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The Case for Antisemitism (the Spelling)

San Diego Jewish World

Jacob Kamaras

January 14, 2022

One of the most important decisions I needed to make upon recently taking ownership of the San Diego Jewish World was, how should we spell antisemitism?

The prior sentence should tell you everything you need to know about my decision. Nevertheless, here’s the story behind the style choice.

In August 2021, The Associated Press (AP) announced a style change from “anti-Semitism” to “antisemitism,” which is notable because news outlets largely adhere to the set of linguistic and grammatical guidelines known as “AP style.” And in December, The New York Times — long considered a “newspaper of record” in the U.S. and worldwide — followed suit.

Personally, unlike many of my peers in the journalism industry, I never accepted AP style as gospel simply because “the AP said so.” That said, the AP’s change falls in line with the spelling long advocated by various organizations and experts. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) states that “the hyphenated spelling allows for the possibility of something called ‘Semitism,’ which not only legitimizes a form of pseudo-scientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by association with Nazi ideology, but also divides the term, stripping it from its meaning of opposition and hatred toward Jews.”

“The philological term ‘Semitic’ referred to a family of languages originating in the Middle East whose descendant languages today are spoken by millions of people mostly across Western Asia and North Africa,” the IHRA adds. “Following this semantic logic, the conjunction of the prefix ‘anti’ with ‘Semitism’ indicates antisemitism as referring to all people who speak Semitic languages or to all those classified as ‘Semites.’ The term has, however, since its inception referred to prejudice against Jews alone.”

Similarly, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) explains that the word ‘Semitic’ was “first used by a German historian in 1781 to bind together languages of Middle Eastern origin that have some linguistic similarities. The speakers of those languages, however, do not otherwise have shared heritage or history. There is no such thing as a Semitic peoplehood. Additionally, one could speak a Semitic language and still have anti-Semitic views.“

“And in 1879, German journalist Wilhelm Marr coined “Antisemitismus” to mean hatred of the Jewish ‘race,’ adding racial and pseudo-scientific overtones to the animus behind the word,” the ADL continues. “But hatred toward Jews, both today and in the past, goes beyond any false perception of a Jewish race; it is wrapped up in complicated historical, political, religious, and social dynamics.”

Carly Gammill, director of the StandWithUs (SWU) Center for Combating Antisemitism, tells me that the non-hyphenated spelling “is favored by many engaged in the fight against antisemitism, including the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, because it helps provide clarity about an often-misunderstood form of hate. Antisemitism is not merely opposition to a broad group of ‘Semites’ or an idea called ‘Semitism,’ but is, without question, bigotry that specifically targets Jews. Because clarity and consensus are of crucial importance in this battle, SWU now uses this spelling as well.”

On the other side of the debate, a fellow copy editor who wished to remain anonymous (as most copy editors do) asks that, if the “antisemitism” spelling were adopted, “Do we then lowercase terms like holocaust (not the general noun), zionism (antizionism), antidefamation?”

Kenneth L. Marcus, former assistant U.S. secretary of education for civil rights and author of the book The Definition of Anti-Semitism, also laments the instance when “the hyphen is removed from ‘anti-Semitism’ but not its handmaiden, ‘anti-Zionism.’”

“Some say that anti-Semitism refers to discrimination against ‘Jews as Jews,’ while anti-Zionism means opposition to Zionists as Zionists. They are wrong about both,” Marcus writes for JTA. “Anti-Semitism opposes Jews based on false stereotypes and gross fantasies. It hates Jews not as Jews but as monsters whose villainy is concocted by the haters. In the same way, anti-Zionism hates Zionists not as Zionists but as figments of the haters’ imaginations. Zionism can be many things: a political ideology, the yearning of a people for return to a land, the Diaspora’s support for Israel’s security. But it never means the murderous, world-dominating conspiracy that its opponents fantasize about. The hyphen in ‘anti-Zionists’ wrongly suggests that such people oppose what Zionism really is, as opposed to what they imagine it to be.”

Noted journalist Yair Rosenberg, meanwhile, writes for The Atlantic that “symbolic steps” such as spelling changes “are actually a distraction from the more difficult task of combatting anti-Semitism. As much as we might wish otherwise, changing how we spell anti-Semitism is not actually going to reduce anti-Semitism, and so it’s not worth the level of attention it typically receives.”

Yikes. Two Jews, three opinions. So, what does all this mean for the style guide at the San Diego Jewish World? Our publication’s founder and editor emeritus, Donald Harrison, says, “I find myself in agreement with the idea that there really is no such thing as ‘Semitism,’ so why have a capital letter for it? How can one be anti something that doesn’t exist? Given that the word, as a whole, is taken to mean ‘hatred of Jews,’ let’s just use it that way, without hyphen or capital letter.”

Although I’d been using “anti-Semitism” for most of my writing career, I find no compelling reason to change Harrison’s “antisemitism” style choice. Aside from the historical arguments at play, Rosenberg, in explaining why changing the spelling of “anti-Semitism” won’t help combat Jew-hatred, makes the case for maintaining the “antisemitism” spelling on our website.

“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,” he writes. “Sadly, changing the word is not going to change these people’s minds.”

Read the full article here.


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