by Martin Odoni

I am getting a little exhausted with an almost-identical conversation I keep having repeatedly on social media. Below is a copy-paste of just one example of it I have had to correct. Other versions are out there far beyond my will to count, and while they are not word-for-word, they all mean exactly the same thing. They have been repeatedly posted in response to the article I published yesterday.

“Semitic is a term that applies to both Arabs and Jews. The group of languages they all spoke in the area where both Jews and Palestinian Arabs live, are the Semitic languages. To be anti-Semitic, is to be anti both Jews and Palestinian Arabs.”


No, it is not.

I know it should mean that, because ‘Semitic’ does indeed roughly mean ‘of the peoples originating in the lands east of the Mediterranean Sea’ (not only Arabs either, please note – Assyrians and even Persians can be classed as Semites too). It follows logically that ‘anti-Semitic’ would therefore mean prejudice against all such peoples. However – and yes I know it sounds very counter-intuitive – the definition of the term is strictly anti-Jewish.

Friederiche Wilhelm Marr - founder of modern anti-Semitism?

Wilhelm Marr – the man who gave anti-Semitism its unhappy name.

The term was popularised by a nationalist German agitator called Friederich Wilhelm Marr in the 1870s. Marr was himself hostile to Jews, and was stridently opposed to their emancipation or assimilation into the German populace. Marr was one of the earliest known propagators of modern conspiracy tropes about wealth and power being secretly held by small numbers of ‘world-controlling Jews’. Specifically, Marr argued that Jewish Germans had ‘taken control’ of finance and industry in the then-fledgling German Empire.

There was a fresh tidal wave of political hostility towards Jews engulfing much of Europe at the time, leading into the Pogroms of the Russian Empire. Marr coined the term ‘anti-Semitism’ to refer to this phenomenon, and in opposition to the ‘Jewish clique’ he imagined, in 1879 he founded a movement that he  called, The League Of Anti-Semites (‘Antisemiten-Liga’).

Why he chose the term ‘anti-Semitism’ to refer to Jew-hate is not altogether clear. It seems perfectly possible that he had simply misunderstood what the word ‘Semite’ (‘Semitismus’ as he wrote it in one of his pamphlets) means, and thought it was just a synonym for ‘Jew’. Another theory is that he thought it sounded more ‘scientific’ than ‘Juden-hass’ (‘Jew-hate’) and therefore would give his ugly ideas more credibility.

Whatever Marr’s reasons, his meaning when he coined the term was hostility-to-Jews exclusively, and it was that definition that eventually became widely accepted and adopted into common parlance. It may seem ridiculous that the term does not encompass hostility to all peoples originating in that region, but it is still the truth.

As for Marr, he eventually recanted his own ideas and apologised to the Jewish people shortly before he died. Sadly, his ideas outlived him by a very long time, even lasting up to the present day, and they arguably played an indirect role in some of the worst tragedies of the Twentieth Century.