn’t possibly be antisemitic because they themselves are “Semites.” Notwithstanding the fact that, once again, there is no such thing as “Semites,” this co-option is almost always done to deflect from legitimate accusations of antisemitism (e.g. “How could I possibly be antisemitic? I’m a Semite!”).
Even worse, some antisemites who continuously deny Jewish Indigeneity and even the Semitic origins of the Hebrew language even try to argue that the term “antisemitism” should not even apply to Jews to begin with, because, according to them, Jews are not “Semites.”
Most influentially, the esteemed Palestinian writer Edward Said argued repeatedly in his famous book “Orientalism” that, while the term “antisemitism” has racist origins, it should apply to *all* so-called Semites.
In case this post hasn’t yet made it clear, antisemitism should exclusively apply to anti-Jewish bigotry because it was a term coined *specifically* to describe anti-Jewish bigotry. There are plenty of ways to describe bigotry against non-Jews that do not include co-opting a term that was coined for us.
As previously discussed, the term “antisemitism” not only has problematic (i.e. racist) origins, but Semitic-speaking antisemites continue to try to co-opt it. For these reasons, other suggestions have been brought forth.
Since 1882, the term “Judeophobia” has been suggested to replace “antisemitism.” Leon Pinsker, a professional physician, preferred the term “Judeophobia” to antisemitism because he believed it sounded more “clinical.” He wrote in 1906: “Judeophobia is a psychic disorder. As a psychic disorder it is hereditary, and as a disease transmitted for two thousand years it is incurable…” Today, however, the classification of antisemitism as any sort of disorder or disease seems problematic and even ableist.
Another suggestion is “Jew-hatred,” which was the original term for antisemitism. However, antisemites very rarely “hate” — or at least *know* that they hate — Jews. Antisemitism almost always manifests through conspiracies, rather than outright, blatant, Hitler-esque hatred of Jews. Most antisemitism is sneaky. It would be easy for an antisemite to dismiss allegations of “Jew-hatred” by claiming that they simply don’t hate Jews.
I personally stick to antisemitism because it’s the long-established term, despite its problematic, racist origins. That said, I think it’s really important that it’s spelled *without* the hyphen, as to not perpetuate racist ideas or permit non-Jews to co-opt a term that was specifically coined for us.
For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon.