Who Gets to Define Anti-Semitism?

man standing on bus with large black hat

Photo taken on bus in Jerusalem. Image courtesy of PhotographybyBenjamin/Flickr

Our ambition is modest: We merely wish to problematize the concept of anti-Semitism for those who insist upon using the term for good or ill—we’ll call them “users.” We suggest that the users are “anti-semantic”: The term “anti-Semitism” is rife with what logicians call semantic ambiguity. Simply put: Not all Semites are Jews, and not all Jews are Semites. Being anti-semantic is not the users’ worst sin. You would think that users would be unhappy (if not shamed) by the term’s inglorious origin—the offspring of a notorious Jew-hater. Even so, they cling to the term. And we’re particularly unhappy (and ashamed) about the term’s promiscuous, weaponized usage: The first line in the rhetorical arsenal mobilized to kill intelligent, morally sensitive discourse.

Ironically, we’re accused of being “anti-semantic.” Don’t we get it? Everyone knows that anti-Semitism means prejudice against Jews, and no one else. We’re rebuked for rejecting this conventional meaning of anti-Semitism. Amin is accused of theft: Stealing anti-Semitism and applying it to prejudice against Semitic Arabs. And, by endorsing such thievery Ron violates the eleventh commandment by drawing moral equivalence between the persecution of Jews and persecution of others—namely Arabs.

Rabbi Laura (pseudonym) became Ron’s accuser. She and her congregation were upset because (at Ron’s invitation) Amin presented an endowed lecture at the local college entitled “Islamophobia: The New Anti-Semitism.” He argued that while only about 15% of Muslims are Arabs, The Arab is the idée fixe—focus—of Islamophobia. (Think ‘Muslim’ and who comes to mind? Not an Indonesian or fair-skinned Bosnian.) Amin’s simple tautology struck a sensitive nerve: Arabs are Semites; therefore, prejudice against Arabs is anti-Semitism. The rabbi needed to talk with Ron.

Ron met the rabbi over coffee. She argued that equating Islamophobia and anti-Semitism distorts and diminishes the meaning of the concept beyond recognition. (He assured her—to no avail—that there’s plenty of hatred to go around.) She urged that the notion of the new anti-Semitism violates common usage (it does). Well prepared to deal with an academic, she reminded Ron of the dictionary definition of anti-Semitism—hostile to or prejudiced against Jews. This definition has the imprimatur of no less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

We’re not impressed by dictionaries: As we’ll see they sometimes reflect (if not legitimize) common prejudices and conventional wisdom. They’re no substitute for original thought and analysis. If our wishes were granted, we’d slice away with Occam’s razor and excise the lexicon of terms that traffic in emotive force, not conceptual clarity—anti-Semitism would make the first cut. We’d replace such terms with simple concepts that express clear and distinct meanings: Concepts such as anti-Jewish, anti-Arab, and anti-Islam come to mind. Of course, we have no illusions: Our wish will not be granted. Orientalist fantasies aside, Amin cannot uncork a genie—we are not the arbiters of language.

The Semantics of Anti-Semitism

To reiterate the obvious: Not all Jews are Semites (think Sammy Davis, Jr.), and not all Semites are Jews (think Arabs). Accordingly, prejudice against non-Semitic Jews is not anti-Semitism.  Indeed, considerable genetic evidence suggests that Ashkenazi Jews are of European origin.[1] So it doesn’t seem farfetched—to touch that neuralgic point—to suggest that prejudice against Ashkenazis is not anti-Semitism, while prejudice against Semitic Arabs is. (Many Jews seem reluctant to share the ultimate opprobrium with their Arab cousins—the children of Abraham and the children of Ishmael don’t always get along.)

Users, however, also confront more unsettling ambiguity. Who is a Semite in the first place? A literature review reveals that limiting anti-Semitism toward hatred of Jews is far from a time-honored convention. Hidden in ideological eclipse, we discovered more inclusive definitions of Semites in accounts of language and religion. Is a Semite simply one who speaks a Semitic language? If—as was once the case in Europe—that speaking a Semitic language made one a Semite, it would seem that Arab Semites (along with others who speak Semitic languages) are also vulnerable to anti-Semitism. Consider that the Semitic language known as Arabic is the very signature of Islamic thought and practice. Today, nearly 2 billion Muslims inhabit the globe; each of them must have a rudimentary command of the Arabic language. Muslims recite the Quran in its original Arabic as part of the daily ritual prayers. To be sure, Hebrew is also a Semitic language, but we can’t imagine a reformed Jew in Idaho praying in Hebrew five times daily.

