A small spelling change relating to the hatred of Jews was announced last Friday by the Associated Press. Anti-Semitism will no longer appear with a hyphen in the AP Stylebook, the highly respected guide to punctuation, abbreviations, and pronouns that is used by journalists and educators. When placed inside a sentence, it will appear in lower case.
The change follows a campaign waged by Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, who argued that a capitalized and hyphenated anti-Semitism confuses readers into presuming that there is a “semitism” and that this form of hate includes all speakers of Semitic languages, such as the Arabs and Aramaic speakers.
“Why do I spell antisemitism without a hyphen? Because anti-Semitism is not hatred of Semitism or Semites – people who speak Semitic languages. Antisemitism is Jew-hatred,” she said in a May 2020 speech at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Indeed, the word was popularized by German author Wilhelm Marr in his 1879 pamphlet whose title translates in English as “The Victory of the Jewish Spirit over the Germanic Spirit. Observed from a non-religious perspective.” In this work, Marr paved the way towards Nazism by arguing that his hatred of Jews is not rooted in religion, but in their ethnicity, which cannot be changed by a religious conversion or assimilation. Following the pamphlet’s publication, Marr founded the Anti-Semitic League to promote the expulsion of Jews from German society. The German term antisemitismus never had a hyphen, but for some reason early English translators decided to split up this neologism.
Almost from its inception, alternative terms and spellings have been proposed in order to give the public a more accurate understanding of secular hatred of Jews. If anti-Semitism had a scientific ring to it, then it ought to be opposed with an equally powerful clinical-sounding term.
“Judeophobia is a psychic disorder. As a psychic disorder, it is hereditary; and as a disease transmitted for 2,000 years, it is incurable,” Leon Pinsker wrote in his anonymous 1882 pamphlet Auto-Emancipation. “Thus have Judaism and Jew-hatred passed through history for centuries as inseparable companions.”
A professional physician, he felt that his neologism was more accurate in describing this irrational form of hatred. “To the living, the Jew is a corpse. To the native a foreigner, to the homesteader a vagrant, to the proprietary a beggar, to the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, to the patriot a man without a country, for all a hated rival.”
Pinsker advocated a nationalist solution for antisemitism, the rebirth of an independent Jewish state. But while the Zionist movement picked up supporters, and conversely so did the hatred of Jews on pseudoscientific grounds, Judeophobia did not succeed against anti-Semitism.
Closer to the present day, anti-Semitism appeared entrenched not only in the AP Stylebook, but also as a standard spelling in Microsoft Word, frustrating many students and authors writing about Jewish history. In 2015, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance issued a memo arguing for the elimination of the hyphen.
“The unhyphenated spelling is favored by many scholars and institutions in order to dispel the idea that there is an entity “Semitism” which “anti-Semitism” opposes. Antisemitism should be read as a unified term so that the meaning of the generic term for modern Jew-hatred is clear. At a time of increased violence and rhetoric aimed towards Jews, it is urgent that there is clarity and no room for confusion or obfuscation when dealing with antisemitism.”
Since then, the Anti-Defamation League, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, the World Jewish Congress, and Yad Vashem, also dropped the hyphen in their use of this word. But for many publications, the power of the AP Stylebook ensured their compliance with the controversial spelling. This included leading news organizations such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the JTA, and The Forward. The State Department also kept the hyphen, as did the Merriam-Webster dictionary. In Europe, where the term was coined, most publications use the lower-case unhyphenated version. Likewise, all other languages that adopted Wilhelm Marr’s neologism do so without a hyphen.
The need for the spelling change is necessary as the term was designed to indicate hatred of Jews. Certainly in recent years, Arab-Americans have experienced hatred, associating them with terrorism and religious extremism, but aside from the linguistic connection of Arabs and Jews, these are completely different people, with unique history, and forms of hatred experienced by each respective group.
“While removing a hyphen by itself won’t defeat antisemitism, we believe this slight alteration will help to clarify understanding of this age-old hatred,” the ADL wrote in a statement.
In this age of self-identification when it is proper to ask an individual which pronouns they prefer – Black or African American, he or she, etc., it is fitting that the spelling of the world’s oldest form of hatred should be determined by those who have been in its crosshairs.
Perhaps this discussion can also inspire the questioning of other common mainstream terms that deserve reevaluation. Why are chareidim often described as “ultra-Orthodox”? Last year, Agudah Public Affairs Director Rabbi Avi Shafran made this argument in a New York Times opinion piece, arguing that it is pejorative.
The “ultra-Orthodox” approach towards religious observance is stringent, but a chareidi man is no more Orthodox than a clean-shaven dati leumi. They both observe the basics of Orthodoxy such as Shabbos, wearing t’filin, keeping kosher, and covering their heads.
On this note, I’ve made the argument that the “modern” in Modern Orthodox should not be capitalized as it gives the appearance of a distinct religious denomination. In reality, modern Orthodox Jews recognize themselves as members of a larger Orthodox tent defined by observance of halachah, which includes chasidim, chareidim, and yeshivish individuals. Perhaps it’s best to avoid this term entirely, as it has become a pejorative indicating a willingness to compromise one’s religious observance.
Another term deserving of retirement is “settlement,” which refers to Jewish communities located on lands occupied by Israel in 1967. The term conjures images of colonists or pioneers rather than an indigenous people returning to their native land. It also has the sense of being temporary, subject to dismantling, disengagement, or destruction. After more than a half century of growth, dense communities such as Beitar Illit and Ariel have the appearance of cities rather than trailers on a hilltop.
Sensibilities evolve, and languages follow. Unfortunately, antisemitism endures changes in society, always finding a new excuse to hate the Jews. When it is spelled properly, it provides a clear understanding of its meaning and intended target.
By Sergey Kadinsky