Changing How You Spell "Anti-Semitism" Will Not Stop Anti-Semitism

Why it's time to dispense with semitic semantics

If you read enough about anti-Jewish bigotry, one weird thing you’ve probably noticed is that no one can agree how to spell it. Is it “anti-Semitism” or “antisemitism”? And what, exactly, is the difference?

Regular readers know that I tend to use the hyphenated version, but I’ve happily written for plenty of outlets who remove the dash. The difference is actually a matter of some scholarly debate, and there are a bunch of good reasons to be uncomfortable with the term “anti-Semitism.”

To begin with, the word itself was mainstreamed by an anti-Jewish bigot named Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904). Marr was a German nationalist who founded the “League of Antisemites,” which sounds like what you’d get if you handed the Marvel Cinematic Universe over to Mel Gibson, but was actually a real organization. Marr wanted to make his anti-Jewish prejudice sound more respectable, and that’s how he landed on the term “anti-Semitism,” which equates Jews with “Semites” and casts them as an inferior race. As you know, this sort of pseudo-scientific thinking ultimately resulted in the Holocaust.

The problem is not just that this word for anti-Jewish prejudice was popularized by a perpetrator rather than the victims. It’s that the term easily lends itself to pedantic objections that can be used to confuse conversations about anti-Jewish prejudice. On the one hand, some critics claim that Jews are “not real Semites,” and so “anti-Semitism” doesn’t refer to them. On the other hand, it’s common in the Arab world to hear the claim, “I can’t be anti-Semitic because Arabs are also Semites.” This is not just a Middle Eastern canard. In 2015, former U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader declared, “the Semitic race is Arabs and Jews and the Jews do not own the phrase anti-Semitism,” adding that “the worst anti-Semitism in the world today is against Arabs and Arab-Americans.”

All of this is ahistorical nonsense, of course. As noted, the term “anti-Semitism” was chosen by an anti-Jewish bigot in order to lend his hatred of Jews an intellectual imprimatur. The term has never popularly referred to Arab or other “Semites,” which is why the dictionary definition of “anti-Semitism” reads: “discrimination against or prejudice or hostility toward Jews.” Anyone suggesting otherwise is at best ignorant, or at worst attempting to undermine discussions of anti-Jewish prejudice.

To counter such bad faith objections, serious scholars have advocated removing the hyphen from “antisemitism.” By collapsing the term into a single word, and removing the separate oft-abused reference to “semitism,” they hope to head off the semantic games before they start. This past week, this movement scored a major victory when the Associated Press revised its influential journalism style guide accordingly:

Good people get good results! So why am I writing about this? Because recently, I’ve seen a marked tendency in online spaces to police people for spelling “anti-Semitism” with a hyphen. Serious allies in the fight against anti-Jewish bigotry have told me that they’ve been shamed on social media for getting this “wrong.” Essentially, as is common in online arenas, people who are ostensibly on the same side are now pointing fingers at each other while the real culprits—the anti-Semites—just keep smugly spreading their hate.

This sort of circular firing squad doesn’t help anyone except the bigots. In the hopes of brokering a ceasefire, I’d like to explain why, as much as we might wish otherwise, changing how we spell anti-Semitism is not actually going to reduce anti-Semitism, and is not worth this kind of attention.

I know this from direct experience. As someone who has spent a decade covering anti-Semitism, and used different constructions of the word, I’ve personally seen that the version you choose does not reduce the bad faith responses you get. The reason for this is pretty obvious if you think about it: anyone inclined to derail discussions of anti-Semitism by posing semantic objections isn’t going to change their behavior because you write the word differently. Their problem isn’t the hyphen in “anti-Semitism.” Their problem is with Jews and any attempt to discuss discrimination against them. The hyphen is the excuse, not the cause. Take it away, and the trolls will continue to make the same claims, because the word “antisemitism” still clearly references “semitism” and because their real aim is simply to dissimulate and divert.

One can observe a similar dynamic around the term “Islamophobia.” For years, critics have rejected the word with all sorts of linguistic gymnastics. The arguments are stale at this point: “It’s not a phobia, because phobias are irrational and fear of Muslims isn’t!” “It’s not about Islam, it’s about particular Muslims!” And so on.

In reality, the term “Islamophobia,” like the term “anti-Semitism,” is not meant literally. It is simply the word adopted by the targeted community to describe its experience of discrimination. That’s reason enough for any decent person who is serious about fighting prejudice to use it. Those who spend their time parsing the word “anti-Semitism” and mumbling about how Jews aren’t the only “Semites” are doing the same thing as those who pick apart “Islamophobia” and say “well, it’s not a phobia”: playing semantic games to avoid confronting obvious prejudice.

Sadly, changing the word is not going to change these people’s minds.

The best way to counter these individuals is not to call out allies who happen to spell “antisemitism” differently than you. It’s to educate audiences about what the term really means, and teach them to rebuff the usual disingenuous responses to it. In my own work, I do this by using “anti-Semitism,” “anti-Jewish prejudice,” and “anti-Jewish bigotry” interchangeably throughout my articles—like this one!—implicitly informing my readers that these terms mean the same thing. Or you could just take the approach of friend-of-the-newsletter Josh Malina:

Whatever term you choose, it’s important to remember that semitic semantics are a deliberate distraction manufactured by anti-Semitism apologists. Don’t let them succeed. Social media loves fights over style rather than substance. Language is far easier to police than actions, so it’s understandable why those looking for a win against a seemingly intractable prejudice like anti-Semitism would gravitate towards this issue. But the truth is, the time and energy spent on this subject would be much better spent on combating anti-Semites and educating allies.

Let’s make sure we’re fighting the bigots and not each other.

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