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‘Semite,’ ‘anti-Semitism’: two different things

The dowager queen 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 proceeded to record the dictionary’s three definitions of the word Semite.

Clearly, this is an effort to mitigate Jews’ pain as victims of hate directed at them, and instead neutralize us all as one big Semitic group who all have similar experiences.

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

Additionally, Queen Noor Al Hussein of Jordan herself is an American, the daughter of Americans.

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

Wikipedia addresses this very issue within its own written definition of 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 and 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 single out and promote anti-Jewish sentiment in Central Europe. Themes in his writing feature part of what eventually became Nazi racial theory. In this sense, Wilhelm Marr was an architect of Nazi theory.

Toward the end of his life, he was riddled with regret. He 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.

If the polite and sanitizing sounding anti-Semitism, with the word “Semite” incorporated into it, is bothersome to Queen Noor Al Hussein, by all means she can simply call it what it is: Jew hatred.

I suppose what would have been more meaningful though, would have been a tweet taking a stand against the content of the phrase i.e., against Jew hatred, rather than addressing the etymological aspects of the phrase! If you’re already going to raise the issue of anti-Semitism, wouldn’t it make sense to address its inherent definition as the unacceptable social ill that it is?

But returning to that word Semite again, it seems that Hitler didn’t conform with the Merriam Webster definition of Semite that Queen Noor cites. After all, Hitler collaborated with the famous Semite, the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin El Husseini, against the Jews. So it seems that anti-Semitism and Semite are indeed two different things.

I truly am baffled by the desire to try to conflate all Semites under the experience of anti-Semitism. In today’s twisted trends of lauding victimhood, suddenly anti-Semitism is a badge of honor? Versus the profound symbol of pain that it bleeds? Suddenly there is a sense of being excluded from a victim’s historic experience and reality?

No, Semites were not taken to Auschwitz. That’s not what the Holocaust was about. Anti-Semitism is not some neutral description of descendants from Asia or the Middle East.

Anti-Semitism is Jew hatred. Plain and simple.

When claims from the left or the right centering around language of what Jews are, be it Queen Noor’s focus on the word Semite or others’ troubling linking of Jews with “white privilege,” it is one and the same. Two sides of one coin. It is an attempt to remove the particularistic nature of the Jewish story.

In a recent article by Abe Greenwald, he 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 Queen Noor raised this issue. Anti-Semitism, real anti-Semitism, truly is baffling. Why hate someone for hate’s sake? Only next time, I hope Queen Noor will address the content of the issue, rather than limit herself to the superficial dimension, its linguistic aspect.

Please, Queen Noor, come on board in standing against anti-Semitism.

Real anti-Semitism.

Without confusing the word Semite in the context of anti-Semitism for a geographic or ethnic meaning.

One final 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 a tweet from Queen Noor clarifying this.

And hope that in the future we can all find common ground — instead of tweets centering on hatred, tweets centering on love. In other words, I hope we can use the word Semite in a unifying rather than a dividing way.

Copyright © 2018 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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