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A problematic term?

A problematic term?
The term antisemitism itself, which as we have seen was coined in the specific context of the late 19th century in Germany, poses several problems that require elaboration and exploration. To begin with, since the term was coined to present Jew-hatred in a more socially legitimate and scientific light, it conceals the fact that the targets of this hatred were actually Jews. Instead it purports to oppose “semitism”, a meaningless term borrowed, as Professor Michman explained, from the realm of linguistics. The self-styled antisemites used the word, which was supposed to apply to language use rather than origin, in a racial way. Thus “semitism” referred to an imagined non-existent Semitic “race”.
In addition, this misleading definition of the word makes it sound as if antisemitism denotes a hostility against all those speaking Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Amharic. However from its earliest usages it was patently clear that antisemitism denoted a hatred of the Jews alone, and that no other group was included in it. Beyond this semantic issue, the term antisemitism poses additional problems. A major question that arises is whether it is correct to use a word that was coined in the specific context of Europe in the late 19th century when dealing with an apparently wide range of seemingly disparate anti-Jewish feelings, acts, rhetoric, and perceptions.
Is it not problematic to use the same term when addressing hostility towards Jews in 1930s Europe and when addressing it in the Middle Ages? Does it imply that there is a connection between these phenomena? Let’s hear more about this and other problems the usage of the term antisemitism may pose. So the question is what is the utility of the term antisemitism? And there are two kinds of objections to it. The first is that antisemitism is a kind of sledgehammer term for something that requires far more detailed and nuanced examination.
It doesn’t, for example, take into account differences between what might be called “rational” and “irrational” hostility towards Jews, and it doesn’t take into account the immensely varied mutations of irrational hatred towards Jews across millennia and so on. That’s one kind of problem. The other kind of problem is that antisemitism has a kind of ideological value as a term and it’s enlisted in political arguments in a way which is intended more to sloganize than to neutrally describe realities. The objections to the use of the term antisemitism have generated much scholarly and public debate. There are those who avoid usage of the term completely. Some instead, use terms such as Judeophobia, Jew-hatred, anti-Jewishness and so forth.
There are others who use the term together with a specific adjective in order to differentiate between a variety of time periods, ideologies, cultures, and expressions. Thus they refer to Traditional Antisemitism, Minor Antisemitism, Genocidal Antisemitism, Redemptive Antisemitism, and Racial Antisemitism among others. Let’s ask ourselves - what is then the utility of the term antisemitism when dealing with the history of Jew-hatred? My own view is that the term has continuing utility. People understand what it means and of course if it’s used without further elaboration, then it can be misused.
But to altogether deny access to it, use of it, is to surrender an argument which is very important, and that argument is that Jews are the object of a particularly and specifically irrational hatred, which is of a character which is unusual to them. If we dissolve the term antisemitism into a broader term, such as racism or the more obscure term heterophobia, hatred of the other, then we lose that historical specificity. There is a general subject of Jew-hatred and the word antisemitism has come to denote that idea of Jew-hatred. So essentially it’s more how people understand the term, as opposed to what it might intrinsically mean. Jew-hatred’s changed over the centuries of course. It’s deeply rooted and it’s changed.
It’s been religious. It’s been social. It’s had racial ideas in it, political ideas. It’s changed but again there are some constants to it, and the main constant has always been that the Jew is different from the rest of us, from us. He’s the outsider. He’s the consummate outsider. I think that’s a constant in all of the ideas of Jew-hatred. So we can certainly use the term antisemitism. We have to understand that it’s not the perfect term. As Prof. Julius and Dr. Rozett state, even if there was no direct relation between the various manifestations of anti-Jewish animosity across time and space, one cannot ignore the common object of hatred of these seemingly disparate phenomenon - the Jews.
Moreover, as will become clear to us throughout the course, the perception of the Jews as ultimate “others”, together with shared and interconnected stereotypes, canards, and hostile imagery, appear to stand at the basis of this hatred’s various expressions. This is not to say that all manifestations of this hatred are alike, as each is greatly affected by specific factors that change according to period and society. The commonalities however are many and crucial. Before we turn to explore the roots and expressions of antisemitism, let’s take a moment to better acquaint ourselves with its target - the Jews.

Prof. Anthony Julius, Dr. Robert Rozett

Over the years, scholars of antisemitism have noted that the usage of the term “antisemitism” poses several problems. What are these and how should they be dealt with when exploring this hatred’s past and current expressions?

What do you think is the utility of the term “antisemitism” when dealing with the history of Jew-hatred?


  • Beller, Steven, Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

  • Engel, David, “Away from a Definition of Antisemitism,” in Jeremey Cohen, Jeremy and Moshe Rosman, eds., Rethinking European Jewish History (Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2009), pp.30 – 53.

  • Julius, Anthony, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  • Lewis, Bernard, Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986).

  • Lindemann, Albert and Richard S. Levy, eds., Antisemitism: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

  • Wistrich, Roberst S., Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (New York: Pantheon Books, 1991).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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