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Is it ‘anti-Semitic’ to acknowledge that Arabs are Semites too?

December 8, 2023 at 9:16 am

People, including a young woman holding a sign that reads:” Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism,” chant slogans and carry Palestinian flags as they arrive at Potsdamer Platz during a “Freedom for Palestine” protest march that drew thousands of participants on November 04, 2023 in Berlin, Germany. [Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

As with every, almost annual Israeli war against the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip, efforts to counter protests and dissent against the atrocities of the occupation state frequently resort to labelling such opposition as “anti-Semitism”. This is consistent, they say, with the guidelines of the 2016 International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) “non-legally binding working definition” of the term: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred of Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed at Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

To overcome the confusion of the definition, in 2019, hundreds of academics and subject specialists set out the Jerusalem Declaration, which stipulates that “evidence-based criticism” of Israel is legitimate, while it is not anti-Semitic to oppose “its policies and practises” including those in Gaza and the occupied West Bank.

Yet the current war on Gaza has proven to be unprecedented both in terms of its devastating, genocidal scale, but also in its global repercussions. Pro-Palestinian solidarity and activism has surged worldwide, and awareness of the cause and the oppression by Israel has reached levels not seen before, including among young American Jews.

Consequently, this has been met with intensified propaganda campaigns aimed at equating all criticism of Israel and Zionism as anti-Semitic. Amid a failing and largely discredited PR effort, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has even hinted at anti-Semitism, due to reasonable scepticism over rape allegations pushed by the Israeli establishment.

READ: German human rights group calls pro-Palestine demonstration ban ‘highly problematic’

In the US, the chief supporter and enabler of the genocide taking place in Gaza, the House of Representatives has passed a measure equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, aimed at addressing the “drastic rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world”.

While Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, who has promised to redefine the official federal definition of anti-Semitism to include anti-Zionism, on Wednesday in an unsubstantiated claim, said watching TikTok made people “17 per cent more antisemitic, more pro-Hamas” every 30 minutes.

Nevertheless, it is significant that, like with other terms, anti-Semitism is still liable to evolve. Dictionaries, after all, merely record the current usage of words – “if a new definition appears, and stays around, it should be recorded,” noted an article in the Telegraph last year, on the controversies over the redefinition of gender in dictionaries.

Therefore, isn’t it time that anti-Semitism is updated to reflect a more accurate definition, one that includes all Semitic peoples?

“‘Anti-Semitism’, we have seen, was an invented term whose meaning changed over time,” wrote David Feldman on the history of the term.

The term “Semite” has its roots in 19th-century philology, at a time when scholars became increasingly interested in classifying and comparing languages. One of the key figures in this field was August Ludwig von Schloezer, a German historian and philologist, who introduced the term “Semitic” in the late 18th century.

This was used to refer to a language family that includes the likes of Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian and others. The term “Semite” itself is derived from Shem, one of the sons of the Prophet Noah, and it was used to denote the descendants of Shem, notable among them being the Prophet Abraham, from whom both Jews and Arabs claim descent.

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Given that Arabic is the most widely spoken Semitic language and Arabs constitute the largest Semitic population, it seems reasonable to include them in a literal interpretation of the term “anti-Semitic”, surely?

With regards to reference to Jews, there are alternative terms, such as “Jew-hatred” or “Judeophobia”. If this will be the case, then a specific term should be used to denote hatred towards Arabs. Until then, anti-Semitism should either address all Semitic groups or more appropriate and contemporary phrases should be adopted.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica on “anti-Semitism” had previously stated that the “Although the term now has wide currency, it is a misnomer, since it implies a discrimination against all Semites. Arabs and other peoples are also Semites, and yet they are not the targets of anti-Semitism as it is usually understood.”

The term “is especially inappropriate as a label for the anti-Jewish prejudices, statements, or actions of Arabs or other Semites,” it explained.

The text doesn’t appear on the latest entry on the website. This may be due to opposition expressed last year by Campaign Against Antisemitism, which took issue with the encyclopaedia “misspelling” anti-Semitism by omitting the hyphen and accusing it of “committing an etymological fallacy.”

“The result is the antisemitic trope that ‘Semites’ cannot hate Jews. This is ignorant and dangerous, and we shall be writing to Encyclopedia Britannica to correct this error urgently,” a spokesperson for the organisation said.

At the time, the Jerusalem Post, described the online entry as not offering “an alternative term for prejudice by Arabs and Semitic people against Jews.”

Currently, the online Oxford Reference defines “anti-Semitism” as: “Hostility towards and discrimination against Jewish people (although there are other Semitic peoples, notably the Arabs, anti‐Semitism is only used to refer to prejudice against Jewish people),” although time will tell, if this page will also be revised, ironically, lest it be accused of being “antisemitic.”

The issue of Arabs being recognised as Semites has significant consequences and, unsurprisingly, along with the propaganda war being waged in relation to Israel’s war on Gaza, wider public interest and curiosity has led to renewed debate on the matter.

READ: Ex-French PM Villepin highlights validity of Israel criticism without anti-Semitism

Just as Palestinian resistance factions, or other Arabs in general, have been accused of being anti-Semitic, should Arabs be rightly accepted as falling under the definition, one could also argue that the genocide taking place in Gaza, is also anti-Semitic.

It gets even more complex, when anti-Zionist, Orthodox Jews accuse the Israeli establishment and security forces of being anti-Semitic, over raids on their communities and synagogues. Additionally, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came under fire in September for not only mentioning anti-Jewish talking points, but also stating that the only Jews who are “Semites” are the ones from the Middle East, the Mizrahi and Sephardi.

Moreover, the overuse and misapplication of labels and accusations of “anti-Semitism” can dilute the term’s original meaning of Jew hatred. This is particularly true when the term is weaponised or misused. Last year, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, said in a televised interview with PBS, on the rise of anti-Semitism in the US and the West: “The right accuses the left of being against the Jewish State, and therefore, somehow anti- Semitic. The left accuses the right of being, you know, prejudiced to the core and therefore anti-Semitic. And the term almost loses meaning when both sides are using it against each other in a way where flaunting conspiracies and wild accusations, the weaponisation of anti-Semitism.”

Furthermore, a younger generation of Jews in the West is less supportive of Zionism, leading them to view criticism of Israel as separate from anti-Semitism.

Before we can even consider serious steps towards revising a politically-charged and sensitive term, and before Arabs can be acknowledged as Semites, they will need to stop being dehumanised. This is both by the occupation state, but also by its western allies who justify and cover its ongoing ethnic cleansing and attempts to bring about another Nakba.

READ: US sees another pro-Israel vote as House says ‘anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism’

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.