Defining the word “Semitism”: Correcting Prejudiced Misconceptions

Cape Town - South Africa

There are many prejudiced misconceptions around the meaning of the word “Semitism”. This article will attempt to shed light on the true classical meaning of the word “Semitism” and answer the question “who are the Semitic people?

The mere mention of the word “Semitic” nowadays seems to point to one group of people, the “Jews”, as being the only ones who qualify to be called Semitic. The opposite of it “anti-Semitism” has been politicized and is used to label anyone who dares criticize Jews and the Zionist State of Israel in its present form.

The word “Semite” (Noun) describes a member of any of the various ancient and modern peoples originating in South-western Asia. Over the centuries scholars have given different definitions of the word. Some have confined their definition as relating to or denoting a family of languages that includes Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic and certain ancient languages such as Phoenician, Akkadian, constituting the main subgroup of the Afro-Asiatic family. Others relate it to the people who speak Semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic only.

The term “Semite” has a Biblical root coming from the name of Noah’s eldest son Shem. Space constraints do not allow for elaboration, suffice to say that all three Monotheistic religions have an interest in the term. In the face of the historical, linguistic, archaeological, and ethnographical evidence, the term survived well into the 18th and 19th centuries among scholars and non-scholars.

The term “Semite” dates back to 18th century Europe. The notion that some languages may be related to other languages was by no means new. Already in ancient times, Jewish scholars were aware of the kinship and similarities between Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic.

By the early 18th century, the various languages spoken in the South-Western part of the Arabian Peninsula were grouped as “Arabic” simply because Arabic was the most prolific language spoken. From the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates and from Mesopotamia down to Arabia, as is known, only one language reigned. That was Arabic. The Syrians, Babylonians, Hebrews and Arabs were one people. Even the so-called Hamites [Africans] spoke this language which might be called “Semitic”.

Fast forward to the 21st century. The pro-Zionist lobby groups and right-wing politicians in Europe and the United States have adopted a bizarre definition for “Anti-Semitism”. This definition, crafted by Zionists make various claims, among them being:

  • Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion, is considered “anti-Semitic”. What is “radical ideology”? Is resisting the illegal occupation considered as “harming the Jews”? Many colonial settlers live by the power of the gun on land stolen from the Palestinians.
  • The definition also includes “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations”. What yardstick do you use to determine “loyalty”? Accusing a South African Jew of being more loyal to Israel, means I am anti-Semitic?
  • According to the definition, one cannot expect the behaviour of Israel not demanded of any other democratic nation.

Israel is not a “democratic nation”.

From the above, it is clear that according to this definition, many South Africans could be found guilty of “anti-Semitism”. Fortunately, in a landmark ruling in our Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), in the matter between Mr. Bongani Masuku (COSATU) and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and the South African Zionist Federation, much clarity was provided as to what constituted “hate speech”.

The SCA differed with the earlier findings of the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Act. In its judgment, the SCA reiterated that the freedom of speech is a fundamental principle of any democracy. Any limitations placed on this freedom must be done with great circumspection and robust interrogation.