Semites, Semitic peoples or Semitic cultures was a term for an ethnic, cultural or racial group. The terminology is now largely obsolete outside the grouping "Semitic languages" in linguistics.
First used in the 1770s by members of the Göttingen School of History, this Biblical terminology for race was derived from Shem (Hebrew: שם), one of the three sons of Noah in the Book of Genesis, together with the parallel terms Hamites and Japhetites.
Ethnicity and race
The term Semitic in a racial sense was coined by members of the Göttingen School of History in the early 1770s. Other members of the Göttingen School of History coined the separate term Caucasian in the 1780s. These terms were used and developed by numerous other scholars over the next century. In the early 20th century, the racialist classifications of Carleton S. Coon defined the Semitic peoples as members of the Caucasian race, not dissimilar in appearance to the neighbouring Indo-European, Northwest Caucasian, and Kartvelian-speaking peoples of the region. As language studies are interwoven with cultural studies, the term also came to describe the religions (ancient Semitic and Abrahamic) and Semitic-speaking ethnicities as well as the history of these varied cultures as associated by close geographic and linguistic distribution.
Antisemitism and Semiticisation
The terms "anti-Semite" or "antisemitism" came by a circuitous route to refer more narrowly to anyone who was hostile or discriminatory towards Jews in particular.
Anthropologists of the 19th century such as Ernest Renan readily aligned linguistic groupings with ethnicity and culture, appealing to anecdote, science and folklore in their efforts to define racial character. Moritz Steinschneider, in his periodical of Jewish letters Hamaskir (3 (Berlin 1860), 16), discusses an article by Heymann Steinthal criticising Renan's article "New Considerations on the General Character of the Semitic Peoples, In Particular Their Tendency to Monotheism". Renan had acknowledged the importance of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Israel etc. but called the Semitic races inferior to the Aryan for their monotheism, which he held to arise from their supposed lustful, violent, unscrupulous and selfish racial instincts. Steinthal summed up these predispositions as "Semitism", and so Steinschneider characterised Renan's ideas as "anti-Semitic prejudice".
In 1879 the German journalist Wilhelm Marr began the politicisation of the term by speaking of a struggle between Jews and Germans in a pamphlet called Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum ("The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism"). He accused the Jews of being liberals, a people without roots who had Judaized Germans beyond salvation. In 1879 Marr's adherents founded the "League for Anti-Semitism", which concerned itself entirely with anti-Jewish political action.
Objections to the usage of the term, such as the obsolete nature of the term "Semitic" as a racial term and the exclusion of discrimination against non-Jewish Semitic peoples, have been raised since at least the 1930s.
- Einleitung in die synchronistische universalhistorie, Gatterer, 1771. Described first ethnic use of the term Semitic by: (1) A note on the history of 'Semitic', 2003, by Martin Baasten; and (2) Taal-, land- en volkenkunde in de achttiende eeuw, 1994, by Han Vermeulen (in Dutch).
- Liverani1995, p. 392: "A more critical look at this complex of problems should advise employing today the term and the concept "Semites" exclusively in its linguistic sense, and, on the other hand, tracing back every cultural fact to its concrete historical environment. The use of the term "Semitic" in culture, subject as it is to arbitrary simplifications, shows methodological risks which exceed by far the possibility of positive historical analysis. In any case the Semitic character of every cultural fact is a problem which in each situation must be ascenained in its limits and in its historical setting (both in time and in the social environment), and may not be assumed as obvious or traced back to a presumed "Proto-Semitic" culture, statically conceived."
- On the use of the terms “(anti-)Semitic” and “(anti-) Zionist” in modern Middle Eastern discourse, Orientalia Suecana LXI Suppl. (2012) by Lutz Eberhard Edzard: "In linguistics context, the term "Semitic" is generally speaking non-controversial... As an ethnic term, "Semitic" should best be avoided these days, in spite of ongoing genetic research (which also is supported by the Israeli scholarly community itself) that tries to scientifically underpin such a concept."
- 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 Semitic languages comprise a fairly distinct linguistic family, a fact appreciated long before the relationship of the Indo-European languages was recognized. 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."
