“In the first place, this term anti-Semitism is a nonsense term, because my understanding is that the Arabs are also Semites, not only the Jews, so I don’t know what that means. I’m definitely not anti-Arab”
(Chess genius Bobby Fischer)
A few weeks ago, a prominent U.S. congressman lambasted the Egyptian press for running stories filled with ‘anti-semetic’ rhetoric. That was followed by a prominent law professor ridiculing an Al Jazeera spokesperson with accusations that the only independent Arab news outlet is ‘anti-semitic’ because its coverage is critical of Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Almost overnight, the term Arab and anti-semite became interminably linked.
This would have been comedy a la Buster Keaton (or Jerry Springer) had it not been so tragically malevolent. Beaming into hundreds of millions of homes is the message that Arabs are anti-semitic and therefore racist zealots who are automatically prejudiced against the semitism of Jews and Israel. What is ominously missing is the little factoid that (surprise, surprise!) Arabs are semites with as equal a merit to the title as Jews and Israelis. What is more disturbing, however, is the other interesting factoid that the congressman and law professor were themselves of Jewish heritage, and therefore the most likely to understand that Arabs cannot be anti-semitic because they themselves are semitic. This begs the question: why are they calling Arab semites anti-semitic?
History lesson number one: According to the 2001 Macmillan Encyclopedia, Semites are “A group of peoples, including the Jews and Arabs, said in the Bible to be descended from Shem, Noah’s eldest son. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Phoenicians were ancient Semitic peoples.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia offers a similar definition: “The Semitic peoples are divided into four chief Babylonian-Assyrian Semites (East Semites), Chanaanitic Semites, (West Semites), Aramaic Semites (North Semites), and Arabian Semites (South Semites). The most powerful branch of the Semitic group of peoples, are indigenous to Central and Northern Arabia, where even to-day the original character is most purely preserved.”
Languages of the semites, according to both encylopedias, include Sumerian cuneiform (the first recorded writing), Canaanite, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Maltese, and Amharic, a language of Eritrea.
Based on the above definitions, there are some 22 million Jewish Semites and 270 million Arab, Maltese and Ethiopian Semites in the world today.
History lesson number two: According to the Medieval Sourcebook, anti-semitism can be traced back to the 16th century when the myth of Anderl Von Rinn, a Christian allegedly killed by Jews, spread throughout Europe. In his book, Triumph Cron Marter Vnd Grabschrift des Heilig Unschuldigen Kindts (1619), Dr. Hippolyt Guarinoni (1571-1654) wrote of a “a boy [allegedly] put to death by Jews out of hatred for Christ at Rinn near Innsbruck, Austria.” The story is thought to be inspired by the Cult of Little St. Hugh of Lincoln, England, whose body was found in a well in 1255, and the death ascribed to Jews. Noted playwright of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote in A Prioress’ Tale:
O you young Hugh of Lincoln, slain also
By cursed Jews, as is well known to all,
Since it was but a little while ago,
Pray you for us, sinful and weak, who call,
That, of His mercy, God will still let fall
Something of grace, and mercy multiply,
For reverence of His Mother dear on high. Amen.
Hatred for Jews in Europe had been enlfamed by the Crusades a few centuries earlier. Joel Carmichael, noted scholar of Russian history believes that anti-Semitism took on fanatical hysterics with the advent of Christianity and the early Crusades where Jews were seen as inhumanly evil and satanically entranced. The Crusaders depicted the Jews as “demonic murderers of God”. This was taught extensively to young Christian children and nurtured a hatred of all things Jewish. (The Satanizing of the Jews : Origin and Development of Mystical Anti-Semitism, Joel Carmichael 1992).
However, it was not until the late 19th century that this bigotry against Jews reached reach militant levels. This can perhaps be attributed to the influence of the science of eugenics and the growing popularity of social Darwinism. Darwin’s evolutionary theories and the notion of “survival of the fittest” fueled the Germanic people to view themselves as superior Aryans, the infamous lexicon of history. With this feeling now paramount in German social development, a group of people had to be termed inferior. Unfortunately, it was the Jews who were now seen as inferior and harassment and persecution gave rise. The actual term of “anti-semitism” came about in 1879 when German writer Wilhelm Marrih sought a scientific term to explain and legitimize the hatred Jews were now facing.
So popular was anti-semitism that Nazi leader Adolf Hitler would later expound himself as a proud anti-semite. “Gradually I began to hate them. For me this was the time of the greatest spiritual upheaval I have ever gone through. I have ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and have become an anti-Semite” (Adoph Hitler’s Mein Kampf).
Armed with the knowledge that anti-semitism is a European manifestation, and that the term Semite refers to Arabs and not only Jews, the question begs itself: why would two policy-makers (among many others) publicly accuse Arabs of anti-semitism?
The answer is no real mystery, but does present itself in several mathematical stages in lieu of the Arab-Israeli conflict:
Arabs are highly critical of Israeli policies towards Palestine, the Golan Heights and south Lebanon. Any criticism of Israeli policies, including the internationally condemned occupation of Palestinian territories, is termed anti-semitic.
When the term ‘anti-semitic’ is used, it automatically invokes images of Hitler, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, Auschwitz, Kristallnacht and the suffering of European Jews 60 years ago.
Alleged Arab anti-semitism will now be seen in light of European anti-semitism and an automatic correlation will be made between the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Nazi persecution and murder of Jews.
Alleged Arab anti-semitism will now be associated with racist bigotry (anti-Jewishness) and the crux of the matter, political criticism of Israeli policies will be institutionally shelved.
Arabs will now be referred to as those calling for the extermination of all Jews in much the same way the Nazis did with the ‘Final Solution’.
Citing criticism of Israeli policies as anti-semitic hatred is tantamount to a pyschological hijacking manifested by communal guilt. Literary and philological terrorism, if you will.
The term anti-semite has become so loathe that in April of 2001, Denver, Colorado Judge Edward Nottingham awarded $10 million to a couple who were accused of being ‘Anti-Semites’ by the Anti-Defamation League.
“Based on its position and history as a well-respected civil-rights institution, it is not unreasonable to infer that public charges of anti-Semitism leveled by the ADL will be taken seriously and assumed by many to be true without question,” the judge wrote in a 46-page order and memorandum of decision. “In that respect, the ADL is in a unique position of being able to cause substantial harm to individuals when it lends its backing to allegations of anti-Semitism.”
Opposition to the loose anti-semitic branding may be catching: “Let’s choose our words more carefully, like calling violence or discrimination against Jews, “anti-Jewish,” acknowledging that our Arab brothers and sisters are Semities too. May the cross-cultural exchanges continue and grow” (JULIE CHASEN, Jewish Bulletin).
Firas Al-Atraqchi is a Muslim Canadian journalist living on the Pacific Coast.