What is a Semite?

Image: Tee shirt with the words “Yo Semite.” Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American Jewish History Museum Store.

Actually, there’s no such thing. “Semitic” is a designation for a language group that includes Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic, Tigrinya, and Hebrew.

The term was coined in the late 18th century by August Ludwig von Schlözer, a historian, and Johann Gottfried Eichhorn, a German Protestant theologian. They derived it from Shem, the name of one of the three sons of Noah in Genesis 10, via the Greek pronunciation Σημ (“seem.”)  As critics at the time pointed out, this was problematic because in that passage, the Canaanites (who also spoke a language from this group) were descended from another brother, Ham.

Academics began to refer to Jews as “Semites” in the 19th century. Pseudoscientific theories about race abounded in the West and were used to justify hatred towards Jews and other people deemed undesirable by those in power. Targeted groups included people of African descent, Irish descent, Asian descent, and those with brown skin. So-called scientists strove to identify physical characteristics which “proved” that those groups of individuals were inferior to whites. Jews were also one of the targeted groups and were referred to as “Hebrews” or “Semites” to underline the notion of a Jewish race (a concept that completely ignores Judaism’s long history of accepting converts.)

German journalist Wilhelm Marr used the term “antisemitismus” [antisemitism] as a more scientific-sounding, more elegant alternative to “Jew hatred.” in 1880 he published a pamphlet, Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum (The Way to Victory of the Germanic Spirit over the Jewish Spirit, which outlined his theory that Jews were infiltrating and damaging German culture. In the same year he founded the Antisemiten-Liga [Antisemitism League] in Germany and the term antisemitism moved into popular use.

It is probably more useful to use the term “Jew hatred” for the fear and hatred of Jews, rather than to get embroiled in arguments about whether or not Arabs are also “Semites” and therefore subject to “antisemitism.” However, courtesy of some 19th century Germans, we seem to be stuck with this misnomer.

Jewish tradition as well as Christian tradition teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God and are therefore equal:

And God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them. – Genesis 1:27

Islam also asserts the equality of human beings, as established in the Quran. God makes distinctions among people only according to their individual righteousness:

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). – Quran 49:13

Therefore the hatred of any group of people merely because of their designation as a member of that group is wrong according to all three Abrahamic religions. Nor does science perceive any difference among homo sapiens: despite differences in coloration or belief, we are all one humanity.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

9 thoughts on “What is a Semite?”

  1. Wonderful post, Rabbi Ruth! It made me reflect on however much we might worry (and rightfully so) about weapons like guns bombs, etc., Words used as weapons can destroy just is completely is they can heal. By the way, if you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend the new book by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called “Not In God’s Name.”

  2. Two things…..
    Who is the “we” in the Quran quote? ( genuine curiosity)
    Where can I get one if those t shirts( extra extra large)? 🙂
    Thanks as ever….

    1. Judging from context, I would say “we” is a sort of editorial/royal we referring to God. I am not an expert on the Quran, so that’s just a guess.

      As for the shirt, it is available here: http://www.judaicashop.net/p-2426-yo-semite-cotton-t-shirt.aspx?utm_source=Google&utm_medium=ShoppingFeed&utm_term=PrductListingAds&utm_content=AllProducts&utm_campaign=GoogleShopping&gclid=CjwKEAiA3aW2BRCD_cOo5oCFuUMSJADiIMILK1gBefwPY9Ju4Oe6GCQ81LiJD4mfRrhEJ8LWcJP2BBoCB1_w_wcB

  3. Thank you Rabbi Ruth. I attended a private Catholic school for three years. We studied all world religions along with several languages. We were taught to think before we speak. As you have shown a words become popular without understanding its origins. The power of words can create a world of beauty or lead to a Holocaust.

  4. There’s a local talk radio host who is vociferously of the “Arabs are Semites too, therefore ‘antisemitism’ can’t mean animus toward Jews” stripe. Never mind that that is explicitly, and exclusively, what the word was created to mean.

    1. hmmm…. patti, if you are ever inclined to let me know his name and station, I’d be glad to engage with him about it. That sort of talk is exactly why I wrote this post. It’s actually rather insulting to Arabs, since the people who generated the word seem to have not considered their existence at all. I really wish we hadn’t adopted it for our own use, but it’s too late now.

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