- Glöckner, Olaf; Fireberg, Haim (25 September 2015). Being Jewish in 21st-Century Germany. De Gruyter. p. 200. ISBN 978-3-11-035015-9.
...there is no Semitic ethnicity, only Semitic languages
- Anidjar 2008, p. (Foreword): "This collection of essays explores the now mostly extinct notion of Semites. Invented in the nineteenth century and essential to the making of modern conceptions of religion and race, the strange unity of Jew and Arab under one term, Semite (the opposing term was Aryan), and the circumstances that brought about its disappearance constitute the subject of this volume."
- Anidjar 2008, p. 6: "To a large extent, or rather, to a quite complete extent, Semites were, like their ever so distant relatives – the Aryans – a concrete figment of the Western imagination, the peculiar imagination that concerns me in the chapters that follow. And just as the witches (the simultaneous efficacy and deep unreliability of "spectral evidence"), Semites were – I write in the past tense because Semites are a thing of the past, ephemeral beings long vanished as such – Semites were, then, something of a hypothesis (Chapter 1), contemporary with, and constitutive of, that other powerfully incarnate fiction named "secularism" (Chapter 2). Again, and as underscored by Edward Said, who raIsed anew the "Semitic question", the role of the imagination can hardly be downplayed."
- Lewis, Bernard (1987). Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. W W Norton & Co Inc. ISBN 978-0393304206.
The confusion between race and language goes back a long way, and was compounded by the rapidly changing content of the word "race" in European and later in American usage. Serious scholars have pointed out–repeatedly and ineffectually-‑that "Semitic" is a linguistic and cultural classification, denoting certain languages and in some contexts the literatures and civilizations expressed in those languages. As a kind of shorthand, it was sometimes retained to designate the speakers of those languages. At one time it might thus have had a connotation of race, when that word itself was used to designate national and cultural entities. It has nothing whatever to do with race in the anthropological sense that is now common usage. A glance at the present‑day speakers of Arabic, from Khartoum to Aleppo and from Mauritania to Mosul, or even of Hebrew speakers in the modern state of Israel, will suffice to show the enormous diversity of racial types.
- Baasten, Martin (2003). "A Note on the History of 'Semitic'". Hamlet on a Hill: Semitic and Greek Studies Presented to Professor T. Muraoka on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday. Peeters Publishers. p. 57–73. ISBN 9789042912151.
- The Races of Europe by Carleton Stevens Coon. From Chapter XI: The Mediterranean World – Introduction: "This third racial zone stretches from Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco, and thence along the southern Mediterranean shores into Arabia, East Africa, Mesopotamia, and the Persian highlands; and across Afghanistan into India."
- "Semite". Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.
- "Anti-Semitism". Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.
- Reprinted G. Karpeles (ed.), Steinthal H., Ueber Juden und Judentum, Berlin 1918, pp. 91 ff.
- Published in the Journal Asiatique, 1859
- Alex Bein, The Jewish Question: Biography of a World Problem, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, p. 594, ISBN 0-8386-3252-1 – quoting the Hebrew Encyclopaedia Ozar Ysrael, (edited Jehuda Eisenstadt, London 1924, 2: 130ff)
- Moshe Zimmermann, Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism, Oxford University Press, USA, 1987
- Sevenster, Jan Nicolaas (1975). The Roots of Pagan Anti-Semitism in the Ancient World. Brill Archive. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-90-04-04193-6.
It has long been realised that there are objections to the term anti-Semitism and therefore an endeavour has been made to find a word which better interprets the meaning intended. Already in 1936 Bolkestein, for example, wrote an article on Het "antisemietisme" in de oudheid (Anti-Semitism in the ancient world) in which the word was placed between quotation marks and a preference was expressed for the term hatred of the Jews… Nowadays the term anti-Judaism is often preferred. It certainly expresses better than anti-Semitism the fact that it concerns the attitude to the Jews and avoids any suggestion of racial distinction, which was not or hardly, a factor of any significance in ancient times. For this reason Leipoldt preferred to speak of anti-Judaism when writing his Antisemitsmus in der alien Welt (l933). Bonsirven also preferred this word to Anti-Semitism, "mot moderne qui implique une théorie des races".
- Zimmermann, Moshe (5 March 1987). Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism: 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 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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