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By Toni L. Kamins

Modern dictionaries define anti-Semitism as “hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group” [Merriam-Webster] or “hostility toward or prejudice against Jews or Judaism … discrimination against Jews” [The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language]. Most people would agree that anti-Semitism is “racist” hatred of Jews. However, some people are diluting this interpretation of the term anti-Semitism by arguing that anti-Semitism is directed against all Semitic peoples suggesting for example that Arabs or Palestinians cannot be accused of anti-Semitism. But we’ve to explain the meaning of the term anti-Semitism not by its etymology, but by its introduction in the late 19th century in Germany [and use since then] as a more political-scientific-sounding term for Jew-hatred.

The political-scientific theory that the "Jewish Spirit" was inferior to the "Germanic Spirit" became widespread in Germany in the second half of the 19th century. Translation of the picture: "The Jewish Spirit undermines the healthy powers of the German National Characteristics".


Anti-Semitism is a catchall word that has come to mean hatred of Jews and, arguably, even hatred of Israel, but the word is misused, often deliberately so, and many are aware of how it came into the language or what it really means.

Complicating the semantics is the noise surrounding the religious and political mess that is the Middle East. It is filled with those who profess to be anti-Israel or anti-Zionist, but not anti-Semitic. Many of the noisemakers base this claim on the supposition that they cannot possibly be anti-Semitic because Arabs, along with Jews are Semites. But to refer to Jews or Arabs as Semites is willfully untrue and those who do so are deliberately obfuscating their true politics — Jew hatred. This is not to say that Israel is above criticism, it is not.

To begin with, Semitic refers to a set of languages, not people or ethnic groups. The most widely spoken of these today are Arabic, Hebrew, Amharic and Tigrinya (both spoken in Ethiopia) and Aramaic (a version of which was spoken in ancient Israel and from which both Hebrew and Arabic scripts are derived).

In fact anti-Semitism is a term that was created specifically to refer to Jews.

This quasi-political and pseudo-racial-term was introduced in Germany during the 19th century by Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904), a fierce Jew-hater. By that time Jew-hatred had been firmly entrenched in Europe for many centuries, but until then it was largely a religious phenomenon. With the advancement of liberalism in the 19th century, Jews became emancipated and were no longer confined to ghettos or a few limited occupations, and they became more integrated into the mainstream of European society and commerce. That didn’t mean Jew-hatred disappeared, it just started to take other forms.

Wilhelm Marr was one of a number of writers and agitators, pseudo-philosophers, who believed that Jews were intent on taking over Germany as well as Europe with alien values and sensibilities. They were especially obsessed with advancing the idea that there was a Jewish plot to control banks and finance. This was an expansion of a traditional antipathy toward Jews as money lenders, the pre-emancipation occupation to which Jews were consigned by the Church. Therein lay the grain of truth contained in any conspiracy theory, and it was an easy accusation to use as a platform especially among artisans and small business owners with whom Jews had often had a fractious relationship. There were others of the same bent — the composer Richard Wagner, his son-in-law, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Joseph Arthur, Comte de Gobineau and Edouard Adolphe Drumont.

Marr’s most famous work “Der Sieg des Judenthums über das Germanenthum von nicht Confessionellen Standpunkt” (The Victory of Judaism over Germandom: From a Non-Denominational Point of View) laid the groundwork for an organization he called the League of Anti-Semites. Semitism, according to Marr, was the replacement of German values, ways and sensibilities with Jewish ones. Therefore anyone who opposed Semitism was an anti-Semite, and proudly so.

There is also an ostensible opposite to anti-Semitism — philo-Semitism. Both terms were coined during the German socialist movements of the 19th century, and share a fixation on alleged Jewish traits — Semitism. But philo-Semitism was an insult flung at those who opposed anti-Semitism. In other words a philo-Semite was a cultural traitor and a Jewish lackey.

But to give credence to the terms anti-Semitism or philo-Semitism is to acknowledge that such a perfidious conspiracy or movement called Semitism exists. Therefore the correct term for someone who hates Jews for whatever reason is anti-Jewish.

Toni L. Kamins is a writer and editor in New York. She is the author of the Complete Jewish Guide to France, the Complete Jewish Guide to Britain and Ireland (St. Martin’s Press) and the forthcoming Complete Jewish Guide to Paris. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, Tablet, Bonjour Paris, the Jerusalem Post, the Forward, New York Magazine and other places. Her personal website is at For all the exclusive blog entries by Toni L. Kamins, go here.

©, 2012. This article may be reprinted (in full length) as long as information is provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.

Posted in: Anti-SemitismCultureToni Kamins  Tagged with:  

9 Comments to “What is anti-Semitism?”

  1. avatar Toni Kamins says:

    #Antisemitism: Three things you don't know. #Jew #Arab #Israel

  2. #Antisemitism: Three things you don't know. #Jew #Arab #Israel

  3. avatar ya'akov says:

    What is anti-Semitism? –

  4. avatar Rob Harris says:

    Excellent article that puts into perspective where the term “anti-Semite” came from. Today many people on the far-right and far-left obfuscate by claiming that they like Arabs and Palestinians, when in actual fact they support them in their war against Israel. That is not to say Arabs are not subjected to hatred. All racial groups are but the hatred of Jews has unique features that rarely apply to the hatred of other Semitic groups, relating to conspiracy, notions of world governmental control (ZOG) etc. Diluting the meaning of anti-Semitism surely points to a sinister motive.

    One point I would differ on is that the use of the term “anti-Semitism” is wrong. The word seems to have been rehabilitated since the Holocaust.

  5. avatar tommetzger says:

    Anti Semitism is really anti Jewism. An anti Jew is anybody or any thought that Jews don’t like.

  6. […] Europe, and so did pseudo-scientific theories about race. It was within this milieu that modern anti-Semitism developed. But where other countries in Europe saw savage and overt waves of Jew-hatred, the […]


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