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I have an itch that I need to scratch, something that has been bothering me for a while and the last piece from David was a gentle reminder that the issue is still there. I want to talk about anti-semitism.

Let’s start with the phrase itself because, apart from being unusual, it’s also incorrect. In modern language use ‘Semitic’ is the description of a language group and not a race. Yes, Hebrew is one of the Semitic languages but so is Arabic, Ethiopian and Assyrian, and not all members of the Jewish faith speak Hebrew. The term has its origins in the writings of Moritz Steinschneider when in 1860 he used the phrase antisemitische Vorurteile  (“antisemitic prejudices”) when reviewing the work of Ernest Renan. The compound word antisemite became popular in Germany in 1879 as a more scientific-sounding term for Judenhass (“Jew-hatred”), after that the rest of the world appeared to take up the phrase and use it only when describing anti-Jewish activity, even though it is of questionable correctness.

The next thing to consider is that anti-semitism in various forms has been with us for about two thousand years. In 3 BC, Alexandria was home to the largest Jewish community in the world and Manetho, an Egyptian priest and scholar, ridiculed their lives and practices. Also, Agatharchides of Cnidus makes a mocking reference to how Ptolemy Lagus was able to invade Jerusalem in 320 BC because its inhabitants were observing the Shabbat. In the late 6th century, the kingdom in Hispania issued a series of anti-Jewish edicts which forbade Jews from marrying Christians, practicing circumcision, and observing Jewish holy days. Such incidents continued throughout history and even William Shakespeare introduced the character of Shylock who is forced to convert to Christianity at the end of Merchant of Venice. So, as you can see, antagonism towards the Jews and Jewish life is not a new phenomenon and if mankind hasn’t found a cure in the last two thousand years we are unlikely to do so in the new millennium.

The modern problem with anti-semitism is the use of language and the way that it has been twisted for political purposes. The OED defines anti-semitism as ‘Hostility to or prejudice against Jews’. That’s it: one single sentence. If therefore a politician stands up and criticises the state of Israel they are not being anti-semitic, they are engaging in political discourse. The problem arises when people try and link the state, the people, and the religion together for their own purposes. Here’s a good example:

Peter:  Sorry, I don’t recognise your accent, where are you from?

Client: I’m Jewish

If I were to ask anyone else I would get answers such as ‘I’m Spanish’ or ‘I’m from South Africa’ but as the state, the religion and the people are so closely tied together in Israel the ‘I’m Jewish’ answer just slips off the tongue and it’s accepted. No other country that I know of does this. If I was to ask an Italian where he is from, a reply of ‘I’m Roman Catholic’ would seem very strange. This would get even sillier if you asked me. I’ve lived and worked all over the world which means that I have a strange accent. How would it seem if you asked me where I’m from and I replied ‘I’m an Atheist’?

So, in summary. If you criticise a member of the Jewish faith for their Jewish practices and lifestyle then that’s anti-semitism and it’s against the law. If you call your Jewish barber a “blind fool” because he gave you a bad haircut then it’s not anti-semitism. You just chose the wrong barber that day. If you criticise the state of Israel and their activities then that is not anti-semitism either. It’s political life. Finally, if you criticise the Israeli people, that is also not anti-semitism because not all of the Israeli population are Jewish, there are lots of Muslims and Christians living in the country as well.



6 Comments on "Anti-Semitism and Language"

  1. It’s not sorted at all. Criticism of Israel is fine, it’s the language that is used to criticise it that is the problem. Calling Israel a “colonial racist state” is anti-Semitic because the term is not used against the USA which is based on colonies of European states who were racist (their attitude towards the American Indians being one such example). Describing Zionism as racist and stating that israel has no right to exist is also anti-Semitic because you are denying the Jewish people the right to a homeland in their ancestral lands as well as attacking a fundamental part of Judaism, namely the desire to return to Zion.

  2. The writer seems unable to distinguish between race, religion and citizenship.

    It is the same mistake many make when referring to Israel and Jewish people in general.

