April 03, 2004

Etymology and Bigotry

One of the most prominent forms of bigotry in the world today is Arab anti-Semitism. All forms of bigotry are evil, but Arab anti-Semitism is unusual at present in being so widespread, virulent, institutionalized, and socially acceptable. It is all too evident in the Arab press and in the pronouncements of both political and religious leaders. An excellent source is the Middle East Media Research Institute, which provides translations from the Arabic, Farsi, and Hebrew press. Or try the Hamas web site if you want to read genocidal bigotry from the horse's mouth.

It goes without saying that not all Arabs are anti-Semitic and that Arab anti-Semitism doesn't justify bigotry against Arabs, which has reared its ugly head in the United States in the past two years, but an all too common response to criticism of Arab anti-Semitism is to say that Arabs cannot be anti-Semitic because they too are Semites. A typical example can be found in this recent guest column by Samar Ali in the Vanderbilt Hustler, the student newspaper at Vanderbilt University.

Furthermore, being that all Arabs are Semites, it seems ludicrous to claim that Arab states produce anti-Semitic propaganda in hopes of destroying the Jewish people.
Another example is this piece in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram. It's true that anti-Semitism ought to mean "hatred of Semites", including Arabs. That's what we would expect from an analysis of the word into its components. But that isn't what it means. Since the term was coined in the late 19th century, it has been used with the specific meaning of "hatred of Jews". [Note: The OED gives 1881 as the first use of the term in English. German Antisemitismus appeared earlier, in 1880, in Wilhelm Marr's Zwanglose Antisemitische Hefte. He is said to have used the term for some years before it appeared in print.] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth edition, 2000) defines anti-Semitism as:
1.Hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism.
2.Discrimination against Jews.
Here are the definitions of anti-Semitism that Google found on the web:

prejudice against the Jewish people.

Attitudes and actions directed against the Jewish people.

Anti-Semitism is prejudice or discrimination against Jews, based on negative perceptions of their religious beliefs and/or on negative group stereotypes. Anti-Semitism can also be a form of racism, as when Nazis and others consider Jews an inferior "race."

Prejudice or discrimination against Jews.

Anti-Jewish prejudice. (See page(s) 292)

Discrimination against or persecution of the Jews because of their religious beliefs or race.

Hostility towards Jewish people.

A modern European racist ideology that first understands Jews as a race and second understands that race as inferior and degenerative of cultures in which Jews are assimilated.

Anti-Jewish prejudice. (p. 310)

Irrational hatred of the Jewish people.

the intense dislike for and prejudice against Jewish people

Every single one defines anti-Semitism as hatred of Jews, not of Semites in general. Etymology doesn't always determine meaning.

Frankly, I don't believe that very many of the people who make this argument don't know that anti-Semitism refers specifically to bigotry against Jews. Anybody who has ever looked the term up will know this, as will anybody who has discussed such issues much or studied the history of the 20th century. Assuming that this Vanderbilt Register story describes the same Samar Ali as the author of the guest opinion piece, she studied Political Science, was the President of the Student Government Association, and co-founded the Middle Eastern Students Association at Vanderbilt. With that background, I am hard put to believe that she doesn't know what anti-Semitism means.

But just for the sake of argument, let's assume that someone mistakenly but sincerely believes that anti-Semitism is hatred of all Semites, including Arabs. If this person is told that anti-Semitism is a problem among Arabs, with no other context, she would legitimately be puzzled. But in virtually any real situation, as in the case at hand, it is perfectly clear that the charge is that anti-Jewish bigotry is widespread among Arabs. In this situation, what are reasonable responses?

  • She might deny it, though this would be difficult in view of the overwhelming evidence;
  • She might acknowledge it and express regret.
But I submit that quibbling over the applicability of the term anti-Semitism is not among them. One might point this out in a footnote, but it isn't a legitimate response to the charge. Even if true, it isn't relevant.

When someone claims that Arabs can't be anti-Semites because Arabs are Semites too, she is sending out a red herring. She knows perfectly well that the charge concerns bigotry against Jews, is unable to deny it, and is unwilling to express regret. In short, it's an implicit admission of complicity.

Posted by Bill Poser at April 3, 2004 12:39 AM