A note on vocabulary

Some of the vocabulary related to this discussion isn’t completely satisfactory, but it’s not necessary to get bogged down in endless Socratic debate over dictionary definitions when it should be quite clear what I’m talking about.

The definition of “anti-Semitism” in the dictionary on my Mac — based on the Oxford Concise — is unambiguous: “noun; hostility to or prejudice against Jews.” That is the definition in its entirety; it’s also what I mean by it.

It is argued sometimes that the word is unsatisfactory because Arabic is also a Semitic language and Arabs are therefore also Semites. This is simply another way of saying that the anti-Semitic pamphleteer Wilhelm Marr, who gave the world the term in his popular anti-Jewish (but not anti-Arab) screed “Antisemitizmus” in 1877, made a stupid category error when casting about for a scientific-sounding euphemism for “Damn I hate the Jews.” I am unpersuaded that there is any serious contention about what the word “anti-Semitism” means in this regard, and note in particular that the same dictionary I mentioned above does not even have an entry for what we’re sometimes told should be the preferred circumlocution, “Judeophobia.” By excluding Arabs from the definition of “anti-Semitism” I don’t mean to imply that they too are not victims of prejudice, just that there’s another perfectly acceptable and widely accepted word for it: “Islamophobia.”

When I call anti-Semitism “racism,” I don’t mean to say that I consider the Jews a race per se, but that I consider prejudice against Jews to be so analogous to racism that the term is, if not a perfect fit, certainly not a very wrong one. One sometimes hears “Anti-Semitism isn’t really racism because the Jews are not a race” — and it has the distinct timbre of at worst a straw man and at best a largely irrelevant one.

Neither, however, is it absolutely wrong to consider the Jews *not* a race. The peculiar nature of Jewish history — survival in exile through most of recorded history — makes the usual markers of identity problematic. Jews are and are not a race; they are and are not a religion; they are and are not a cultural tradition; and so on. One can become a Jew by converting to Judaism, for example (Marilyn Monroe did), but there are also genetic diseases like Tay-Sachs highly correlated with Jews. I don’t think it’s a useful exercise to demand that anyone come down on one side of the line or the other on any of these terms, since on whichever side you choose, there are substantial reasons to chose the other side as well.

I think we all know what these terms mean with sufficient clarity to proceed without substantial confusion, and I especially don’t see absolute, chapter-and-verse agreement on these terms as a necessary precursor to discussion anti-Semitism.


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