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Semitic Semantics

Jan 17, 2018 | Antisemitism

After engaging in a cordial debate with an old friend concerning the rise of antisemitism in Europe (and the extent to which Middle Eastern immigration has played a role), I was repeatedly informed that the term I ought to have been using was ‘anti-Judaism,’ not ‘antisemitism’. The latter, I was told, was inaccurate, as ‘Semite’ was a term that did not only apply to Jews, but to Arabs as well.

“How could we possibly discuss antisemitism being carried out by a Semitic people?” I was asked.

I could not help but feel that the question was an exercise in point-dodging, verbal gymnastics, yet I was simultaneously reminded that it was one whose nature had already been confronted by the most serial espousers of antisemitism the world has ever known; Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party.

While the Jews were Hitler’s ultimate opponent, the Arabs faired just as poorly in terms of their racial status. With the Aryans perched uncontested atop the Nazi racial pyramid, the Semitic races, as historian Edwin Black puts it, “parasitically dwelled at the bottom, [with] Arabs [inhabiting] the same reviled, lumpen racial caste as their cousins, the Jews.”  Indeed, Hitler viewed the people of the Middle East as a collective group whose race was assuredly inferior, and by whom he was sincerely repulsed. In a private 1939 speech to his military commanders, for instance, he brazenly referred to the Arabs as “half-apes, who wanted to feel the whip.”

Undeniably, the supremacy of the Aryan race formed the bedrock of Nazi ideology. The Third Reich, therefore, adopted an official policy of antisemitism (and it is interesting to note that unlike the present day, in which the label is a decidedly slanderous one, antisemitism in Nazi Germany was willingly self-applied by its own adherents.) For Nazi foreign policy in the Middle East, however, this doctrine proved to be troublesome. The Arabs, whose favour the Nazis were attempting to court, were unmistakably a Semitic people, and Arab leaders were quick to notice they did not (and would not, in the event of Nazi global domination) occupy the same privileged position as their Aryan counterparts. 

The Nazis were thus faced with a markedly paradoxical complication. On one hand, they were unquestionably committed to their doctrine of racial hierarchy. On the other hand, their war effort desperately called for the accumulation of friends and allies to counter British and Soviet global influence.  The trouble was that the latter initiative involved courting potential allies who would clearly be disadvantaged by the implications of the former. In plain terms, the Nazis were put in a position whereby they needed to make friends with those who they openly claimed to despise. As such, the Nazis were forced to take measures to amend their dogma and re-define their version of antisemitism in such a way that would accommodate their prospective allies.

One concrete step they would take was tweaking Mein Kampf. In order to appeal to the people of the Middle East, the English version of the manuscript (from which its Arabic clone would be translated) replaced the words “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Semitic” with “anti-Judaism” and “anti-Judaic,” respectively.  Despite his genuine feelings to the contrary, Hitler further modified the text by condoning the removal of any passages that described a racial hierarchy, and axed all content that was deemed potentially offensive towards the Arabs. During his 1961 post-war trial, Adolf Eichmann divulged that the expression “anti-Semite” was not used, but rather “anti-Jewish” and added that “if the racial theory had been used correctly, it should have applied to the Arab peoples too.”

We can thus see the context in which a conversation surrounding the proper use of the word ‘Semite’ might have been appropriate. Indeed, in order to uphold their depraved racial theories and for the sake of diplomacy and war-time political pragmatism, the challenge of determining which groups fell under the category of ‘Semites’ was a nagging, yet necessary obstacle for the Nazis to overcome. It is bewildering, however, to learn that this etymological confusion continues to permeate discourse in 2018. Linguistic dissection of this kind is utterly useless in the present day and is downright regressive when hoping to combat the profoundly real phenomenon of Jew-hatred. It is surely high time that this puerile misunderstanding be finally put to rest. Let it be stated conclusively that antisemitism refers to hatred of Jews and nothing more, and may the racial category of ‘Semite’ be stricken from our lexicon and identified for what it really is: dated and void.

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