“Anti-Semitism” or “antisemitism”? And Why the Hyphen Matters

Hyphenating the word “antisemitism” gives the erroneous impression that Semitism exists — either as an innate ethnic characteristic of all Jews or as an ideology held by all Jews.

“The Old Scourge of Anti-Semitism Rises Anew in Europe,” titles The New York Times. “Anti-Semitic message found at Jewish museum in Brooklyn,” reports CNN. “Russian man gets 2.5 years in jail for anti-Semitic graffiti,” announces the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Many, if not most, U.S. journalists will write the term “antisemitism” with a hyphen and a capital “s” as “anti-Semitism.” At first glance, there is no problem with this kind of spelling. Most spell-checkers I’ve used so far insisted on the hyphenated version of the word. Besides, that’s the grammatically correct way to write that word—at least, according to the Cambridge, Merriam-Webster and Oxford dictionaries of the English language.

However, without intending it, by hyphenating the term “antisemitism,” one implicitly reproduces antisemitic stereotypes. Every time journalists or a social-media users writes “anti-Semitism” (with a hyphen), they signify that there is something called “semitism” or even, “Semitism” with a capital “s.” This way, one justifies a form of pseudo-scientific racial classification, which is the core of antisemitism. To understand this, we have to go back two centuries to the origins of the term.

In the 19th century, hatred against Jews in German-speaking states gained a new form. While for centuries, Jews were mainly attacked for their religious observances, this changed with the Age of the Enlightenment. The emancipation laws introduced by adherents of the Enlightenment led to quick assimilation of Jews into the non-Jewish German-speaking majority society. With mass conversions to Christianity and the emergence of Reform Judaism in the 1840s, traditional ritual observances, which Jew-haters had criticized for so long, lost their importance. With these rapid changes, it was no longer Judaism as a religion that was criticized by the Jew-haters, but Judaism as an ethnicity.

Following the high number of Jews who were ready to integrate or even assimilate into the non-Jewish German majority society, a discussion arose as to whether Jews could be regarded as Germans. Many argued, particularly the prominent historian Heinrich von Treitschke, that Jews are essentially different since they are an “Oriental” people. No matter how integrated or assimilated they become, Treitschke stated, Jews will be never truly Germans; they “are nothing more than German-speaking Orientals.” To emphasize the Jews’ otherness and closeness to the Orient—which automatically implied a distance to the Occident, to the West, to Germany—Jew-hating intellectuals came up with the concept of an essential Jewish otherness they coined as “semitism” (in German: Semitismus).

To express their own rejection of this “semitism,” German Jew-haters started to call themselves adherents of the ideology of “antisemitism” (Antisemitismus) and themselves “antisemites” (Antisemiten). It was most notably the journalist Wilhelm Marr who popularized the word. Marr even founded the “League of Antisemites” (Antisemitenliga), the first German organization committed to fighting the alleged Jewish power taking over Germany. Following Marr, more and more politicians started to put antisemitism on their agenda. A pioneer of the organized antisemitic political movement was Otto Böckel, who was standing for election in 1887 as a Reichstag (parliamentary) candidate of the constituency of Marburg as a self-described “independent antisemite”—and got elected. Three years later, Böckel established the Antisemitic People’s Party (Antisemitische Volkspartei).

By writing “antisemitism” with a hyphen, one accedes to the false claim of these antisemites that (Western) Jews’ are essentially “other” and belong to the “Oriental” peoples—as opposed to the Western societies they live in. Just like Treitschke, Marr and Böckel wished, Jews are made to be “Semites.” At the same time, there is no such as a thing as a “Semitic ethnicity” or a “Semitic people,” only the Semitic language group to which Hebrew belongs, along with Arabic, Syriac, Amharic and others. Even though language relations have an impact on the development of common cultural traits, speakers of the various related languages and/or their descendants are not necessarily part of the same ethnic group or to ethnic groups related to each other. Hence, antisemitism does not refer to the hatred of all Semitic-speaking peoples and/or their descendants. It does not describe the hatred of Arabs, Syriacs or Amharic-speaking Ethiopians. Antisemitism exclusively describes the hatred of Jews, even those who don’t speak Hebrew.

Writing “antisemitism” with a hyphen is problematic enough for the above-mentioned reason—that is, for othering Jews. But it gets even more problematic when one uses a capital “s” for “semitism.” It’s common to capitalize ideologies—even though, according to normative dictionaries, it’s not correct to do so unless they refer to a specific party or the word is derivative of a proper name. By writing “semitism” with a capital “s,” one even suggests that there is such a thing as a collective Jewish ideology, a Jewish plot. It might be only a bit too far-fetched to say that by writing “antisemitism” as “anti-Semitism,” one implicitly states that the antisemitic world conspiracies are true.

In German, in which the term “antisemitism” was created, the word has always been written without a hyphen. The German language, of course, has a tendency to combine linguistic units that in English would require either separate or hyphenated words. As a result of this pattern, the English equivalent of the German Blutdruck is “blood pressure,” Universitätsbibliothek means “university library” and Weltanschauung translates as “worldview.” Thus, from a mere linguistic point of view, it’s legitimate to use a hyphen and write “anti-Semitism.” One could even argue that language is a social convention—that is, a collection of arbitrary norms—which continuously changes according to the current practice of the practitioners of that certain language, regardless of whether these norms are logical.

Still, while focusing on one hyphen may seem like nitpicking, the fact is that words and phrases have much more influence on our way of thinking than we realize. Words create our perception of reality. That’s why more and more scholars, Jewish community activists and others recommend the unhyphened usage of the word in order to dispel the notion of an entity called “Semitism,” which “anti-Semitism” opposes. Especially at a time of increasing antisemitic hate crimes in the United States, it is of absolute importance to have clarity

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this teaching; I looked specifically for an answer to this question to be correct in an email. This correction was very helpful! I will pass on this information to everyone else I know who has been incorrectly hyphenating.

  2. I have passed this most helpful article on to a friend who objected to my hyphen-less spelling. He is, like me, a retired academic, but though he seems to think that he is well-informed on the origin and use of Antisemitismus, he clearly is not….I am writing from my home in Japan, but even here our minds are on the mind-boggling horror occurring on American campuses…Blessings on you, Rabbi Langer.

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