Confusing Antisemitism

Analysis / Interpretation / Press

Confusing Antisemitism with Anti-Zionism

Gulf News

Dubai: Thursday, March 04, 2004

By: George S. Hishmeh

Mel Gibson's blockbuster movie, The Passion of the Christ, which has just opened at movie theatres to overflowing crowds has resurrected the debate here on antisemitism.

The term was first coined in 1879 by Wilhelm Marr, a German writer who described the dominance of Jews in Germany.

Coincidentally, it has also added impetus to an emerging campaign over the conflation of the term antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (2002), says antisemitism "is a misnomer, since it is used with reference to Jews only rather than to all Semites (including Arabs)." 

In fact, there's hardly agreement between many dictionaries or reference books on a clear-cut, unified definition of antisemitism. But none matches how Merriam-Webster, the American dictionary, explains it.

Three Senses

Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged), re-printed in 2002, provides this unbelievable definition with three senses and which has not been updated since 1956: It reads: "Antisemitism: (1) hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial minority group, often accompanied by social, political or economic discrimination (2) opposition to Zionism (3) sympathy for the opponents of Israel."

Dan Walsh, founder and CEO of Liberation Graphics (, a design and distribution firm that specialises in serving social activism, has personally encountered this three-layered definition in his work. Over the past 25 years, soon after serving in the Peace Corps in Morocco, he has systematically acquired and conserved contemporary Palestinian poster art and his firm now houses the world's largest archives, over 3,000 originals, of Palestine-related posters.

His repeated attempts to exhibit the posters, mainly drawn by Palestinian artists and some by others, including Israelis, have been rejected because of fear that they were antisemitic.

"The Palestinian political poster genre cannot be considered antisemitic because the posters are by and about Palestinians," he told me, "but they are anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist."

Contemporary Usage

In response to a letter from Walsh, Steve Perrault, the senior editor at Merriam-Webster, Inc., had this to say last January 29, quoting his editor-in-chief, Frederick Mish: "The very great majority of all our citations for 'antisemitism' show the word being used unmistakably in the sense numbered 1 in Webster's Third. There is, however, a small group of citations, clustered in the years 1947-1952 in which 'antisemitism' is linked more or less strongly with opposition to Israel or to Zionism."

And Perrault had this eye-opening concluding paragraph: "In any case, unless there is a return of the 1950s use that is not in prospect at present, the second sense will most probably disappear from the next edition of the International. If it is a real sense at all, it is now a relic and not needed in a dictionary that records primarily the contemporary vocabulary of English."

But this response has not satisfied the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, ADC, which has now agreed to join ranks with Walsh in getting Merriam-Webster to correct its loaded definition of anti-Semitism. "Given the gravity of the matter and the Third's status as a primary scholastic and academic reference resource," said the ADC letter that is being sent to the publishers and made available to me, "we cannot but lament that Merriam-Webster did not take advantage of the re-printing in 2002 to correct the term that (it) identifies as a 'relic' and even states for the record that may not ever have been a real definition."

It thus legitimises and promotes the definition that, among other things, "conflates the first, accurate definition with two inaccurate ones, thereby undermining and even trivialising the very concept of antisemitism and damaging efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination against Jewish groups and individuals."

It further "smears and impugns the motives of all those who support the human and political rights of Palestinians." ADC was hoping the publishers would issue a press release announcing their intention to remove its second and third senses of its definition from all future editions as well as issuing a detailed "errata sheet" that would be sent to all local, state, regional and federal libraries.

The significance of this encounter-in-the-making is that Israel and its supporters have long insisted on labelling any criticism of its government as "anti-Semitic", thus stifling any serious debate about the country's practices and policies.