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Anti-Semitism or Antisemitism?

by Mitchell Bard

The term “anti-Semite” was coined in Germany in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr in his pamphlet “The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism” to refer to the anti-Jewish manifestations of the period and to give Jew-hatred a more scientific sounding name. According to historian Deborah Lipstadt, instead of using the word “Judenhass” – hatred of Jews – he chose “Antisemitismus” – hatred of the Jewish race. Lipstadt says he wanted an “all-encompassing word: a word that would include Jews who were no longer practicing the religion, Jews who might even have converted – because he also was influenced by the idea that it was in your blood.”

Zack Rothbart noted that “Anti-Semitism” did not appear in the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. He quotes from a July 5, 1900, letter from James Murray, the founding editor, to Claude Montefiore, the great-nephew of Moses Montefiore. “He said ‘the material for anti- words was so enormous that much violence had to be employed’ to include them all. ‘Anti-semite and its family were then probably very new in English use, and not thought likely to be more than passing nonce-words,’ Murray added, ‘& hence they did not receive treatment in a separate article. Probably if we had to do that post now, we should have to make Anti-semite a main word, and add ‘hence Anti-semitic, Anti-semitism.’ He also noted, ‘The man in the street would have said Anti-Jewish.’”

“Anti-Semitism” has been accepted and understood to mean hatred of the Jewish people. Dictionaries define the term as: “Theory, action, or practice directed against the Jews” and “Hostility towards Jews as a religious or racial minority group, often accompanied by social, economic and political discrimination.”

Today, there is a debate as to whether the word should be spelled without a hyphen.

Some argue the use of the word “Semitic” is misleading and confusing used in the context of Jew hatred. In its argument for eliminating the hyphen, the ADL noted the word “was first used by a German historian in 1781 to bind together languages of Middle Eastern origin that have some linguistic similarities. The speakers of those languages, however, do not otherwise have shared heritage or history. There is no such thing as a Semitic peoplehood.”

Arabs are “Semites” and, therefore, sometimes claim they cannot be anti-Semitic or the word should apply to hatred directed toward them. Matt Lebovic gave the example of a 2015 speech by consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader: “[Supporters of Israel] know how to accuse people of anti-Semitism if any issue on Israel is criticized, even though the worst anti-Semitism in the world today is against Arabs and Arab-Americans.” He added, “The Semitic race is Arabs and Jews and Jews do not own the phrase anti-Semitism.”

This, however, is a semantic distortion that ignores the reality of Arab discrimination and hostility toward Jews. Arabs and other speakers of Semitic languages, like any other people, can indeed be anti-Semitic.

The ADL also argues that Marr’s use of the word “Antisemitismus” added “racial and pseudo-scientific overtones to the animus behind the word.” Furthermore, “hatred toward Jews, both today and in the past, goes beyond any false perception of a Jewish race; it is wrapped up in complicated historical, political, religious, and social dynamics.”

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) expressed a similar concern “that the hyphenated spelling allows for the possibility of something called ‘Semitism,’ which not only legitimizes a form of pseudo-scientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by association with Nazi ideology, but also divides the term, stripping it from its meaning of opposition and hatred toward Jews.” The IHRA also noted that “in German, French, Spanish and many other languages, the term was never hyphenated.”

Allison Kaplan Sommer noted this debate is not new. Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer wrote in 1994: “Anti-Semitism is altogether an absurd construction, since there is no such thing as ‘Semitism’ to which it might be opposed.”

Today, the hyphen is eschewed by scholars in the field and journals, such as the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism and Antisemitism Studies. Several organizations that deal with the issue, such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, World Jewish Congress, Yad Vashem and the ADL have also dropped the hyphen. The Simon Wiesenthal Center has not.

Ken Jacobson, the ADL’s deputy national director, seemingly contradicted his organization’s position, telling the Times of Israel that the debate is “intellectually dueling and largely divorced from reality.” He said it “is an overreaction to Arab claims that they can’t be anti-Semites because they are a Semitic people.” Jacobson added that eliminating the hyphen “will not enhance anyone’s understanding and could even undermine a word that aptly conveys the power of this evil.”

Alvin H. Rosenfeld, director of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, took a slightly different view. “Will spelling the word in an unhyphenated way as ‘antisemite’ and not ‘anti-Semite’ correct its misuse?” he asked. “Probably not for those who willfully misuse it, but for others, it may clarify that no one ever beat or cursed a Jew because he hated ‘Semitism,’ but only because he hated Jews.”

In April 2021, the Associated Press, generally considered the authority on usage for the media, announced it was changing its policy to eliminate the hyphen. The notification came via tweet without explanation. Meanwhiles, major newspapers such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine have used the traditional spelling. It remains to be seen if AP’s decision will affect their policy.

Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor-in-chief of The New York Jewish Week told Kaplan, “Although the case for ‘antisemitism’ is strong, we are sticking with anti-Semitism because it appears to be the preferred spelling among most of the Jewish institutions we cover, and because it is consistent with our own newspaper’s practices going back decades.”

Other Jewish publications, including the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Times of Israel, the Forward, the Jewish News Syndicate and Tablet all also retain the hyphen. The Jerusalem Post and the Algemeiner do not.

Most dictionaries, such as Merriam-Webster, and encyclopedias, such as Britannica also hyphenate the word. The word is also hyphenated in the U.S. State Department definition, but is not by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The IHRA argues by eliminating the hyphen “the meaning of the generic term for modern Jew-hatred is clear” with “no room for confusion or obfuscation”; however, there is little evidence of such misunderstanding. As Silow-Carroll said in editorial on the subject, “For some, the lowercase somehow demotes the word or concept itself, or represents a solution to a very minor and rarified problem.”

Other than the occasional claim by Arabs that they cannot be anti-Semitic, there is little evidence of confusion regarding the word’s usage and meaning. The Times of Israel reported that “very few experts expressed concern about anti-Semitism continuing to be spelled with a hyphen among the general public.” As noted above, dictionaries and the media use “anti-Semitism” and that is also the spelling we have adopted in the Jewish Virtual Library.

Sources: Vamberto Morais, A Short History of Anti-Semitism, (NY: W.W Norton and Co., 1976), p. 11.
Bernard Lewis, Semites & Anti-Semites, (NY: WW Norton &Co., 1986), p. 81.
Oxford English Dictionary; Webster’s Third International Dictionary.
“Spelling of antisemitism vs. anti-Semitism,” ADL.
Zack Rothbart, “Why ‘Anti-Semitism’ Was Not in the Original Oxford English Dictionary,” the Librarians, (April 5, 2020).
Allison Kaplan Sommer, “Anti-antisemitism? A Battle Rages Over the Jewish Hyphen,” Haaretz, (May 20, 2020).
Matt Lebovic, “What’s in a hyphen? Why writing anti-Semitism with a dash distorts its meaning,” Times of Israel, (August 23, 2018).
@APStylebook, April 23, 2021).