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Racist roots of the word anti-semitism

Benjamin Disraeli - Credit: Archant

The very term used to describe the prejudice is itself born of prejudice.

One of the most anti-Jewish words in the English language is anti-Semitic. In terms of the history of our language it’s a rather new word – no one used it until about 140 years ago. The term, as is well known, is used to apply to people who demonstrate prejudice against or hostility towards Jews as an ethnic or religious group (a phenomenon much older than 140 years, of course).

But why do we call this form of racism ‘anti-Semitic’ rather than using the more obvious phrase anti-Jewish? Hostility to Catholics is called anti-Catholicism. Those who demonstrate hatred or fear of Irish people as an ethnic group are labelled anti-Irish. Anti-Americanism is another well-known label for a form of prejudice and hostility. So what is the point of using ‘anti-Semitism’ as a label? If certain narrow-mindedly bigoted people are anti-Jewish, then why don’t we just say so?

What seems to have happened is that in racist Victorian England, Jewish people were discriminated against and looked down upon as being inferior, in much the same way that people of sub-Saharan Africa origin were also discriminated against. Indeed, sadly, this disgraceful anti-Jewish prejudice did not disappear with the demise of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Within rather recent living memory there were golf clubs in Britain which refused to accept Jewish people as members, and Jews have suffered many other forms of exclusion. They were not allowed to become MPs until 1858; and the career of Benjamin Disraeli, prime minister in 1868 and again from 1874 to 1880, benefited from the fact that he was baptised at the age of 12.

This discrimination and prejudice had linguistic consequences: in the racist climate of Victorian times, the word Jew quite naturally acquired negative connotations, and people became uncomfortable using the term, as if it was not very polite to draw attention to the fact that some people had the misfortune to be Jewish. Some English-speaking people today still avoid saying ‘s/he’s a Jew’, preferring instead to say ‘s/he’s Jewish’.

The same thing was true of the word black as applied to people of sub-Saharan African origin. This term came too to be avoided, and it was only rather recently that we stopped using the words Negro and Coloured as euphemisms for referring to black people.

In the 19th century, English speakers similarly developed euphemisms for Jew, notably Israelite and Semite; but in our modern age of diversity and equality, we should have no longer have any need for embarrassing, twisted pseudo-euphemisms based on ‘Semite’ such as Semitic and anti-Semitic.

There is also another good reason to get rid of the term ‘anti-Semitic’: Semitic, used in this way, is a highly inaccurate term. The Semitic peoples of the Middle East historically spoke languages which descended from the Proto-Semitic language. These included, yes, Hebrew the ancient language of the Jews; but also Aramaic, Akkadian, Assyrian, Syriac, Phoenician, Moabite, and Ugaritic, with the Semitic language of Carthage, Punic, being a variety derived from Phoenician. Most of the Semitic peoples, in other words, were not Jews.

Modern Semitic languages include the Ethiopian language Amharic, which has about 17 million speakers, most of them Christians; Tigrinya, a language with about six million (again, mainly Christian) speakers in Ethiopia and Eritrea; and Tigre, which has a million speakers, mostly in Eritrea. There are also a number of South Arabian languages, which are related to the Ethiopian languages and are spoken along the southern edge of the Arabian peninsula in Yemen and Oman, such as Mehri, Harsusi, Hobyot, Jibbali, and Socotri.

But the largest Semitic language is Arabic, which has well over 300 million speakers, with perhaps around 20 million of them being Christians, including many Palestinians. Maltese, an indigenous European Semitic language, is also historically a variety of Arabic, but now constitutes a separate language.

The fact is that the Tigrinyan and Tigre people of Ethiopia are just as much Semites as the Jews. And so too are the Arabs.


The Republic of Eritrea takes its name from the Latin name for the Red Sea, which forms its eastern boundary. The Latin form was Mare Erythraeum, which came from Ancient Greek Erythraikos Pontos, where póntos meant ‘sea’ and erythrós was ‘red’. Erythrism is a modern English biological term for ‘reddening’, akin to albinism, ‘whitening’.