Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Origin of the Word Anti-Semitism

Today, January 22, has been earmarked for an informal meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the growth of anti-Semitism. It would be impossible for Jewish Treats, in its limited 300 word form, to discuss the history of anti-Semitism* or even the proposed causes for it. Jewish Treats will, however, provide the interesting history of the word anti-Semitism.

The term Semite, which was first used in 1781 to define languages related to Hebrew, initially referred to people of Near East origin. The word Semite is derived from the name Shem, the son of Noah. Abraham was a descendant of Shem. While there are varying groups who can be termed Semitic, anti-Semitism is specifically the hatred and persecution of Jews.

“Anti-Semitism” came about (in its Germanic form) in the mid-nineteenth century. In 1860, an Austrian Jewish scholar, Moritz Steinschneider, introduced the term antisemitische vorurteile (anti-Semitic prejudices). He used the expression in a piece he wrote countering the ideas of French philosopher Ernest Renan, who claimed that the Semitic race was inferior to the Aryan race.

The term anti-Semitism was made common by Wilhelm Marr, a German publicist and agitator. Unfortunately, his 1879 pamphlet, “The Way to Victory of Germanism over Judaism,” in which he used the term Antisemitismus, was very popular. That same year, Marr founded the League of Antisemites. It is interesting to note that Marr’s first three wives (he was married four times) were all of Jewish lineage and that, in 1891, he published an essay titled “Testament of an Antisemite,” apologizing for his mistaken anti-Semitic notions.

*There are two schools of thought on whether this term should be hyphenated or not. In America it is most common to hyphenate it, and so it is hyphenated in this Treat.

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