“Antisemitism” has become an inherently confusing word. Here’s how to fix this problem.

symbols

When referring to the Holocaust, it never caused confusion to refer to Nazis as “antisemitic.” German is not a Semitic language, and the non-Semite Nazis were trying to exterminate an ethnoreligious group, the Jews, who are a Semitic people. In that context, the word “antisemitism,” in a European setting, is not difficult to understand. This is also true of antisemitism earlier in European history.

Decades later, and outside of Europe, however, the situation has changed, and the word “antisemitism” is now far less clear in its meaning. The one nation most closely identified with the Jewish people is Israel, and Israel is not in conflict with Germany. Israel is, of course, currently in an active conflict with an organization, Hamas, which has been firing rockets from nearby Gaza across the border, into Israel. In response, Israel has been retaliating, using even greater force than that wielded by Hamas. In this current conflict, there have been numerous deaths of noncombatants, including many children, in Gaza, but no deaths (so far) in Israel. For this reason, some people have raised their voices in criticism of the actions of the Israeli government in the current conflict. Predictably, but not logically, those who are criticizing Israel’s actions are now being accused of antisemitism.

When the word “antisemitic” gets thrown around, in the context of conflicts in the Middle East which involve Israel, it doesn’t help anyone understand anything. The word is actually an impediment to understanding. The reason for this is that “Semite” does not mean what many people think it means. For one thing, most Semites are not Jews.

“Semites” refers to a collection of ethnolinguistic groups — people who speak, or are descended from those who spoke, any of a large collection of languages known as the Semitic languages . . . and one of the Semitic languages is Arabic. Are Jews Semites? Yes, they are, but so are Arabs. The current conflict in the Middle East is a conflict between two different groups of people, both of whom are Semitic. To throw the emotionally-charged word “antisemitic” into the middle of the fray, therefore, makes no sense. It increases confusion, and clarifies nothing. The word also further enflames the emotions of those arguing and fighting, on both sides, in a situation where the exact opposite is needed.

It doesn’t help that many Westerners believe a fallacy related to Arabs, using “Arab” (which refers to an ethnic group) interchangeably with “Muslim,” which is not an ethnic term at all, but one that simply refers to anyone who practices the religion known as Islam. In reality, there are many Arabs who are not Muslims, and there are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are not Arabs. For example, consider the people who live in Iran. The governments of Israel and Iran are often hostile to each other, and Iran has very few Arabs, despite being a nation where an overwhelming majority practice Islam.

When Israel has conflicts with other nations (or organizations, for Hamas is not a nation) in the Middle East, those conflicts are political in nature, with religion playing a strong role as well. Israel is associated with the religion of Judaism (even though much of its Jewish population is only ethnically Jewish, not Jewish in the religious sense of the term), and is often in conflict with others in the Middle East who are associated with the religion called Islam. “Antisemitic,” used as a synonym for anti-Jewish bigotry, is an unfortunate misnomer, but there are alternatives which are better, in the sense that they are more specific, and therefore more clear. There is already a word in common use for fear and hatred of Islam and/or Muslims:  “Islamophobia.”  The corresponding term for fear and hatred of Judaism and/or Jews, including those who are Jewish only in the ethnic sense of the word, is “Judeophobia.” Most of the time, when people use the word “antisemitism,” they actually mean Judeophobia. Since Arabs are, themselves, a subset of the Semites, it would be illogical to refer to a specific person who is both an Arab, and a hater of Jews, as an “antisemitic Arab.”  To describe that person as a “Judeophobic Arab,” on the other hand, makes perfect sense.

Finally, it must be recognized that there are numerous people, within both Judaism and Islam, who do not have within them the blind, furious hatred of the other group that has caused so much death and destruction in the Middle East since the founding of the modern nation of Israel, in the years following World War II. I am referring, of course, to non-Islamophobic Jews, and non-Judeophobic Muslims. One does not often see them featured in the news, especially when conflicts such as the current one are raging, but such people do exist, and their existence should give all people who prefer peace over war hope for the future. May their numbers increase.

2 thoughts on ““Antisemitism” has become an inherently confusing word. Here’s how to fix this problem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s