Moreover, extending our analysis to other works, we find that 19th Century philosopher (and biblical scholar) Ernest Renan, was an equal opportunity offender: He visited calumny upon despised Semites—both Jews and Muslims. Their Semitic languages were the very signature of their perfidy—he saw the writing on the wall. In his essay, New Considerations on the General Character of the Semitic Peoples, in Particular their Tendency to Monotheism, he argues that Semitic people are inferior to Aryans—given their embrace of monotheism. He ascribed to these ‘savages’ a propensity to be lustful, unscrupulous, violent, and selfish—the essence of the Semite character. Since both Jews and Muslims adhere strictly to monotheism, it follows that anti-Semitism refers to them equally. Given the bigotry inherent in the works of Renan and other 19th and 20th century racists, Edward Said concludes: “Hostility to Islam in the modern Christian West has historically gone hand in hand with, has stemmed from the same source, and has been nourished at the same stream as antisemitism.”[2]

Such semantic analysis is dismissed as trivial pursuits by users invested in the canonical meaning of anti-Semitism. They insist that prejudice attains its ugliest apotheosis in hatred of Jews—surely it’s more pernicious than Islamophobia. Jews own the term and they’re not about to share such villainy by granting that it victimizes others—especially Arabs. Not surprisingly, as Rabbi Rachel illustrated, those who insist that anti-Semitism applies to Jews, and only to Jews, seek vindication in dictionaries.

Dictionaries merit further attention since, for many, they are the final word. However, a valuable resource in Scrabble may not be the invaluable source for resolving politically-charged disputes. Otherwise thoughtful individuals uncritically and enthusiastically turn to dictionaries to settle arguments. The pope’s infallibility is limited to matters of morals and religion, not so with dictionaries inscribing infallible answers to virtually all questions. In our view, popular usage enshrined in dictionaries doesn’t merit unquestioned acceptance.

Those who urge that dictionaries get it right, confront a troubling problem: In hindsight, dictionaries often get bad press—“everybody knows” definitions look disgraceful. Nietzsche knew that concepts with a history can’t be defined; they must be narrated. Fortunately, the story changes—sometimes for the better.

Now certain groups successfully struggle to overthrow the tales dictionaries tell; in so doing, they transform popular discourse. Consider the story told about the “Negro” in a respected source, a definition that reflected and legitimized popular usage. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica began with an “everybody knows” statement reflecting and legitimating common usage:

The Negro is mentally inferior to the white… The mental constitution of the negro is very similar to that of a child, normally good-natured and cheerful, but subject to sudden fits of emotion and passion during which he is capable of performing acts of singular atrocity, impressionable, vain, but often exhibiting in the capacity of servant a dog-like fidelity which has stood the supreme test. . . . The recognized leaders of the race are almost invariably persons of mixed blood, and the qualities which have made them leaders are derived certainly in part and perhaps mainly from their white ancestry. [Surely, such puerile intemperance, let alone atrocity, was unknown amongst the British monarchy.]

Times have changed. African-Americans refused to be defined by the popular mind. They rejected “historic fact which could not be avoided,” and redefined themselves. They felt no obligation to honor what was once the definition of “Negro.” Current editions eschew such vile nonsense; the latest edition atones for such disgrace:

African Americans are mainly of African ancestry, but many have nonblack ancestors as well. African Americans are largely the descendants of slaves—people who were brought from their African homelands by force to work in the New World. Their rights were severely limited, and they were long denied a rightful share in the economic, social, and political progress of the United States. Nevertheless, African Americans have made basic and lasting contributions to American history and culture.[3]

Unfortunately, times have not changed as dramatically for definitions of “Jew.” To be sure, the OED reiterates the accepted definition of anti-Semitism—perhaps that’s the problem! But it also instantiates derogatory connotations. “Jew” remains a slur—time for atonement. Consider current connotations seemingly reiterated in the OED. Contrast “He’s a Swiss” to “He’s a Jew.” Or, “I do business with a Jew”; verses “I do business with a Jewish person.” (The genteel phrase “Jewish person” is easier on the ears.) The OED—the users’ go-to reference in matters Judaic —reflects, if not legitimizes popular pejorative connotations. Do users seeking vindication in the OED realize that, by and large, the OED promotes derogatory notions of “Jew”?

In 1973, Marcus Shloimovitz, an English Jewish textile merchant, took the Oxford Dictionary to court to force it to stop defining a Jew as “a grasping or extortionate money-lender or usurer.”

