The Misuse of ‘Anti-Semitism’

Wilhelm Marr introduced the terms “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Semite” into the German language in 1879 to denote a programmatic political agenda; English-language writers soon picked it up, and in both English and German—as in a number of other languages, Hebrew included—the term refers to a programmatic political, social and cultural agenda against Jews. The added element of racial hatred differentiates anti-Semitism from the older phenomenon of religious bigotry known as anti-Judaism. The practices and policies that lead to genocide, pogroms, lynching, and the systematic exclusion of Jews from civil society simply because they are Jews are indisputable examples of anti-Semitism. The recent kidnapping, torture, and murder of Ilan Halimi in France and the explicitly hateful policies of the Islamic Republic of Iran are contemporary examples of anti-Semitism.

How then did “anti-Semitism,” with its specific political meaning and with all its horrific historical connotations, come into the discourse of what is essentially a management dispute at a Massachusetts university named Harvard? President Lawrence H. Summers has warned against “caricaturing” the complex situation surrounding his resignation, but the introduction of the term “anti-Semitism” into the discourse caricatures both the local dispute and—more seriously—the ghastly racism at the core of anti-Semitism. Harvard colleagues and others have been quoted in The Crimson, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere as suggesting that anti-Semitism was at least one factor in the ouster of Dr. Summers, the university’s first Jewish president. Thus the term anti-Semitism is redefined in a radically new way, so that the many and varied opponents of a college president, who happens to self-identify as Jewish, find themselves accused of being at least partly inspired by racial bigotry. This new meaning is entirely dissimilar from the conservative and historically stable definition of “anti-Semitism.” The technical term in rhetoric for such a change in the meaning of a word is catachresis: “the application of a term to a thing which it does not properly denote or the perversion of a trope or metaphor” (Oxford English Dictionary).

The catachresis of anti-Semitism at Harvard begins with President Summers’ 2002 denunciation of colleagues who signed an anti-Israel divestment petition as being, basically, anti-Semites. Certainly the anti-Israel divestment movement was and remains obnoxious, but not for the reasons the Summers partisans suppose. The very premise of divestment, from Israel or any other entity, operates on the delusion of “clean money=clean mind,” and betrays a deluxe disregard for the way capital moves and shakes in globalization. It would have been useful if economists at Harvard could explain the solipsistic futility of divestment in economic terms, rather than parsing constructed distinctions between alleged bigotries of “intent” versus “effect.” It would have been useful if University leaders could explain that the complex situation in Israel and Palestine is devoid of cowboy-movie good guy/bad guy distinctions that animate the shallow logic of divestment. It would have been useful for an economist with World Bank experience to explain that the economies of Israel and the Palestinian Authority are massively integrated, so that divestment from one is also divestment from the other. It would have been useful if the University president had explained that Harvard’s financial investments are intended to support teaching and research, and that such investments should be managed only with those goals in mind rather than being subjected to the whims of political fashion. Instead, the A-bomb term “anti-Semitism” was dropped catachrestically, occluding all other arguments, embittering and insulting colleagues and—most importantly—neutering the meaning of anti-Semitism so that it works not as the name for violent racial bigotry, but as an unsuccessful attempt to embarrass critics into silence.

Like the boy who cried wolf, those who recklessly toss around and redefine terms like anti-Semitism should be held responsible for destroying, through willful catachresis, the use-value of a powerful word of warning. Evidently lacking many positive arguments in support of their candidate, the Summers partisans have re-introduced the term in its new meaning: an anti-Semite was once a person who hated Jews; has it now come to refer to people whom certain Jews don’t like? Such catachresis is unacceptable and must be resisted, despite the temptations of relativism.

Avi Matalon is an assistant professor in the department of near eastern languages and civilizations, where he teaches Jewish literature and cultural history.