    A Jewish Israeli may very well describe himself as Jewish and not Israeli but there are many non-Jewish Israelis who describe themselves as Palestinians, Druse or Circassian. So what?

    People fall into the trap of anti-semitism when they try to demand things of Israel that they would never demand of anywhere else: a very simplistic example is the demand that Israel restrain itself when facing almost daily mortar attacks from the Gaza Strip – can you imagine the same demand being made of the UK were Dover to be mortared daily from France, or Germany from Switzerland?

    Another sign of anti-semitism is when people attribute all sorts of things – not to Israel, but to the “Jews”. ?The writer is correct in stating that not all Israelis are Jewish, but the cry “Itbakh al Yehud” (slaughter the Jews) has been heard too often throughout history for it to be glossed over as atypical Israeli over-reaction.

    The idea that Israel has to beg for its capital to be recognised is another symptom of typical western anti-semitism? Is there any doubt that Paris is the capital of France, or Berlin the capital of Germany? Anyone who doubts Israel need only open their Bible.

    And why is Israel singled out and excoriated for proclaiming the fact that it is the homeland of the Jewish people and Hebrew its national language? Does the fact that the Church of England is the church of the UK or English its national language make it any more Islamophbic or un-welcoming to immigrants?

    Israel has been at war with Syria since its founding. Somtimes the war gets “hot” and bloody – and yet it still opens a Field Hospital for Syrian civilians – and allows Gazan civilians access to Israeli medical care (despite the rockets). Perhaps the UK can point out where its field hospital for German civilians was during WW2 – or for Argentians during the Falklands Conflict. (I give examples from the UK because I grew up there.)

    Non-jewish minorities in Israel have the same rights as Jewish Israelis – they vote, elect and are elected, receive Social Benefits and are free to appeal to the Supreme Court if they believe their rights are infringed upon.

    And yet it is not unknown for Israeis as well as others to scream “apartheid” at evey opportunity – and yet none of them have been jailed for saying so. How strange.

    So Israel doesn’t allow free and unfettered access through its borders – is that different from every other country in the world.

    Anti-Semitism creeps in when only Israel is singled out for criticism. Nowhere else.

  3. Thank you for the two replies, both of them make interesting reading. I invite you both to consider the following question:

    Under what circumstances is it possible to criticise the state of Israel and its actions without being accused of anti-semitism? Please note that I said the state, not the people, not the religion, the state and the government that runs it. In attempting to answer this question you will perhaps realise the complexities of Middle East politics and why I originally tried to separate the three issues by concentrating on the use of language.

    When writing the article I did consider including a few lines on Zionism but decided against it as a) I wanted to concentrate on the main subject matter and b) the subject of Zionism is so complex that it could be an article by itself. I should also add at this point that when it comes to Israeli/Palestinian issues I am strictly neutral as I regard both sides to be as bad as each other.