He argued that “the Jewish race includes sages, scholars, judges, scientists and people from the arts and stage. They have done great service for their countries. They are not cheats or unscrupulous usurers.” Shloimovitz lost because he failed to prove the dictionary entries caused him personal suffering. But the lexicographers subsequently toned down the disputed definitions. The Concise Oxford Dictionary has offered a compromise in its long-running quarrel with Jewish groups over its inclusion of the word Jew as a racial slur. The Jewish campaigners say they welcome the change but believe it is not enough. The disputed entry [now] defines Jew as “1. person of Hebrew descent; person whose religion is Judaism. . . . 2. (derog., colloq.; R) person who drives hard bargains, usurer. . . .” And as a verb: “(derog., colloq.; R) cheat, bargain with (person) to lower his price.” “Derog., colloq.; R” stands for “derogatory, colloquial, racially offensive.”

Merely mentioning the derogatory nature of such offensive stereotypes satisfies neither Jew nor gentile. Speaking for an Anglican organization concerned with Christian/Jewish relations, Canon Jim Richardson said:

He wished the dictionary simply would drop all the pejorative definitions. Couldn’t it be left out? “The Jewish community is very sensitive about the definition of Jew in the Oxford Dictionary,” he said in an interview. “The definition of Jew as a usurer, as a person who strikes a hard bargain, promotes an anti-Jewish attitude.” Shimon Cohen, a spokesman for Lord Jakobovitz, the chief rabbi of Britain, said he was “somewhat pleased” with the proposed change, but also wanted the pejorative definitions removed altogether.

Webster’s New World Dictionary moved in the other direction and actually restored obscene words and racial slurs after prolonged banishment. Caveats don’t mute the emotive force of such slurs: “The verb to Jew is defined in Webster’s as “to swindle; cheat; gyp” with the warning: “This is a vulgar and offensive usage even when not consciously expressing an anti-Semitic attitude.”[4]

This extended lexical analysis should undermine faith in dictionaries—even the venerable OED. Of course, we’re also concerned because the OED and other dictionaries are reluctant to excise ethnic slurs despite their vile origins. And we’re disheartened by a bitter irony: The virtually universal consensus that anti-Semitism is the one and only signifier of hostility toward Jews despite the term’s vile origins.

Given the ambiguity of anti-Semitism, why not entertain unconventional definitions? Journalist Jack Shaheen attends to the semantic issues just mentioned and resists the tyranny of received wisdom. There’s a take-home message for those who take the concept of anti-Semitism literally: It’s not limited to Jews. Amin’s lecture cited Shaheen’s efforts to reframe the conversation:

It is acceptable to advance anti-Semitism in film—provided the Semites are Arabs. I call this habit of racial and cultural generalization “The New Anti-Semitism.” I call it “new” not because stereotypical screen Arabs are new (they aren’t) or because anti-Semitism against Jews is dead (it isn’t). I use the word “new” because many of the anti-Semitic films directed against Arabs were released . . . at a time when Hollywood was steadily and increasingly eliminating stereotypical portraits of other groups.[5]

As recent (Oct. 2, 2018) commentary in the Israel Times reveals, “sharing” anti-Semitism with Arabs provokes deep resentment among some Jews. It reflects a subtext of identity politics—a sense of entitlement. Why shouldn’t Jews have an exclusive franchise? They are indeed the chosen people—chosen for more than their share of persecution. Just as (as we’ve seen) African-Americans get to define their identity—they are no longer “coloreds” or “Negroes”—don’t Jews get to define the meaning of the calumny visited upon them? In the world according to those who uncritically accept the established meaning of anti-Semitism, calling Islamophobia the New Anti-Semitism distracts attention from, if not diminishes, centuries of hatred endured by Jews.

We’re particularly frustrated by the injunction that one must question the intentions of those who attempt to do so. This ad hominem prompts us to reiterate our intentions: We tried to strive for conceptual clarity—we’re not “anti-semantic.” Moreover, we’d like to convince users that owning anti-Semitism is a bad investment. Jews should have much to say about terms that apply to them, but why embrace a term conjured-up in the paranoid imagination of a notorious Jew-hater?

Owning Anti-Semitism is a Bad Investment.

There is no stopping them . . . . From feeble beginnings Jewry has grown beyond you [the German people]. It has corrupted society with all its views. It has driven out idealism, possesses the controlling position in commerce, infiltrates increasingly into state offices, rules the theatre, constitutes a sociopolitical phalanx, and has left you little more than the hard manual labor that it always despised.

