RACIST ROOTS OF THE WORD ANTI-SEMITISM

The very term used to de­scribe the prej­u­dice is it­self born of prej­u­dice. PETER TRUDGILL ex­plains

The New European - - Eurofile Language -

One of the most anti-jewish words in the English lan­guage is anti-semitic. In terms of the his­tory of our lan­guage it’s a rather new word – no one used it un­til about 140 years ago. The term, as is well known, is used to ap­ply to peo­ple who demon­strate prej­u­dice against or hos­til­ity to­wards Jews as an eth­nic or re­li­gious group (a phe­nom­e­non much older than 140 years, of course).

But why do we call this form of racism ‘anti-semitic’ rather than us­ing the more ob­vi­ous phrase anti-jewish? Hos­til­ity to Catholics is called anti-catholi­cism. Those who demon­strate ha­tred or fear of Ir­ish peo­ple as an eth­nic group are la­belled anti-ir­ish. Anti-amer­i­can­ism is an­other well-known la­bel for a form of prej­u­dice and hos­til­ity. So what is the point of us­ing ‘anti-semitism’ as a la­bel? If cer­tain nar­row-mind­edly big­oted peo­ple are anti-jewish, then why don’t we just say so?

What seems to have hap­pened is that in racist Vic­to­rian Eng­land, Jewish peo­ple were dis­crim­i­nated against and looked down upon as be­ing in­fe­rior, in much the same way that peo­ple of sub-sa­ha­ran Africa ori­gin were also dis­crim­i­nated against. In­deed, sadly, this dis­grace­ful an­tiJewish prej­u­dice did not dis­ap­pear with the demise of Her Majesty Queen Vic­to­ria. Within rather re­cent liv­ing mem­ory there were golf clubs in Bri­tain which re­fused to ac­cept Jewish peo­ple as mem­bers, and Jews have suf­fered many other forms of ex­clu­sion. They were not al­lowed to be­come MPS un­til 1858; and the ca­reer of Ben­jamin Dis­raeli, in­set, prime min­is­ter in 1868 and again from 1874 to 1880, ben­e­fited from the fact that he was bap­tised at the age of 12.

This dis­crim­i­na­tion and prej­u­dice had lin­guis­tic con­se­quences: in the racist cli­mate of Vic­to­rian times, the word Jew quite naturally ac­quired neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tions, and peo­ple be­came un­com­fort­able us­ing the term, as if it was not very po­lite to draw at­ten­tion to the fact that some peo­ple had the mis­for­tune to be Jewish. Some English­s­peak­ing peo­ple to­day still avoid say­ing “s/he’s a Jew”, pre­fer­ring in­stead to say “s/he’s Jewish”.

The same thing was true of the word black as ap­plied to peo­ple of sub-sa­ha­ran African ori­gin. This term came too to be avoided, and it was only rather re­cently that we stopped us­ing the words Ne­gro and Coloured as eu­phemisms for re­fer­ring to black peo­ple.

In the 19th cen­tury, English speak­ers sim­i­larly de­vel­oped eu­phemisms for Jew, notably Is­raelite and Semite; but in our mod­ern age of di­ver­sity and equal­ity, we should have no longer have any need for em­bar­rass­ing, twisted pseu­doe­uphemisms based on ‘Semite’ such as Semitic and anti-semitic.

There is also an­other good rea­son to get rid of the term ‘anti-semitic’: Semitic, used in this way, is a highly in­ac­cu­rate term. The Semitic peo­ples of the Mid­dle East his­tor­i­cally spoke lan­guages which de­scended from the Proto-semitic lan­guage. These in­cluded, yes, He­brew the an­cient lan­guage of the Jews; but also Ara­maic, Akka­dian, Assyr­ian, Syr­iac, Phoeni­cian, Moabite, and Ugaritic, with the Semitic lan­guage of Carthage, Pu­nic, be­ing a va­ri­ety de­rived from Phoeni­cian. Most of the Semitic peo­ples, in other words, were not Jews.

Mod­ern Semitic lan­guages in­clude the Ethiopian lan­guage Amharic, which has about 17 mil­lion speak­ers, most of them Chris­tians; Ti­grinya, a lan­guage with about six mil­lion (again, mainly Chris­tian) speak­ers in Ethiopia and Eritrea; and Ti­gre, which has a mil­lion speak­ers, mostly in Eritrea. There are also a num­ber of South Ara­bian lan­guages, which are re­lated to the Ethiopian lan­guages and are spo­ken along the south­ern edge of the Ara­bian penin­sula in Ye­men and Oman, such as Mehri, Har­susi, Hobyot, Jib­bali, and So­cotri.

But the largest Semitic lan­guage is Ara­bic, which has well over 300 mil­lion speak­ers, with per­haps around 20 mil­lion of them be­ing Chris­tians, in­clud­ing many Pales­tini­ans. Mal­tese, an indige­nous Eu­ro­pean Semitic lan­guage, is also his­tor­i­cally a va­ri­ety of Ara­bic, but now con­sti­tutes a sep­a­rate lan­guage.

The fact is that the Ti­grinyan and

Ti­gre peo­ple of Ethiopia are just as much Semites as the Jews. And so too are the Arabs.

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