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Semites and anti-Semitism


The queen dowager of Jordan, Noor Al Hussein, tweeted: “#Semite. Definition from Merriam-Webster dictionary. How it has been coopted for so long to exclude all but one group has always baffled me.”

She then recorded the dictionary’s three definitions of the word Semite.

Clearly, this is an effort to mitigate Jews’ pain as victims of hate, and instead neutralize us as part of one big Semitic group.

While Queen Noor Al-Hussein of Jordan is a distinguished philanthropist as well as an author, and has no doubt accomplished much good for her country and perhaps the world, what baffles me is the disturbing, surprisingly simplistic and historically inaccurate assertion of her tweet.

The fundamental problem with her tweet is that she connects the definition of “Semite” to “anti-Semitism.” While the words are semantically linked and one can see the genesis of a misunderstanding, they are in fact two different things.

Wikipedia addresses this very issue in its article on anti-Semitism: “The root word Semite gives the false impression that anti-Semitism is directed against all Semitic people, e.g., including Arabs and Assyrians. The compound word anti-Semite was popularized in Germany in 1879 as a scientific sounding term for Judenhass (‘Jew-hatred’), and this has been its common use since then.”

Semite and anti-Semitism: two different things. Nothing like cloaking plain old Jew hatred with a polite, scientific phrase. That’s all anti-Semitism really is.

The phrase “anti-Semitism” was coined in 1879 by German agitator Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Marr in an effort to promote anti-Jewish sentiment in Central Europe. Themes in his writing foreshadow Nazi racial theory. In this sense, he was its architect. But toward the end of his life, he was riddled with regret and even “openly requested the Jews’ pardon.”

Let’s be honest. Although the phrase “anti-Semitism” may have been coined by Marr in the 1800s, the hate itself is as old as time. And if the sanitized word is bothersome to Queen Noor Al-Hussein, she can simply call it what it is: Jew hatred.

What would have been more meaningful would have been a tweet taking a stand against Jew hatred itself, rather than the etymological aspects of the phrase. If you’re going to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, wouldn’t it make sense to address it as the unacceptable social ill that it is?

But returning to that word, Semite, it seems that Hitler didn’t conform to the Merriam-Webster definition that Queen Noor cites. After all, Hitler collaborated with a famous Semite — the Mufti of Jerusalem — against the Jews. It seems that Semites and anti-Semitism are two unrelated things.

am baffled by the desire to conflate all Semites as experiencing anti-Semitism. Is it a badge of honor, rather than a profound symbol of bleeding pain? Is there is a sense of exclusion from victims’ historic experience and reality?

No, Semites were not taken to Auschwitz. The Holocaust did not target Semites. Anti-Semitism is not a neutral description of hating people of Asian or Middle Eastern descent.

Anti-Semitism is Jew hatred. Plain and simple.

Claims from the left or the right center around what Jews are, whether it’s Queen Noor focusing on the word Semite or others’ troubling attribution of “white privilege” to Jews. They are two sides of one coin — an attempt to erase the uniqueness of the Jewish story.

In a recent article, Abe Greenwald articulated this complexity perfectly:

“The Jew is hated as whatever the anti-Semite holds responsible for his own misfortune. If you are a capitalist, the Jew is a Communist; if you are a Communist, the Jew is a capitalist. If you are a pacifist, the Jew is a warmonger. If you are a warrior, the Jew is a coward. Depending on your circumstance, the Jew can be grimy or snobbish, rootless or nationalist, invader or separatist. And if 100 years ago American bigots saw Jews as Asiatic cross-breeds, today bigots see them as ‘hyper white.’

“If you want to know what a culture considers most problematic, look at its brand of anti-Semitism. When you have headlines about ‘white privilege’ and ‘evil white men,’ Jews become the epitome of whiteness, except, of course, for Neo-Nazis, who see Jews as hyper-integrationists.”

I’m glad the queen raised this issue. Anti-Semitism, real anti-Semitism, truly is baffling. Why hate someone for hate’s sake? Next time, I hope she will address the content of the issue, rather than limit herself to its most superficial dimension.

Please, Queen Noor, come on board. Stand against anti-Semitism — real anti-Semitism. Without confusing the word for a geographic or ethnic meaning.

For the last time: Semite and anti-Semitism are two entirely separate things.

Friedrich Wilhelm Adolph Marr coined the term as a sanitized version for Jew hatred.

I welcome clarification from the queen, and hope that in the future we can all find common ground, with tweets centering on love, rather than hate — in other words, that we can use the word Semite to unify, rather than divide.

Copyright Intermountain Jewish News