Decoding the word antisemitism: clarifying its meaning and origins

Antisemitism means hostility and discrimination against Jews.

In an endeavour to demean the word, and often done in an attempt to hide their own antisemitism, some people try to argue that “anti-Semite,” spelt using a hyphen, means prejudice against speakers of Semitic languages. For this reason, in 2015, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) addressed the problem surrounding the spelling to ensure people understood its true meaning.

The word Semitic was conceived in 1781 by August Ludwig von Schlözer derived from the name of one Noah’s three sons, Shem, who is referred to in the bible as the ancestor of the Semites. Today there are 77 Semitic languages and dialects, spoken by over 500 million people around the world, with Arabic speakers making up the vast majority.

The word Antisemite was coined by Austrian Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider in 1860 to counter the French philosopher Ernest Renan claims that Jews were an inferior race, but it was the German agitator Wilhelm Marr who popularised it when he formed a political organisation around his own racial, rather than religious, hatred of Jews.

To differentiate between his false beliefs that Jews were racially inferior to those who were opposed to Jews on religious grounds Marr believed he required a more ‘scientific’ word than ‘Judenhass’, so named his organisation the ‘League of Antisemites’.

By the 1900s Antisemitism applied to hatred of Jews on religious, racial, social, political and economic terms and was to become the most prominent policy of the Nazi Party, instilling anti-Jewish hatred throughout Germany.


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