Should Anti-Semitism Be Hyphenated?

All Jews Are Semites But All Semites Aren't Jews

First Used: German-Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider may have been the first one to use the term ‘anti-Semitism.’
First Used: German-Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider may have been the first one to use the term ‘anti-Semitism.’

By Philologos

Published November 18, 2012, issue of November 23, 2012.
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The word was spelled by Steinschneider, as it is by Germans to this day, without a hyphen or a capitalized “s,” just as is French antisémitisme, Spanish antisemitismo and so on. Why this became “anti-Semitism” when it first appeared in English in 1893 is unclear. Yet the English spelling of “anti-Semitism” stuck — and Professor Marschall, I think, is right that this only compounds the inaptness of a term that originally signified prejudice against all Semites but soon came to signify prejudice solely against Jews.

It’s easy to see why this happened. In the late 19th century, the only “Semites” Europeans knew about were the Arabs and the Jews — and the Arabs were little more than an abstraction, since whereas many Europeans had considerable contact with Jews, very few (apart from the French in North Africa) had any contact with Arabs at all. Never mind that no Jews spoke Hebrew as their first language, that most could not even read Hebrew and that many Jews had fair hair, light eyes and ancestors who had obviously interbred with Europeans: They were still perceived as outsiders from elsewhere — and this “elsewhere” was the Semitic Middle East.

Thus, while not all Semites were Jews, all Jews were considered Semites, and the only ones anyone cared about. It wasn’t until the course of the 20th century, as Arabs not only came to be more familiar to Europeans but also, because of Palestine, frequently developed a hostility toward Jews, that the illogic of referring to anti-Jewish feeling as “anti-Semitism” became fully apparent. By then, though, it was already too late to uproot the term, despite the absurdity of Arab spokesmen spewing vitriol at a Jewish state while protesting that they can’t possibly be anti-Semitic because they are Semites themselves.

Why is Professor Marschall’s suggestion a good one? Because while “anti-Semitism” implies such a thing as a “Semitism” in which Jews but not Arabs partake, “anti-Semitism” can be construed as a single word that simply means “anti-Jewish.” Think of it this way: “Anti-intellectual” involves the notion of intellectual, but “antigen” doesn’t involve the notion of “gen”; “anti-imperialist” involves the notion of “imperialist,” but “antitrust” doesn’t involve the notion of “trust.” (True, there are unhyphenated words starting with “anti” that do depend on the meaning of their second half, such as “antifreeze” and “antitoxin,” but I can’t think of a case in which the opposite is true.) By the same token, “anti-Semitism” needn’t involve the notion of “Semitism.”

I vote for using the one-word spelling — if, that is, we can manage to outfox our computers. (I was just able to fool mine by writing “antislemitism” and then deleting the “l.”)

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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