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Etymology and historical roots

Etymology and historical roots
Throughout the course we will consistently see how the unique characteristics of the phenomenon are expressed - its shape shifting quality, its metaphysicality, its cross-cultural and cross-societal nature, and so forth. Before we enter our exploration of the history of antisemitism, let’s first turn to the term itself. Though Jew-hatred in its various forms has a long history, the term used commonly today to denote hostility towards Jews is a relatively new one. When we try to understand the phenomenon of antisemitism, it is of course important to deal first with with the term itself. When did it emerge and what did it point to, and if we understand it today in the same way that it was understood when it was coined?
Now it is very important to remember that when new terms are coined, it’s the result of the feelings of people at a time that there is no other word to cover this new phenomenon, new tool. So the very fact that a term emerges points for us, as historians, that something happened. Now we know that the term antisemitism emerged in the 1870s, and it was usually attributed to a German journalist, Wilhelm Marr. Apparently it was coined a little bit earlier, but during the 1870s it was first used by Wilhelm Mar in a pamphlet that was published in 1879.
Now this points to the fact that something in the 1870s, in Germany at least, there was something new according to the people who coined it, and it was coined by antisemites. Now there are three parts in this word, and I think that’s important to remember. We have “anti.” We have “semit” and we have “ism” or “ismus” as it was in German. “Anti” came as a replacement for hatred. That means that it is apparently less psychological. “Semit” came instead of Jews and Judaism. This part of “semit” of “semitism” was actually a term which was used at a time and came up within the context of scholarly research in linguistics - “Semitic” languages.
And the assumption was that if there are languages that are different, also the way of thinking and the nature of the people who are talking these languages is different. And therefore versus Aryan people and Romance languages, there are Semitic languages and Semitic peoples. And the Semites per se, as they were represented in Europe, were the Jews. So therefore this replaced the term Jews, but it had to do with racial theories of the time, which also crystallized in the mid-19th century. They perceived themselves as being anti-Jewish, but based on scientific considerations, and that is therefore an expression of the Zeitgeist, of the feelings, the spirit of the time.
And “ism” points to the fact that it was interpreted as a school, a movement, an idea and also an explanation, because we should situate it in a period when we had the emergence of liberalism, socialism, communism, and so on. We have of course also academic or intellectual schools - behaviorism and so on. So antisemitism emerges in the context of that period, when all kinds of “isms” emerged, and it is an attempt to give anti-Judaism and anti-Jewishness a more academic intellectual face and not as something which is the result of emotions.
Now it is interesting that within a very short time after it was coined, it was taken over by all kinds of anti-Judaisms, also Christian ones and socialist ones and so on. And that raises of course the question if we can use the term also for other types of anti-Judaism.

Prof. Dan Michman

Though Jew-hatred in its various forms has a long history, the term used commonly today to denote hostility towards Jews, is a relatively new one.

What are the origins of the term “antisemitism”? Who coined it and why?


  • Katz, Jacob, From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (Cambridge, M.A. Harvard University Press, 1980).

  • Langmuir, Gavin I., Toward a Definition of Antisemitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

  • Laqueur, Walter, The Changing Face of Antisemitism: From Ancient Times to the Present Day (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

  • Levy, Richard S., Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005).

  • Poliakov, Léon, The History of Anti-Semitism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003).

  • Volkov, Shulamit, “Antisemitism as a Cultural Code: Reflections on the History and Historiography of Antisemitism in Imperial Germany,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook, vol. 23 (1978), pp. 25 – 46.

  • Zimmermann, Moshe, Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-semitism (Studies in Jewish History) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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