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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
Wolfgang Anti-semitic and inflammatory editorial (55* d) RE: Anti-semitic and inflammatory editorial 21 Sep 01

It is interesting to trace the history and meaning of 'antisemitism' and who has narrowed and who now tries to broaden the meaning of the term. Let my add that I do not think any of those here using a broader meaning of that term has the motivations I think some of the groups I'm going to mention have. I have looked through 8 almanachs and dictionaries in German and English and have read a long German article that is based upon the arguably best book about 'anitsemitism'

The term 'semit/semitic' has been coined in the German theological/historian literature of the 18th century and has originally designated the offspring of Sem (Shem), a son of Noah. Now the bible is not a very scientific source and therefore the scope of the term was not completely clear from that source. Later it has been adopted by linguists and ethnologists. In some subgroups of these sciences the term 'semitic' had a clearly defined meaning, but the meanings were different from subgroup to subgroup with a common more or less big overlap.

Then the term was used by sociologists from the beginning of the 19th century on. From the middle of 19th century on, the term began to be used by the normal people, first by the more educated. At the same time the term 'Semit' in German was narrowed (less so in science, but in the population) to mean exclusively jews. It was a term that was quickly adopted for several reasons: It had a scientific touch, it had a negative connotation (coming from all that junk 'science' in that time claiming superior and inferior races), and it included jews that had become Christians by faith. Germans could express their hatred of (ethnic and not only by faith) jews at that time by that term and still had the impression that (a part of) science was supportive of their hatred.

When Wilhelm Marr first used the term 'Antisemitismus' in 1879 the narrowing of the meaning of 'Semit' as solely an ethnic jew was completely finished in the population so that the new term only meant 'hatred of jews' from its very beginning. So in old dictionaries of that time we find 'Semit' explained as 'member of several people from...; often only used for jews and 'Antisemit' explained as 'one who hates jews but not other semites'. I even have found the 'jews, but not other semites' bit in a recent English dictionary.

Therefore, though 'semit' at the onset was a broad category narrowed later in vernacular German, the term 'antisemitism' at its onset was clearly and solely used as 'hatred of jews'. The term came from German into other languages (really nothing to be proud of; but still, how glad could we be if we only had given the world the term and not all what followed from it) and of course it meant just what it meant in German, hatred of jews and nothing else. I still have not found a single dictionary or almanach in English with another definition.

After the last war there has been some effort for very different reasons from two very different groups to broaden the meaning of the term to include arabs. First, from the extreme right in Germany (perhaps in other countries as well, I don't know), second from the arabs. These two groups have one thing in common. A part of their agenda is to downplay the uniqueness of the holocaust for their political aims of today.

The term 'Antisemitismus' has understandably a very bad connotation now in Germany. So our extreme right tries to broaden the meaning including arabs in order to gain grist for their mills from a dull, general racist feeling of a part of the population against dark-skinned people from south-east Europe or the middle east. For their agenda the meaning cannot be broad enough, including the now largest minority in Germany, the turks.

The arabs had a different agenda. In their perception, the West has sided too much with Israel in the Israel/Palestine conflict. One of their many efforts to gain sympathy for their cause was to try to broaden the term 'antisemitism' to include arabs in the understandable hope that the very bad connotation of 'antisemitism' should not solely lead to an emotional support for Israel in the West. The idea is that if antisemitism (that is to be avoided at any) is understood as hatred against arabs and jews alike the emotional headstart for Israel originating from the shoah (holocaust) in Western perception is neutralised.

Of course, this shift in meaning has been adopted by those who rather support the Arab view in the Israel/Palestine conflict. So in Germany of today, you have the unlikely coalition (of course not officially) of the extreme right and the extreme to moderate left who try to broaden the term 'Antisemitismus' as a mean of support for the Arab cause. The mildly left, the broad middle and the right excluding the extreme right in today Germany still firmly insist that 'Antisemitismus' should be used as it has been used from the onset.

In a couple of websearches for uncommon uses of the term 'anitsemitism' I have found that the uncommon use is nearly exclusively restricted to Arab sites or sites directly supporting the Arab cause. The site McGrath has linked to is a prime example. The fight for the scope of that term is a part of the Israel/Palestine conflict. It is no wonder that the harshest refutations of a change of meaning come from Jewish sites.

In summary, the term has meant 'hatred of Jews not including other semites' from its very onset and never has meant anything else until very recently. You might complain that the term was not very good when it was coined (like so many other terms aren't), but whoever tries to give it a broader meaning should know that (s)he is not going back to the roots but tries to change the original meaning.

My position: There has been in (German) history particular hatred of the jews and only jews excluding (either at all or in intensity) other Semites. We need a word for that and I think the term antisemitism which has been coined especially for that purpose is still a good fitting term and it should be used today for what is has meant in history from its very onset on. I doubt that you'll find any English dictionary giving this term another meaning, even only as an alternative.

If you look for a general term indicating hatred of coloured people, use 'racist', if you think we need a term for hatred of Arabs and jews together, coin your own term.


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