Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

FROM THE EDITOR'S DESK: Semitism, anti-Semitism and antisemitism


January 15, 2021

There are a couple articles in this week’s issue that use “antisemitism” rather than anti-Semitism. In fact, one writer insisted that Heritage use the spelling lowercased with no hyphen.

This led to the question “why?” and an interesting dig into the history of the words anti-Semitism and Semitism.

First, Heritage sought the answer by asking Marcia Jo Zerevitz, who used “antisemitism” in the article “January is Florida Jewish History Month.” She gladly supplied her answer:

“This is currently the appropriate scholarly way to spell the word, which was coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist who wished to distinguish his non-religious, politically active brand of hatred for the Jews from its predecessors. This is the same year he promoted the concept that all Jews must be removed by force from Germany, as “they were a threat.” 

“Seeking to replace the vulgar Judenfeind or Judenhass (Jew-hate) with a more modern-sounding scientific term, Marr borrowed from contemporary (at that time!) linguistic terminology to create the word antisemitismus, arguing that there exists a world Jewish conspiracy called Semitism that was ardently opposed by his followers, the anti-Semites. 

Since the notion of a Jewish plan to dominate the world was purely a figment of Marr’s imagination, scholars today prefer to use the spelling “antisemitism” to denote the phenomenon of hatred itself. 

The older spelling “anti-Semitism” — using the hyphen and the capital “S” — makes the Semitism more important and implies that such a thing as “Semitism” really does exist. It does not — Jews are not conspiring to take over the world!

“Scholars such as Emil Fackenheim and institutions such as Yad Vashem and the U.S. Holocaust Museum use the spelling antisemitism since it also refers to a form of hatred or phenomenon rather than to a specific race or biologically determined group.”

With all respect to Zerevitz’s explanation, according to Merriam-Webster.com, the word “Semitism” does exist and was first used in 1851 — by whom is not disclosed on the website. Semitism means, according to Merriam-Webster, “policy or predisposition favorable to Jews,” which is a completely different definition than that of Marr, who distorted the word with his false theory of a world Jewish conspiracy.

If the definition of Semitism is “a policy or predisposition favorable to Jews,” then anti-Semitism refers to the prejudice and discrimination against the Jewish people.”

Then there is good-old Wikipedia that discusses the origins of “anti-Semitism.” It is found in the responses of Moritz Steinschneider to the views of Ernest Renan. As Alex Bein writes: “The compound anti-Semitism appears to have been used first by Steinschneider, who challenged Renan on account of his ‘anti-Semitic prejudices’ [i.e., his derogation of the “Semites” as a race].” Avner Falk similarly writes: “The German word antisemitisch was first used in 1860 by the Austrian Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider (1816–1907) in the phrase antisemitische Vorurteile (antisemitic prejudices). Steinschneider used this phrase to characterise the French philosopher Ernest Renan’s false ideas about how ‘Semitic races’ were inferior to ‘Aryan races’”.

Understanding that “Semitism” does exist, and that anti-Semitism (or antisemitism) refers to being against “a policy or predisposition favorable to Jews,” the answer to the correct spelling of anti-Semitism is still not resolved. So, Heritage turned to the “bible of the newspaper” — the Associated Press Stylebook. In accordance to AP, Heritage will continue to use anti-Semitism. However, if any of our readers would prefer the use of “antisemitism” in any article they submit, just let us know and we will be happy to oblige.

— Christine DeSouza, news editor


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