    • There is absolutely no problem criticizing the State of Israel or the actions of its government – whether it be A Likud (right-wing) government led by Bibi or a Labour (left-wing) government led by Rabin – democracy is Israel is vibrant and enough ordinary citizens criticize the government of the day without fear of reprisal of retribution.
      The problem begins when the criticism spills over to ordinary citizens and that is when anti-Semitism reveals the true reason for the original criticism.
      An example: in March 2011 the Vogel family were sitting down for their Friday night (Shabbat) meal in the village of Itamar when two teenagers broke into their house and shot, stabbed and strangled the whole family (except two children who were asleep) – the youngest only four months old.
      A truly disgusting crime – but since the family were “settlers” in the West Bank they were fair game and the teenagers, Palestinians, heroes in the eyes of some.
      In 2016 three teenage boys on their way home were kidnapped and shot. Their crime? They were “settlers” hitchhiking in the West Bank.
      No matter how much you disagree with the actions of the Israeli government – and there have been many governments (of all persuasions) since the Six Day War in 1967 – only a Jew-baiting anti-Semite would consider these crimes justified,
      Another example, this from the UK.
      In 2013 an off duty Soldier was attacked and hacked to death while walking in Woolwich by two men who claimed they were avenging the death of Muslims at the hands of British Soldiers. Did any politician, media outlet or pundit suggest he was fair game? Or is that distinction reserved for Jews in Israel?
      One of Mr. Corbyn’s comments, lately reported, suggests that Jews in the UK, despite the length of time they have been in the country, have no sense of “British Irony”.
      Does this mean that Jews in the UK aren’t really British? Does anyone imagine for a moment that he would make a similar comment about British Nationals originating from the West Indies or the Indian Sub-Continent? If anyone had any doubts about him does this finally show what he really thinks of Jews? Not Israel. Not Zionism. Jews.
      The writer, no doubt influenced by biased media reporting, considers both sides in the conflict “as bad as each other”,
      Consider this. Palestinians and many from Arab countries (despite being officially at war with Israel) come to Israel for medical treatment, The absurdity of the situation is shown when a woman from the Gaza Strip coming for (free) burns treatment was caught in 2005 on her way to Beer-Sheva hospital (in Israel), wearing a suicide belt. [True story.]
      Criticize Israel as much as you want – but confine the criticism to the actions of the government and don’t slip into generalized criticism of Israelis or Jews – that is anti-Semitism. (And don’t expect things from Israel that you don’t also expect from everywhere else)

  4. I suppose in answer, strictly speaking, it is the same as criticising Uganda and Idi without being racist against black Africans.

    The problem here is, as always, one of race. The Jewish friends I was brought up with were taught that they were sons and daughters of Abraham and descended from the twelve tribes of Isreal.

    As one friend (an atheist who said he was Jewish, but not a Jew!) commented, this is problematic for someone like Sammy Davis Jnr who was a Jew, but was African and therefore not racially descended from Isreal.

    So in that respect, Anti-Semitism is a form of racism because some Jews see themselves as a race. Even if some don’t.

    When it comes to Isreal (the country), it is complicated because if you are a Jew, you are automatically a citizen – I suppose whether you want to be or not, I am not sure. Though our local Rabi pointed out that he would never go there as it was too hot and he liked his thick Jumpers. (Trust a Rabi to bring some ordinariness into anything).

    I think one complication is the understanding, or perhaps, misunderstanding, of Zionism. A relatively new word, only dating to the end of the 19thC in an article in the Jewish Chronicle (Yes, I have the full OED), for many people it is more often a word associated with mad conspiracy theories, dark secrets, and plots – which it isn’t. But it is common falacies about the reality that make for confusions. The State of Isreal doesn’t always help the matter either. Certain leaders have been, to say the least, right wing, and hardly act in a way to disprove the stories spread by the also-right-wing who hate anything Jewish.

    So, to get back on track (sorry, a couple of beers down here), what you don’t do is what Corbyn appears to have done in the past – legitimately critisise the state while associating yourself with others who have been anti-Semitic. Basically, that means if you wish to critisise Sreal, you don’t take the side of the Palestinians instead.

    The sadness of all this was highlighted to me when I lived in central London. One neighbour was a very-veiled young Saudi woman and her husband. She was short, round and her veil flapped when she giggled, which was often. Her best friend was a 80-something-year-old Jewess who she took shopping to the Kosher counter in Selfridges. But the young woman was clear – their friendship was easy in London. It wouldn’t necessarily be so easy in either of their homelands.

    And that is where the problems lie.

    Sorry, that was a waffle. And I am an atheist so am probably seen as unqualified by ALL sides!

    PS: I have just found another word in the OED, that probably describes what is going on today:

    ‖ Judenhetze


    [G., = Jew-baiting.]

    Systematic persecution of the Jews.

       “1882 19th Cent. Aug. 254 Those forces which Europe has confessed are too powerful for it to deal with, and which have led to persecution in Russia and to Judenhetze in Germany.”

    Well, maybe we are seeing Judenhetze all over the place at the moment, and perhaps that is a better word than Anti-Semitic. Sad.

  5. Peter, perhaps you should have read Tim Marshal’s article on AntiSemitism and AntiZionism, BEFORE you wrote yours!!!

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