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Anti-Semitism — A Word With An Ugly History

Anti-Semitism is a term coined by an angry and confused man. It was invented in 1879 by a German racist, Wilhelm Marr, who formed the League of Antisemites, a failed effort that nonetheless established itself as history’s first popular movement based on antipathy toward Jewish people.

Technically, a Semite is anyone who is a descendent of Shem, the son of Noah. To modern linguists, Semitic peoples have roots in a common language. Thus the term Semite not only covers the Jewish people but also Arabs, Ethiopians, and the long-extinct Akkadians of Babylonia. Marr chose the term to infer that Jewish people were a distinct race, even though Jewishness is not a racial category.

Why thinking people would ever allow this misnomer, invented by a hateful man who hated Jewish people, to become legitimated in mainstream language is a question that cannot effectively be addressed in this essay, but which deserves further study.

Another problem with the term anti-Semitism is that it has different meanings depending upon which point in history one is talking about. This history is complex and can only be addressed here in a few sentences. In the late 1800s, at the time when Marr invented his pejorative term, hostility towards the Jewish community was primarily economic, emanating from jealousy of the relative success of a few Jewish merchants. Before the 1800s, persecution of Jewish individuals and communities was primarily religious, based upon the fact that they were different, in terms of religious and cultural practices, from the dominant Christian populations. This made them easy scapegoats when things went wrong, such as when a plague swept through the land or an economic depression set in.


Today, anti-Semitism in Europe lingers as a vestige of ancient religious discrimination and economic persecution. In the United States, anti-Semitism endures as part of a culture of hatred clung to by, for example, white supremacy groups. It is also said to be re-emerging in Europe and the United States as part of a complex social response to several developments including globalization and Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories. This has been dubbed the new anti-Semitism (see for example “The New Face of Anti-Semitism” by Mark Strauss, Foreign Policy, November/December 2003). In the Arab world, criticism of Israel is a staple of political conversation and in some quarters this flows over into hateful generalizations about Jewish people. This has been termed Arab anti-Semitism.

Some important thinkers, such as the late Hannah Arendt, author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, believe anti-Semitism is a permanent part of the human condition. This is called eternal anti-Semitism. Progressive thinkers believe that anti-Semitism is a public health problem that democracy is particularly well suited to combat. They believe that while the Jewish community is the primary victim of anti-Semitism, it is not a Jewish problem; it is a human problem and it is the responsibility of every decent human being to expose and fight it.

Furthermore, they believe that inroads cannot be made against this insidious form of racism if citizens are not empowered to speak freely and unselfconsciously about Jewish history, the emergence of the state of Israel, Zionism, U.S. Middle East foreign policy, and Palestinian self-determination.


Next Section: Zionism and Anti-Zionism

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