The Washington Post
Dictionary Urged to Delete 'False' Definition of Anti-Semitism
By Caryle Murphy
March 13, 2004
A leading Arab American civil rights organization has asked Merriam-Webster Inc. to publicly repudiate what the group calls a "false and damaging" definition of anti-Semitism in the unabridged version of Webster's Third New International Dictionary.
That dictionary lists, as one of the meanings of anti-Semitism, "opposition to Zionism: sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel."
In its complaint to Merriam-Webster, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee also asked the company to delete the definition in future reprintings of the 2,662-page dictionary's current edition and to insert a correction sheet into printings already made.
Leaving the definition uncorrected, the committee said in a March 3 letter, "smears and impugns the motives of all those who support the human and political rights of Palestinians; undermines the efforts of Arab and Jewish groups working for Middle East peace [and] stigmatizes legitimate political opinions and activities."
Merriam-Webster spokesman Arthur Bicknell said the company has no plans to immediately change the definition. But he added that because the definition no longer reflects current usage, "it is likely that [it] will be changed or eliminated" in the dictionary's fourth edition, which will be published in seven to 10 years.
Hussein Ibish, director of communications for the anti-discrimination committee, called Merriam-Webster's response "totally unacceptable. . . . It's not good enough to say in 10 years' time they'll deal with it."
Ibish said the committee has no problem with the dictionary's first definition of anti-Semitism, which describes it as "hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial minority group, often accompanied by social, political or economic discrimination." But he called the second definition "absolutely ridiculous."
Several other Merriam-Webster dictionaries, including its collegiate and online publications, are abridged versions of the International -- the company's flagship reference work -- and do not contain the second definition.
The anti-discrimination committee became aware of the definition through Silver Spring resident Dan Walsh, Ibish said. Walsh is a political consultant who has collected more than 3,500 political posters relating to Palestine, supports Palestinian self-determination and has written extensively on his Web site about what he regards as a mistaken "fusion" of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism.
When Walsh first questioned the definition with Merriam-Webster in 2001, senior editor Stephen J. Perrault replied by quoting from a memo by a Merriam-Webster researcher, who wrote that the definition was based "on a small group of citations clustered in the years 1947-1952" in which anti-Semitism was strongly associated with opposition to Israel or Zionism.
The memo went on to call that definition "now a relic and not needed in a dictionary that records primarily the contemporary vocabulary of English."
Ken Jacobson, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group, said defining anti-Semitism as "opposition to Zionism" is "close enough" to be a legitimate definition. "Zionism is the national expression of the Jewish people, and to deny that, it seems to me, most often reflects anti-Semitic views," he said. "It's an attack on the collectivity of the Jewish people."
Jacobson said, however, that he "would have a problem" with defining anti-Semitism as "sympathy for the opponents of Israel" because "it's too vague. . . . It might be appropriate in some cases, but there are too many exceptions to that that make it an inappropriate definition."
Bicknell said the dictionary publisher, based in Springfield, Mass., receives "hundreds if not thousands of requests each year from a wide variety of people who would like us to alter the definitions in our dictionary in order to promote a particular cause, interest or belief, and these requests come from all parts of the political spectrum."
Although the company appreciates "that people feel very strongly about particular words," Bicknell added, "we can't allow such considerations to deflect us from our primary job as lexicographers, which is to create a painstakingly accurate and comprehensive record of the English language based upon actual usage data."