Antisemitism vs anti-Semitism: What’s all the Fuss About a Hyphen? – Opinion
If you’ve read enough about anti-Jewish hate, you’ve probably noticed that no one can agree on how to spell the word: Is it anti-Semitism or antisemitism? But does the spelling really matter?
By SAM HYDE
If you’ve read enough about anti-Jewish hate, you’ve probably noticed that no one can agree on how to spell the word: Is it anti-Semitism or antisemitism? Just this past week, The New York Times acknowledged that it had quietly revised its style guide, deciding to drop the hyphen and officially spelling it as antisemitism.
But does the spelling really matter? Having covered anti-Jewish prejudice for a few years, I’m not convinced that it does.
To be clear, the term anti-Semitism is certainly problematic in a variety of ways. To begin with, the word was popularized by an anti-Jewish bigot named Wilhelm Marr. In 1879, Marr, a German nationalist, founded the League of Antisemites, Marr wanted to make his anti-Jewish prejudice sound more respectable and used anti-Semitism to suggest that Jews – “Semites” -belonged to an inferior race. This was the rhetoric and scientific thought that enabled atrocities like the Holocaust to be rationalized in the name of science and the pursuit of European glory just decades later.
The problem is not just that this word for anti-Jewish hate was popularized by a perpetrator rather than the victims, but that it easily lends itself to pedantic objections. Some critics claim that Jews are “not real Semites” a bigoted claim in and of itself as it leads to an erasure of Jewish history and identity. In the Arab world, conversely, others claim that they can’t be anti-Semitic because Arabs are also Semites.
All of this is an ahistorical distraction tactic. The term has never popularly referred to Arabs or other “Semites,” which is why the Dictionary.com definition of anti-Semitism reads: “discrimination against or prejudice or hostility toward Jews.” Anyone suggesting otherwise is at best ignorant, or at worst attempting to undermine discussions of anti-Jewish prejudice.
To counter such bad-faith objections, some scholars have advocated for removing the hyphen from anti-Semitism. By collapsing the term into a single word and removing the separate, oft-abused reference to “Semitism,” they hope to head off the semantic games before they start. Back in April, this movement scored a major victory when the Associated Press revised its influential journalism style guide accordingly.
These are important conversations to have and organizations, intellectuals, Jewish educational centers and journalists must lead the way in the updated spelling of the term. I worry however that such symbolic steps are a distraction from the more difficult task of combatting anti-Jewish hate. As much as we might wish otherwise, changing how we spell anti-Semitism is not actually going to reduce the problem, and so it’s not worth the level of attention it typically receives.
I’ve spent the past few years covering anti-Jewish hate and have seen firsthand that the version of the word I use has not altered the bad-faith responses I receive. Upon reflection, the reason for this is pretty simple: The problem isn’t the hyphen in anti-Semitism. The problem is that anti-Jewish hate has risen and become a socially acceptable and normalized expression in our society.
The hyphen is the excuse, not the cause and the adoption of the hyphen removal often lends itself as a free pass by media houses towards a kind of “performative” activism without changing the real issue at hand – The way in which they cover anti-Jewish hate or a lack thereof. Take the hyphen away, and online trolls will continue to make the same claims because their real aim is simply to dissimulate and divert.
Some critics of the word Islamophobia have employed similar linguistic gymnastics, contending that their prejudice is not a phobia, because it’s not irrational, or that their objections are to particular Muslims and not to Islam. But Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, is simply the word adopted by the targeted community to describe its experience of discrimination.
That’s reason enough for any decent person who is serious about fighting prejudice to use it. Those who mumble about how Jews aren’t the only Semites, like those who insist their Islamophobia is not a phobia, are simply playing semantic games to avoid confronting obvious prejudice and hate.