(Boston College)

Anti-Semitism vs Antisemitism: The History of The Word for Jewish Hatred

Anti-Semitism is something most Jews will face in their life. Anti-Semitism is “the hostility or hatred towards Jewish people.” It manifests in numerous ways, from swastikas on school desks to the murders of Jews. All Jews are united in combating antisemitism. However, a recent scholarly debate has sparked discussion on how Jews should spell the term “antisemitism”. 

The term “anti-Semitism” was created in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German agitator who was using the word to describe the wave of propaganda campaigns against Jews in Germany at the time. But where did Marr get the word “Semitic” from? This word was also invented by a German, this time in 1781, as a way to describe people who spoke Middle Eastern languages. This means that an Arab citizen of Iraq is just as much a “Semite” as any Jewish person. The issue is that people deemed Semites could still hold hatred against Jews, as the label “Semite” extends beyond Jewish people. 

After Marr invented the term “anti-Semitism” to describe Jew-hatred, it spread rapidly across the Christian world. It was so popular because it aligned with the pseudo-racial theories of the time, which suggested that Jews were their own race, separate from white Europeans. The hyphen between “anti” and “Semitism” suggested that the racial classification of Jews was correct, which led to further othering of Jews in Europe. This racial classification is also associated with Nazi ideology. By inserting the hyphen, one could argue that the writer is effectively agreeing with the bogus science and hatred of the Nazi party. 

Because of this, many Jewish organizations have argued that we should remove the hyphen from the spelling of “anti-Semitism”. The International Holocaust Rememberance Alliance (IHRA), which created the Working Definition of Antisemitism, has endorsed this change. Other influential groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), have also altered their spelling of the term. It seems that this new spelling of “Anti-semitism” as “antisemitism” is gaining popularity. 

So, what should Jews do? Which spelling should we follow? From one perspective, the original spelling is just that, original. It is traditional. Members of older generations are accustomed to this spelling. Furthermore, will changing the spelling really defeat Neo-Nazis? After all, most of the modern world, including America, still utilize scientific data from Nazi experiments. Are Jews suddenly drawing the line at hyphens? It might seem like a waste of energy in the never-ending battle against Jew-hatred. 

However, Nazi Germany rose to power because small acts of hatred were ignored. And eventually, the hatred became too massive to combat. While this might seem like an outrageous comparison, Nazi Germany was centered on Jew-hatred. The spelling of the term is also a focal point of Jew-hatred. It might seem futile to alter the spelling of a centuries-old phrase, but the little victories accumulate. By winning this small fight, we can defeat another aspect of Nazi ideology. 

So, the spelling of “Anti-Semitism” versus “antisemitism” is a topic of immense debate. While it might seem like a waste of time and resources to switch the spelling, it might also seem inherently wrong to have a phrase associated with the biggest perpetrators of Jew-hatred be used to describe the act of hating Jews. Perhaps, a small alteration will be a way to dismiss another aspect of the wretched ideology that is Nazism. It might be time to be rid of tradition. Jews cannot alter past hatred, but perhaps we can reclaim the term used to describe it. 

Madison Tomaso is a homeschooled junior from Georgia. ​She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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