Memorial to the Jews of Europe

What is a semite?

Semite comes from the name of the oldest son of Noah in the Hebrew Bible, Shem.  Since neither Greek nor Latin have the “sh” sound, the name became “Sem.”[1]  “Semite” was used in linguistics to describe a person who is part of an ethnic, cultural or racial group who speak a Semitic language.[2]

In the late 1800’s, there were a lot of “isms,” and “anti-isms.”  For example, there was communism and anti-communism, socialism and anti-socialism.  These are belief systems with which people agree or disagree.  The idea of “anti-ism” was bastardized to describe negative political action against Jews.  Jews were singled out as the only speakers of a Semitic language to be found worthy of the “anti-ism” label.

In 1879, the German journalist Wilhelm Marr wrote a pamphlet called “The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism.”  This pamphlet popularized the newly-coined term “antisemitism” to describe a new form of hostility towards Jews.   Marrs’ followers founded the “League for Antisemitism.”[3]

The German word is Antisemitismus.[4]  Though most English-language writers spell this word: “Anti-Semitism” with a hyphen, the original German word does not include a hyphen.  Placing a hyphen between “anti” and “Semitism” implies that there is something called “Semitism,” which there is not.[5]

After I read about the hyphen controversy in Peter Hays book, Why? Explaining the Holocaust, I decided to drop the hyphen and spell the word: “antisemitism.”   Now this is a challenge because I use word to type and it keeps underlining “antisemitism,” trying to convince me that I am spelling it wrong.  But I will persevere and continue to spell it sans hyphen.

I encourage you to do the same.



[1] Includes Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic.  See My Jewish Learning: Who are the Semites, by Bernard E. Lewis.

[2] Semitic People – Wikipedia.

[3] Id.

[4] Hays, Peter.  Why?  Explaining the Holocaust at 5.

[5] Id.


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