anti-Semitism

In 2002, I asked Merriam-Webster about the history of the word “anti-Semitism.” I received the following reply.

Though no English dictionary I have looked in attributes this word to another language, a little investigation makes it clear that English anti–Semitism, anti–Semite, anti–Semitic, etc., as well as corresponding terms in other European languages (French anti-sémitisme, Russian antisemitizm, etc.), are all borrowings from German Antisemitismus, Antisemit, and antisemitisch, which first became widely current in Germany in the fall of 1879.

To understand how this word arose we have to look more generally at the history of prejudice against Jews in Western Europe. Up until the late 18th century anti–Jewish feeling was grounded mainly on perceptions of Jews as an unconvertible religious minority, the only non- Christians in a monochromatically Christian society. A number of developments led to fundamental changes in this view. The German historian A.L. Schlözer and the Biblical scholar J.G. Eichhorn began to use Semit “Semite” and semitisch “Semitic,” based on Biblical references to the progeny of Shem, as precise terms defining Semites as a group of ancient and modern peoples, and Semitic as a family of languages that included Hebrew and Arabic. Later, scholars drew a sharp distinction between the Semites and the Arians (German Arier), who were thought to be the ancestors of the Indo-European-speaking peoples of Europe. The Jews came to be regarded as descendants of one branch of the Semites, and hence a people or nation rather than a religious minority. It was typical of nineteenth-century Romantic conceptualizations of world history to attribute a Geist, or intellectual and cultural essence, to every nation. Not surprisingly, the pre-modern stereotype of the Jew as a usurer preoccupied with financial gain was assigned to Jews as a national characteristic. Jewishness as perceived by non–Jews in Western Europe was defined in a completely secular way, and early socialists, in particular Karl Marx—himself of Jewish heritage—identified Jewry with the rise of capitalism. Of course, the culmination of this reevaluation was the notion that someone born of Jewish parents was by definition a Jew, in other words, that Jews constituted not just a nation but a physical race.

It was in this context in the 1870s in Germany that Semit, Semitismus, and Semitentum began to be used as catchwords more or less synonymous with Jude (“Jew”) and Judentum (“Jewry” or “Jewishness”), as a fashionable if inexact way to characterize Jews as a supposed ethnic and racial group. Of course, in the discourse of politicians and publicists within German society ein Semit was unambiguously ein Jude, as Arabs and other Semitic peoples were hardly at issue.

What called forth the term Antisemitismus was a fairly specific set of historical circumstances. With the abolishment of all anti-Jewish legal restrictions in Prussia in 1869, Jews became increasingly prominent in civil society and the target of conservative hostility, as the putative prime exponents of everything considered “modern.” This hostility became more focused after the financial crash of 1873 and the general decline of German liberalism in the early years of the Second Reich. The actual first appearance of antisemitisch and Antisemit is datable to September, 1879, when the Berlin publicist Wilhelm Marr announced a new weekly newspaper with overtly anti-Jewish tendencies. Marr has been credited with coining the terms, but in his own writing he used only antijüdisch “anti–Jewish” until 1880; antisemitisch actually first appears in a Jewish newspaper commenting on the advertisements for Marr’s weekly. In any event, antisemitisch and Antisemit gained rapid currency in the ensuing months. Of course, Antisemitismus was not a term of opprobrium for those German conservatives who wanted to roll back Jewish emancipation, but simply defined a cultural and political movement. The word was quickly picked up by British and French journalists writing about Germany and extended more generally to anti–Jewish ideology. The perception of anti-Semitism as a word denoting something by its very nature reprehensible really only dates from the twentieth century. In English, at least, anti-Semitism works better than anti-Judaism, which seems to imply mere hostility toward a religion.

The entry for Antisemitismus in Paul’s Deutsches Wörterbuch (ninth edition, 1992) cites a much earlier use of German Antisemit, in 1822, with a reference to an article in Zeitschrift für deutsche Wortforschung (volume 8, page 2). Deutsches Wörterbuch also alludes to an occurrence of English anti-Semitic in the work of Thomas Carlyle in 1851 (“anti-Semitic street riots”), with a reference to an article in Zeitschrift für den deutschen Unterricht (volume 24, page 474). Unfortunately, I do not have access to either of these journals here in western Massachusetts, so I am unable to see in what context the words were used. At any rate, even if Antisemit and antisemitisch, with their correspondents in other languages, were not actually first coined in 1879, there is no question that their widespread use began in this year.

Curiously, in 1935 the Reichspropagandaministerum of the National Socialists who put into practice anti-Jewish measures surpassing even the wildest dreams of German conservatives in 1879 attempted to officially phase out antisemitisch in favor of antijüdisch. External political considerations most likely provided some of the motivation for this shift: the foreign policy planners of the Third Reich must have realized that the Arabs of North Africa and the Middle East, chafing under French and British rule, could have been potential allies of Germany in the event of conflict with France and Britain. The continued use of a policy label that seemed to imply hostility toward all Semitic-speaking peoples would not have won the Arabs’ favor.

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