—Wilhelm Marr (“credited” with coining the term anti-Semitism)[6]

Given the way certain members of the Jewish community treasure the term anti-Semitism, one would think it’s a precious heritage: a coinage first inscribed on parchment by Talmudic scholars in candlelit quarters in a medieval shtetl. Truth be known, Jews have Marr, a 19th racist, to thank for their exclusive franchise. For Hebrew University professor Moshe Zimmerman Marr the very “patriarch of anti-Semitism,” [7] Jews owning anti-Semitism is an ironic investment. Why rely upon the likes of Wilhelm Marr? Do users unwittingly honor him by refusing to abandon his coinage? It defies understanding: Why does the Jewish community, along with many others, cling to a pseudo-scientific, racist term coined by a such a bigot?

Unlike others who detested Jews, Marr was not obsessed with the Jewish religion—just another Abrahamic faith as far as he was concerned. And he wasn’t concerned because Jews were clannish. On the contrary, he recognized that Jews were well assimilated in Germany—precisely the problem as far as he was concerned. In Marr’s paranoid vision, Jews were taking over; they were about to make Germany the “New Palestine” (i.e., the Jewish Homeland) of Europe. Indeed, in other writing he urged that Jews had already fulfilled their nefarious, racially driven schemes. He was, perhaps, prematurely pessimistic; in 1879 he lamented that Jews had already triumphed in Germany. “Without a shred of irony, I publicly proclaim the world-historical triumph of Jewry.”[8] This would have been news to Jews enduring pogroms, to say nothing of the Holocaust.

However, despite his alarmism, he didn’t give up hope. He made anti-Semitism au courant in a tract entitled The Way to Victory of Germany over Judaism. Rather than invoking the crudity of traditional Jew-hatred, he clothed his naked bigotry in the fabric of the prevailing, racist pseudo-science: Jews weren’t simply a religion or ethnic group; they were a race genetically bent on the destruction of their host nations: No wonder they’re despised wherever the diaspora leads them. According to the man who coined the term anti-Semitism, Jews are biologically driven to destroy the Aryan soul. Marr’s reinvention of Jew-hatred inspired anti-Semitic leagues marching under the banner of the swastika.

Historians mention that, late in life, Marr recanted many of his views. However, his race-based Jew-hatred left an indelible impression, not his recantation. His early views resonate in white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites, and no doubt inspired the “fine people” who terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia.

Weaponizing Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is a powerful word, and with good reason. However, there is a problem with such powerful words. If the story of a boy who cried wolf is any indication, words, especially powerful ones like anti-Semite, should only be used when applicable, or else they lose that power.[9]

Anti-Semitism is weaponized: an argument-stopping strategy intended to shame and paralyze discourse. For example, there are those who would attack virtually any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. Consider a recent controversy over the explicit support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement[10] by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib[11] which immediately drew accusations of anti-Semitism. A false equivalence is made by those who oppose any criticism of Israeli policies—many of which are clear violations of human rights and international law—as anti-Semitic. Imagine a Syrian refugee decrying the brutality of the Assad regime being labeled anti-Arab (or anti-Syrian).

Another Congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, was recently berated by fellow Democrats as well as Republicans for tweeting “it’s all about the Benjamins” in response to several tweets which suggested that some American politicians are beholden to the interests of the pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Senator Bernie Sanders, A Jewish-American, reached out to Ilhan offering his support for her![12] Trump responded to the controversy by downplaying the genuineness of Rep. Omar’s apology (an acknowledgement of the existence of anti-Semitism), stating that in her heart, she was anti-Semitic, and he called for her to resign, or be removed from serving on a committee.[13] Given his history of anti-Jewish remarks, his newfound sensitivity to Jewish sensibilities is surprising.[14]

Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, responds to his well-deserved share of controversies by hurling accusations of ‘anti-Semitism’ against his enemies and detractors—namely other Jews. Even so, the prime minister lends support to individuals like Viktor Orban, the leader of Hungary who attacked the Jewish Philanthropist, George Soros—attacks rightly labeled anti-Semitic by many. Mr. Netanyahu also absolved Poland for any collaboration with the Nazis—though such historical collaborations clearly existed.[15]

Funny thing: Jews seem to have a unique propensity for accusing one another of self-hatred. Presbyterians in Northern Ireland critical of the treatment of Catholics are not shamed as self-hating Presbyterians. In Israel itself, orthodox, reformed, and secular Jews never tire of indicting one another as anti-Semites. Netanyahu is not the only Jew who indicts fellow religionists as anti-Semitic. Self-hating Jew is the favored appellation for attacking controversial perspectives; unfortunately, examples are numerous. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem was indicted as the rumination of a self-hating Jew: Lamenting the banality of evil, she didn’t fully demonize a colorless bureaucrat. We’re not the first to note that Noam Chomsky’s well-documented criticisms of Israeli policy are dismissed as the ravings of yet another self-hating Jew. And Norman Finkelstein doesn’t win friends and influence people in the Jewish community by criticizing Israeli policy and raising controversial questions about Holocaust studies.[16]

