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Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

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< Sect. 15 TOC Q16.2 >

Question 16.1:
Why is antisemitism used to mean anti-Jewish? Aren't Arabs Semites too?


The word "anti-Semitism" was coined in Germany in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr as a more euphonious way of saying "Judenhass" (Jew-hatred), and has always meant exactly that. Its antonym, "Semitism" connoted a positive attitude toward the Jewish people. The word has become too sanitized and too easily misunderstood, which is exactly what Marr tried to accomplish with the word's creation.

According to a (now discredited) nineteenth century theory that held that racial groups and linguistic groups coincide, Semites are natives of a group of Middle Eastern nations that are closely related in ethnicity, culture and language. Under this theory, the modern day Semites would be the Jews and Arabs. In ancient times, the Assyrians, Canaanites, Carthaginians, Aramaeans and Akkadians (one of the ancestors of the ancient Babylonians) were also counted among the Semitic nations. It should be noted that many of these groups contributed much to the development of modern culture, in particular the Phoenicians (Semitic seafarers including Canaanites, Aramaeans and northern Israelites), the Babylonians, as well as the Arabs and Jews.

One theory that has been voiced among the practitioners of ancient history is that these groups emerged from a common home in Arabia during the early Sumerian period. More likely, they were descended from various waves of people who entered the Middle East, only the last of which brought the Semitic languages. Like the Babylonian king Hammurabi, Abraham appears to have been an "Amurru" or West Semite, a group that spread out from the Levant to as far east as Ur and Babylon. Hebrew and Aramaic are both West Semitic languages.

The modern day "Semites" all claim to trace their ancestry to Noah's son, Shem, from whom they take their name.

Given that the theory of "semites" and non-"semites" is now discredited, the preferred term to use is "Antisemitism", which has a general connotation of "anti-Jewish". When written in this fashion, it helps to eliminate the confusion with the discredited theory. (The use of the non-hyphenated form is a suggestion of the distinguished historian James Parkes). Emil Fackenheim, the Jewish philosopher, has also adopted this spelling, explaining "... the spelling ought to be antisemitism without the hyphen, dispelling the notion that there is an entity 'Semitism' which 'anti-Semitism' opposes" (Emil Fackenheim, "Post-Holocaust Anti-Jewishness, Jewish Identity and the Centrality of Israel," in World Jewry and the State of Israel, ed. Moshe Davis, p. 11, n. 2).

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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