Sunday, April 3, 2011

Anti-Semitic semantics

Socialist Alliance candidate, Pip Hinman, has sparked a debate in the comments section of her piece in the Drum which is all too familiar to those who follow these sorts of online debates. The article defends the stance of Marrickville Mayor and state Greens candidate Fiona Byrne on a boycott of Israeli goods and firms. The comments thread has been derailed by the ubiquitous debate on the definition of anti-Semitism. Without having to go through subscription sites like Macquarie, the first definition available from the online dictionary is this:

–noun a person who discriminates against or is prejudiced or hostile toward Jews.

Common usage of the term would support its general meaning as being applicable only to Jews. The confusion comes in when the word is broken into its constituent parts, which gives actual racists a semantic escape clause. The same online dictionary provides this definition of Semite:

–noun 1. a member of any of various ancient and modern peoples originating in southwestern Asia, including the Akkadians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, and Arabs. 2. a Jew. 3. a member of any of the peoples descended from Shem, the eldest son of Noah.

Therefore, by being pro-Palestinian precludes them from being anti-Semitic on the basis that the Arabs are Semites too. In the aforementioned comments thread, commenter GRAYAM made the following point:

Anti-Semitism is a word constructed in Germany in the late 19th century as a more acceptable substitute for Judenhass (Jew hatred).

Intrigued by that assertion, I looked up the etymology for anti-Semitism, and found this. It states:

anti-Semitism also antisemitism, 1881, from Ger. Antisemitismus, first used by Wilhelm Marr (1819–1904) German radical, nationalist and race-agitator, who founded the Antisemiten-Liga in 1879; see anti- + Semite. Not etymologically restricted to anti-Jewish theories, actions, or policies, but almost always used in this sense. Those who object to the inaccuracy of the term might try H. Adler's Judaeophobia (1882). Anti-Semitic (also antisemitic) and anti-Semite (also antisemite) also are from 1881, like anti-Semitism they appear first in English in an article in the "Athenaeum" of Sept. 31, in reference to German literature.

It made no mention of Judenhass, so I looked further. I found this at another site which provides some more enlightenment:

The political writer Wilhelm Marr is credited with coining the German word Antisemitismus in 1873, at a time when racial science was fashionable in Germany but religious prejudice was not. This term was offered as an alternative to the older German word Judenhass, meaning Jew-hatred. The aim of the effort to rename "Jew-hatred" into Anti-Semitism, was to give "Jew-hatred" a more scientific basis, however, it was never intended to eliminate the concept of hatred towards Jews based on the Christian conspiracies and legends so popular with the general population. In his book, "The Victory of Germanicism over Judaism" (1879), Marr took up secular racist ideas of Arthur de Gobineau's "An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races" (1853, though direct influence is debatable). Marr's book became very popular, and in the same year he founded the "League of Anti-Semites" ("Antisemiten-Liga"), the first German organization committed specifically to combating the alleged threat to Germany posed by the Jews, and advocating their forced removal from the country.

German has provided the English language with many useful words which succinctly distil concepts. In the true fashion of the English language to import words from other languages and make them our own, I propose that Judenhass join Blitzkreig, Schwerpunkt, and Schadenfreude in the greater English lexicon. It is appropriate to disarm a deceptive word coined by a German racist with the use of the German word it replaced.

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