The Semantics of Anti-Semitism

By | May 12, 2017
2017 May-June, Jewish Word, Jewish World

[Note: Since this piece was published, Moment has updated its style and now uses “antisemitism” in adopting the rationale shared by the ADL.]

In the late 1800s, a German writer and political agitator named Wilhelm Marr published a pamphlet called “The Way to Victory of Judaism over Germanism.” The idea was that Jews and Germans were locked in perpetual conflict, which could only end, Marr worried, with one group’s victory over the other. And the Jews were ahead.

Today, Marr is credited with coining the term “anti-Semitism.” Compared to previously existing words, anti-Semitism “was meant to be a kind of technical term,” says Ken Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League. It described an attitude based on ideas about Jews as a race, and it was intended to foster a scientific basis for hatred.

But since Marr’s time, the term “anti-Semitism” has evolved. As scholarship on the subject grew, the available vocabulary expanded. Today, its definition—and its boundaries—are uncertain. “Anti-Semitism” is but one of a convoluted, interconnected web of similar words—including “anti-Judaism,” “anti-Zionism,” “Judeophobia” and “Zionophobia.”

What, for instance, is the difference between “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Judaism”? David Nirenberg, author of Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, makes a nuanced distinction: Anti-Semitism takes aim at real Jews, while anti-Judaism opposes a broader system of thought. When the word “Judaize” first appeared in a conversation between the New Testament’s Paul and Peter, it referred to Christians who wanted—mistakenly—to observe Jewish laws. For early Christians, Judaism became associated with a misguided set of beliefs: taking something too literally, or placing too much emphasis on the law. Over the years, anti-Judaism took on a broader meaning: Someone could be accused of acting like a Jew for displaying greed or lending money. “If you read any source about the economy, say, from roughly the 12th century to the present,” says Nirenberg, “people are constantly talking about certain forms of relationship to money, certain uses of money, as being Jewish.” These prejudices played out everywhere from Shakespeare to Marx. The hatred of Judaism, and the need to fight against it—even in communities that had never met a Jew—became a constant in Western culture.

Some historians see anti-Judaism as a religious prejudice and anti-Semitism as a racial prejudice. But this framework is contentious. “The distinction that’s made between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism is a fallacious one,” says Brown University professor David Kertzer, who has written extensively on the Vatican’s role in modern anti-Semitism. In 1987, Pope John Paul II commissioned an investigation into this matter. The verdict was that, while the church had promoted anti-Judaism—or prejudice based in religion—it had not encouraged anti-Semitism. But “this narrative, while comforting,” says Kertzer, has no basis in reality. The church “had been involved in modern anti-Semitism right from the very beginning,” and Nazi messaging relied heavily on Christian imagery.

“Anti-Semitism” is but one of a convoluted, interconnected web of  similar words.

After the Holocaust, the world’s conception of anti-Semitism changed. When the horrors of the Holocaust became known, overt prejudice was no longer publicly acceptable. “People refrained for quite awhile,” says Jacobson. “But then along came this convenient thing, the State of Israel.” With the new country came a new vocabulary; words like anti-Zionism and anti-Israel entered the lexicon. In some cases, these prejudices drew on older ones: Criticizing the young country became “a convenient cover for those who had anti-Semitic attitudes but didn’t want to be seen that way.”

Still, “we hardly ever simply say that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism,” Jacobson adds. “That’s absurd.” In fact, before Israel’s founding, many mainstream Jews were anti-Zionist—some Orthodox Jews feared Zionism’s secular focus, while some Reform Jews preferred to focus on a worldwide Jewish community—and some Jews, for various reasons, still identify this way. But when contemporary groups, Jewish or secular, reject Zionism, they are often labeled anti-Semitic.

Today, debates about anti-Zionism are fraught—“Is Anti-Zionism Anti-Semitism?” headlines ask—and the line between political critique and outright prejudice is hazy. “I don’t think the criticism of Israel today is necessarily anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic,” says Nirenberg. But if critiquing Israel becomes “a particularly important part of overcoming evil in the world,” he adds, “you have to ask yourself why.” Jacobson says there’s legitimate criticism of Israel, there’s criticism obviously motivated by prejudice—and then there’s everything in the middle, where the distinctions are harder to parse. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement sometimes falls into this third category, he says. “Many people behind BDS are anti-Semitic, but that doesn’t mean everyone who supports BDS is anti-Semitic.”

Judea Pearl, an Israeli-American computer science professor at UCLA, rejects that framework. “It is a grave mistake,” he says, “to calibrate the evils of anti-Zionism by the extent to which it resembles, or leads to, or encourages anti-Semitism, as if anti-Zionism is the lesser of the two evils.” In recent years, Pearl, whose son, Daniel, was murdered by Pakistani terrorists in 2002, has been pushing a new term: “Zionophobia,” which he defines as “the irrational fear of Zionism.” For Pearl, the word describes not just a political stance, but an immoral one: denying Jewish nationhood and self-determination. “Islamophobia” already holds a place in the public discourse, and he hopes that Zionophobia will be seen in a similar light. It “reminds us that religion does not have a monopoly on human sensitivity, and that Zionism has a moral dimension to it.”

With the addition of “phobia,” prejudices are framed as psychological phenomena. In 1882, Russian writer and activist Leon Pinsker used the term “Judeophobia,” which he considered a psychological disorder—specifically, a “psychic aberration”—that could be inherited and could not be cured. Still, for the most part, describing prejudice using the language of phobias is a modern phenomenon, related to psychology’s cultural dominance in the 20th century, says Jacobson.

The history of prejudice against Jews is complex, and so is the language we use to describe it. Most of the time Jacobson sticks with “anti-Semitism.” But even then, he says, “one has to use it sparingly and appropriately.” 

One thought on “The Semantics of Anti-Semitism

  1. Eliezer Segal says:

    Hatred for past two thousand has evolved and metamorphosed many times over. It mutated into an incurable mental disorder, plagued by blind hatred transmitted from one generation to the next. As Dr. S. Freud psychoanalyzed succinctly: “The hatred for Judaism is at the bottom hatred for Christianity. They have not yet overcome their grudge against the new religion which was forced on them…”
    The Church of England admitted recently, to what Jews already knew, that “Christians have been guilty of promoting and fostering negative stereotypes of Jewish people that have contributed to grave suffering and injustice…and how this contributed to the Holocaust.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.