Semantics, Semites and antisemitism

Every now and again, I come across an ‘argument’ that goes something like this:

“I condemn all bigotry, but it troubles me that, say, criticism leveled at the government of Israel and the illegal settlers is seen as antisemitic, but the actions of repressing the Semitic people of Palestine, burning their crops and levelling their homes is not antisemitic somehow. It is an example of how the meaning of a word has been warped to disregard the Palestinians.”

In fact, it is those who claim that the word ‘antisemitism’ can include prejudice against Palestinians/other Arabs (or indeed speakers of other Semitic languages such as Amharic) who – perhaps unwittingly – are warping its meaning. In short, the word was coined in nineteenth-century Germany, specifically, as a polite alternative to ‘Judenhass.’ Those who coined and popularised the phrase, such as Wilhelm Marr, only ever had prejudice against Jews in mind. David Paxton of the Gerasites explains in greater length here.

This is not to deny that the Palestinian people have suffered much at the hands of both the Israeli government and some of the settlers. Nor is it to deny that racism against Palestinians or other Arabs is just as deplorable as racism against Jews. It is, however, to suggest that each form of racism should be defined, analysed and fought on its own merits, rather than all being inaccurately subsumed under the term ‘antisemitism’. The term was never intended to mean anything more than prejudice against Jews, and it is misleading to suggest otherwise.



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