Semantics Matter: Why I Spell Antisemitism Without The Hyphen

In April 2015, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance issued a memorandum to Microsoft addressing the spelling of ‘antisemitism’, often rendered as anti-Semitism in its auto-correct feature. This article outlines why the hyphen is causing such a debate, and, by detailing the historical context of the term, emphasises the implications the use of this conjoiner can have on our understanding of the hatred and prejudice of Jews.

Image /David A.M. Wilensky

Historians have argued that the use of the hyphen in “antisemitism” dilutes and distorts the term’s intended meaning by implying that groups other than Jews are included within the “Semites” being opposed. The term “Semite” can be traced to Shem, the eldest of the three sons of Noah. In Abrahamic religions, Noah is the protagonist of the biblical flood story in the Book of Genesis, in which, following God’s realisation that the people on Earth had become wicked, everyone was drowned except Noah and his family; thus, all humankind are descended from his three sons – Shem, Ham, and Japheth. This narrative was later widely adopted by Christians, and, to a lesser extent, Muslims and Jews, who claimed the three sons of Noah represented the eponymous ancestors of the three prominent racial and linguistic groups. Ham was thought to be the ancestor of the dark-skinned people of Africa, Shem of the Hebrews and their various cognates, and Japheth the ancestor of the Medes, Persians, Greeks, and all others who later became collectively known as Aryans.

While Shem and his lineage are of biblical antiquity, the term “Semitic” has its origins in the 18th century. In 1704, German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz identified a family of cognate languages, including Hebrew, Syriac, Ethiopic, and Aramaic, which became known as the “Semitic” language family. Subsequently, the term “Semitic” became a linguistic and cultural classification, denoting certain related languages spoken across parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and, in particular contexts, the literature and civilisations of those who speak the languages. Thus, there is no such thing as a “Semitic” ethnicity, or “Semitic” people, as the term is a description of a language group, not a race, the most widespread member of the “Semitic” family being Arabic.

While Jews had long been hated for their religion, the contempt to which they were held during the Enlightenment no longer only had a theological basis, but was centred on secular grounds. German philosopher Eugen Duhring associated antisemitism with natural science, advocating the pseudo-scientific basis for the antisemitic movement. He promoted the idea that Jews belonged to another race, and for this reason, would always remain “parasites” who could not be converted through baptism. This development coincides with the increasing secularisation in Europe – when there were no more theological reasons to condemn the Jews, a racial reason was invented. The transformation from religious (anti-Judaism) to racial (antisemitism) carried a fateful consequence; in principle, religion could be changed but race was immutable.

Following the unification of Germany in 1871, biological perceptions of race were gaining legitimacy, consequently shaping the way that people defined the word “nation”. Many believed that in order to be a “great nation”, the German State must comprise a biological community, through which membership would be passed from one generation to the next. Throughout the 19th century, in response to the increasing number of Jews (who were one of the largest minorities) being assimilated into non-Jewish German society, a debate arose as to whether Jews could truly be regarded as Germans. Historians such as Heinrich von Treitschke maintained that Jews were fundamentally different because they were “Oriental” people. An emphasis on this Jewish otherness and closeness to the Orient, implying a distance from the Occident (the West), was used by Jew-hating intellectuals to develop the concept of an essential and fundamental Jewish difference, which was coined “Semitism”. Those Germans who rejected “Semitism” began referring to themselves as adherents of the ideology of “Antisemitism” and themselves as “Antisemites”.

The term “Antisemitism” was first used academically in the writings of Moritz Steinschneider in 1860, when he used the phrase antisemitische Vorurteile (antisemitic prejudices) when critiquing the work of Ernest Renan, who had unfavourably contrasted the mentality and cultural achievements of the Semitic-speaking peoples of the Middle East with those of the Indo-European speaking peoples of Europe. The term was subsequently popularised in 1873 by publicist Wilhelm Marr, who campaigned aggressively to overturn Jewish emancipation in Germany, maintaining that Jews were covertly trying to take over the government and should thus not be recognised as German citizens. Marr founded the Antisemitenliga (League of Antisemites) in 1879, the first German organisation committed to fighting the alleged Jewish power taking root in Germany. It is important to note that this movement was not solely concerned with political control, but also with ethnic purity, the fight for “Germanness”, and the widespread use of the term antisemitism cementing the union between the classical theological hatred of Judaism, with the modern politically-rooted racist attitudes. The term thereby contributed to a newly developing vocabulary by which centuries-old hostility towards Jews could be expressed more potently.

Following its introduction in Germany, the use of the term “antisemitism” (without the hyphen) became widespread across Europe, not to reference groups of people who spoke similar Near East-based languages, but to give an impression of scientific modernity to old-fashioned Jew-hatred. As stated above, there is no such thing as a “Semitic” ethnicity, or “Semitic” people, only the “Semitic” language group to which Hebrew belongs. Even though language relationships can have an impact on the development of common cultural traits, speakers of various related languages, and/or their descendants, are not necessarily part of the same ethnic groups. Antisemitism does not refer to the hatred of all Semitic-speaking peoples and their descendants; it does not refer to the hatred of Arabs, Syriac-speaking peoples, or Amharic-speaking Ethiopians but exclusively describes the hatred of Jews, including those who do not speak Hebrew. Significantly, it is possible for other Semitic groups, such as those who speak Arabic, to be antisemitic, but not anti-Semitic.

The spelling of “anti-Semitism” (with the hyphen) first appeared in the English language in 1893, and, although it is unclear why, the hyphen has stuck. There is the following speculation: in the late 19th century, the only Semitic-speakers with whom Europeans were familiar were the Arabs and the Jews; at the time, the Arabs were little known through first-hand knowledge, whereas many Europeans had considerable contact with Jews. Although many Jews did not speak Hebrew as their first language, they were still seen to be coming from the ‘Semitic Middle East’ and consequently were given an ‘outsider’ label; thus while not all “Semites” were Jews, all Jews were considered “Semites”. It was not until the 20th century, as Arabs came to be more familiar to Europeans, particularly because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that the illogicality of referring to anti-Jewish feeling as “anti-Semitism” became fully apparent. However, by then, it seemed too late to uproot this meaning of the term, despite its demonstrable absurdity when Arab spokespersons vilifying the Jewish State, protested, quite logically, that they could not possibly be “anti-Semitic”, because they were Semites themselves.

For the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the addition of the hyphen to antisemitism is problematic in part because it legitimises a form of pseudo-scientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by its association with Nazi ideology. The addition of the hyphen also dilutes the term by stripping from it the meaning of opposition and hatred specifically toward Jews. As this article has attempted to demonstrate, there is no such entity as “Semitism” or “Semites” to be “anti”, as there are only Semitic languages. The hyphenation of antisemitism therefore gives the erroneous impression that Semitism exists, either as an innate ethnic characteristic of all Jews, or as an ideology held by all Jews. While the emphasis on a hyphen may seem like overly critical nit-picking, the reality is that words and phrases can influence thinking more than maybe intuitively realised, which justifies the effort in making the argument that antisemitism should be read as a unified term to dispel the notion of an entity called Semitism, to which anti-Semitism is opposed.

Ashton Kingdon is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate in Department of Economic, Social and Political Sciences, University of Southampton. See full profile here.

© Ashton Kingdon. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).