This essay was originally published on Instagram (@thatgalbunnybrown) on 23 November 2023 / 10 Kislev 5784, and republished to Ghost on 7 February 2024 / 28 Shevat 5784
I’ve challenged this meme a few times when it’s gone around, because at best it is well-meaning, at worst, it is a dogwhistle and a deflection.
As a writer, I am particularly and especially aware that words have meaning. Since I was a teeny tot, I have had a special fascination with linguistics and exploring how different groups of people go about articulating consciousness and their relationship in materiality. When it comes to discussing oppression and political violence, precision is important: ambiguity leaves room for abuse and twisting of narratives. English is a dangerous language because of its ambiguity and the ease with which you can lie.
Antisemitism and Semite have an unambiguous historical context: “scientific racism.” It is the Anglicanized form of a Latinized term that was created by a dude named Wilhelm Marr, who may have opted to use it in part because he had a beef with a Jewish guy named Sem, whose name comes from the same source as the term, “Semitic.”
Semitic is a linguistic term, as the dictionary itself very clearly points out. It was invented almost 100 years before “Semite” became a racialized class description for Jews. “Semitic" is sometimes used in ethnographic or archaeological contexts to refer to people who speak languages related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, on the basis of them speaking those languages. That meaning was established *before* "Semite" and "antisemitism" (by extension, “antisemitic”) came into use. There is definitive historical documentation to that effect, this is not a personal opinion.
No communities anywhere on this planet have ever used "Semite" or even “Semitic“ as an endonym (a name for themselves), because it’s a white supremacist term for the former, and the latter doesn‘t make any sense as an ethnic label unless you‘re buying into scientific racist foolery. It would NEVER be appropriate to refer to anyone, or any people - Jews, Palestinians, or anyone else from the MENA region - as a “Semite” or as “Semites.” It's racist.
The term antisemitism is used because it refers to the pattern of bigotry and discrimination that emerged out of that systemized (racialized vs. religious; the latter being known, prior to the 1800s, as Judenhass, Jew hate) methodology of oppression, which was unambiguously and specifically about Jews from a racialized lens. So the meme is, factually, wrong and at minimum misleading. But that’s not my biggest beef with it. My biggest beef with this is that it detracts from productive dialogue, even by folks who are posing this idea in good faith when it comes to Palestinian identity, specifically.
1) Words have meaning. Antisemitism has a clearly defined historical context. Saying, “Well I’m Semitic too” is nonsensical and makes you appear as if you’re denying racialized and/or religious discrimination against Jews exists when it very well does.
2) If you are not Jewish, you are inherently and more than likely unconsciously possessed of antisemitic beliefs, because - thanks to colonialism and white supremacy, which weaponized Christianity as a force of empire - those beliefs are now global. If a European foot has touched your continent, if you have Christians or have had Christians around you, or you’ve grown up in a Eurocolonial society, you were taught some form of antisemitism. Full stop.
3) So when you bring this up, you - at best - are derailing the conversation and making yourself look like a bigot by deflecting, OR, at worst, you are/were being a bigot, and trying to gaslight the person who challenged you on it. Neither of those things is useful or productive.
But to bring this back around to Palestinian identity: Palestinians do not need a racist exonym to justify their existence or their identity, and using that racist exonym to deflect bad faith (or good faith) criticism detracts from the legitimacy of their cause and right to self-determination. Erasure of Palestinian identity comes from the very same roots as antisemitism - and Zionism! - because it’s ALL white supremacy.
“Scientific racism” was what Theodor Herzl invoked when conceptualizing the Zionist political project, and that - rather bitterly - also later informed the architecture of the Shoah, not just against Jews, but also Romani and non-”Aryan” or “Caucasian” people. Herzl positioned Jews as a representative of a proxy Europeanness because Jews were not (will never be) Christians, and Christianity was assumed to be fundamental to a European (“white”; “Caucasian”) identity, which is why Jewish people are considered to have conditional white identity. It is a VEIL. It is transient and impermanent due to the politic construct of “race” but also the transcendental nature of Jewish identity.
To state again for the record: to criticize the State of Israel is not, inherently, antisemitic. When Jewish Zionists - because it’s mostly Jewish Zionists who do this - bring up this talking point, it is, most of the time, a deflection.
But where the intentional and malicious political architecture of white supremacy comes in, is that sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes the person doing the critiquing is, in fact, being antisemitic. It is the presence of that possibility that enables the paper-thin appearance of legitimacy to Zionist ideology. To not address and to simply dismiss any attempts to course correct when this happens - even if it’s as benign as the above meme, which is pretty benign - is to enable the traumatic feedback loop that is driving the violence and will, ultimately, prevent a true and permanent liberation for the Palestinian people.
Liberation is not linear, it is mycelial: we all get free together. Part of why I have stepped forward in my multifaceted Jewishness is because most racialized-as-white/white Jews who are invested in Palestinian liberation, who are anti-racist, would and do have a hard time correcting Black and Brown people on antisemitism and antisemitic rhetoric. This is PARTICULARLY and ESPECIALLY truein this moment and in this arena of discussion, where they are keenly aware that Jewish self-advocacy - thanks to the rhetoric of the state of Israel, who has done more for antisemitism than Christian Zionists have - is going to land like Zionist defense, racism, or white fragility. But that is not true for me, because I occupy so many intersections, and have complicated but fiercely liberation-grounded relationships with ALL aspects of myself, including my Jewishness.
Leaving actual, for real and for actually, antisemitism unaddressed poses danger first and foremost to Palestinians. It poses a threat to the truth, justice, and reconciliation process that’s going to need to take place to restore to them the rights they have been denied. It also poses a danger to Israelis - including Israelis working in accompliceship with Palestinians - and to Jews in the Diaspora, because it weakens the argument for a Jewish identity rooted in multirootedness, ethical values, and doykeit.
As I will keep saying until I am blue in the face: don’t. do. Zionists. job. for. them. Give them nothing. Be precise.
✨ Citing My Sources ✨
- Review of "The Canaanites" (1964) by Marvin Pope – "The term "Semitic," coined by Schlozer in 1781, should be strictly limited to linguistic matters since this is the only area in which a degree of objectivity is attainable...The ethnography and ethnology of the various peoples who spoke or still speak Semitic languages or dialects is a much more mixed and confused matter and one over which we have little scientific control."
- Hess, Jonathan M. (Winter 2000). "Johann David Michaelis and the Colonial Imaginary: Orientalism and the Emergence of Racial Antisemitism in Eighteenth-Century Germany". Jewish Social Studies. 6 (2): 56–101. doi:10.1353/jss.2000.0003. S2CID 153434303. – "When the term "antisemitism" was first introduced in Germany in the late 1870s, those who used it did so in order to stress the radical difference between their own "antisemitism" and earlier forms of antagonism toward Jews and Judaism."
- Zimmermann, Moshe (5 March 1987). Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-19-536495-8. — "The term 'anti-Semitism' was unsuitable from the beginning for the real essence of Jew-hatred, which remained anchored, more or less, in the Christian tradition even when it moved via the natural sciences, into racism. It is doubtful whether the term which was term which was first publicized in an institutional context (the Anti-Semitic League) would have appeared at all if the 'Anti-Chancellor League,' which fought Bismarck's policy, had not been in existence since 1875. The founders of the new Organization adopted the elements of 'anti' and 'league,' and searched for the proper term: Marr exchanged the term 'Jew' for 'Semite' which he already favored. It is possible that the shortened form 'Sem' is used with such frequency and ease by Marr (and in his writings) due to its literary advantage and because it reminded Marr of Sem Biedermann, his Jewish employer from the Vienna period."
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