During campaigning for the 2016 London mayoral election and ever since, much media coverage has been given to accusations of racism against Labour party members whose expression of support for the Palestinian cause and criticism of Israeli Zionism had allegedly shaded into anti-Jewish racism.
The media coverage inadvertently highlighted a problem with the word used to describe that racism – ‘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 ‘antisemitic’ 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 word ‘antisemitic’ is clearly pretentious and racist pseudo-scientific nonsense. Nevertheless, despite having been disputed as inaccurate and misleading since the 1930s, it’s 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.
I put this to some Jewish anti-racism campaigners. Disappointingly, the replies all said 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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