Perhaps, like us, the reader is sufficiently confused by the bitter irony of Jews owning a term coined by a notorious Jew-hater. Things fall apart, the center no longer holds, when Jewish senators stand with Muslims accused of anti-Semitism; Muslims acknowledge the existence of prejudice against Jews; Jewish politicians support known bigots; and a president (with a Jewish son-in-law) repeatedly offends the Jewish people, and suddenly becomes their champion.

Like other tropes used by politicians—think terrorism—anti-Semitism is weaponized for their personal and political motivations. Thus, the term becomes a weapon brandished to enable users to stand their ground in any dispute, but rarely drawn for the protection of Jews from genuine vituperation aimed at their existence. Like the quip at the beginning of this section, we propose that the overuse of anti-Semitism renders the term almost meaningless and inoculates people from the true horrors inflicted upon the Jewish people. Given the shameless, promiscuous weaponization of anti-Semitism, we suffer the evil of banality.



[1] “Most Ashkenazi Jews, traditionally believed to have descended from the ancient tribes of Israel, may in fact be maternally descended from prehistoric Europeans.” The Scientist, https://www.the-scientist.com/daily-news/genetic-roots-of-the-ashkenazi-jews-38580.

[2] Edward W. Said, ‘Orientalism reconsidered’, Cultural Critique, vol. 1, no. 1, 1985, 89-107 (99). Cited in: Reza Zia-Ebrahimi, ‘When the Elders of Zion relocated to Eurabia: Conspiratorial racialization in antisemitism and Islamophobia’, Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 52, no. 4, 2018, 314-337.

[3] Lynch, Hollis. “African Americans.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/African-American#ref285184 (accessed March 25, 2019)

[4] “Lexicographers Reconsidering What’s a Slur,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 4, 1989. Also see Alan D. Corre in Minds http://Minds.Wisconsin.edu, bit stream/item/3920/edition3/Jew.html.

[5] Jack Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People.

[6] Wilhelm Marr, “The Victory of Judaism over Germandom” cited in German History in Document and Images, germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/.

[7] Moshe Zimmerman, Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[8] Marr, “The victory of Judiasm…”

[9] “Weaponizing the ‘New Anti-Semitism’” in Transcend Media Service, Oct. 2018, http://wwwz.transcend.org/tims/2018/10weaponizing-the-new-anti-semitism/.

[10] The BDS movement is a global movement by activists intended to put pressure on Israel so it can be held liable for acts committed in violation of international law.  The movement sees the unequal treatment of Arab citizens as reminiscent on South African Apartheid; the homes, lives, and liberties of Palestinians are often overlooked in favor of Jewish settlers.

[11] “Rashida Tlaib Responds to anti-Semitism Accusations” in Haaretz, February, 15, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/palestinians/rashida-tlaib-responds-to-anti-semitism-accusations-1.6811411

[12] “Bernie Sanders Called Ilhan Omar to Offer his Support Amid Anti-Semitism Controversy” in Daily Beast, February 14, 2019, https://www.thedailybeast.com/bernie-sanders-called-ilhan-omar-to-offer-his-support-amid-anti-semitism-controversy

[13] “Trump Calls on Rep. Ilhan Omar to Resign Over Remarks Criticized as Anti-Semitic” in NPR, February 12, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/02/12/693916631/trump-calls-on-rep-ilhan-omar-to-resign-over-remarks-criticized-as-anti-semitic.

[14] For a timeline of Donald Trump’s anti-Semitic remarks, see “Donald Trump’s anti-Semitism Controversies: A Timeline” in the Times of Israel, June 2, 2016, https://www.timesofisrael.com/donald-trumps-anti-semitism-controversies-a-timeline/

[15] “Benjamin Netanyahu and the Weaponazation of ‘Anti-Semitism’” in The Diplomatic Envoy, September 25, 2018, http://thediplomaticenvoy.com/2018/09/25/benjamin-netanyahu-and-the-weaponization-of-anti-semitism/

[16] See for example, “The Excommunication of Hannah Arendt” in the Introduction to her Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, (New York: Penguin Kindle ed.); Responses to Noam Chomsky on Israel-Palestine and BDS …https://www.thenation.com/article/responses-noam-chomskyisrael…; and Dr. Norman Finkelstein responds to the “Self hating Jew” …https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CfbS2nubiv.


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