Infinite splits

What’s in a hyphen? Why writing anti-Semitism with a dash distorts its meaning

Regularly spelled with a hyphen in American English but without in academia, some experts claim the punctuation mark slashes the word’s potency

Reporter at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: People hold up placards and Union flags as they gather for a demonstration organized by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London on April 8, 2018. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)
Illustrative: People hold up placards and Union flags as they gather for a demonstration organized by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism outside the head office of the British opposition Labour Party in central London on April 8, 2018. (AFP/Tolga Akmen)

In April of 2015, Microsoft received an unusual memo. Crafted on behalf of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, a group of scholars issued a “Memo on Spelling of Antisemitism,” urging a change to the mammoth hi-tech company’s auto-correct spelling policy. Until then, a hyphen had been perfunctorily added between “anti” and “Semitism” in the word commonly used for hatred and prejudice against Jews.

Far from being an innocuous debate over semantics, the IHRA claimed that a hyphened “anti-Semitism” gave credence to discredited Nazi racial theories, wherein humanity was divided into superior and inferior subcategories. Additionally, claimed the scholars, a hyphen dilutes and distorts the term’s meaning by implying that groups other than Jews are included within the supposed “Semites” being opposed.

Case in point is a 2015 speech given by consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader: “[Supporters of Israel] know how to accuse people of anti-Semitism if any issue on Israel is criticized, even though the worst anti-Semitism in the world today is against Arabs and Arab-Americans,” he said.

Addressing a gathering of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the five-time presidential nominee’s remarks focused heavily on Jews and Israel.

According to Nader, a longtime critic of the Jewish state, “The Semitic race is Arabs and Jews and Jews do not own the phrase anti-Semitism.” For this and other remarks, Nader was accused of “linguistically hijacking” the term anti-Semitism by some critics.

Thousands of protesters attend a rally against anti-Semitism near the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Sunday, September 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, Pool)

Like the word “Aryan,” the term “Semitism” is based on a mythical conglomeration of languages and race, as opposed to science. “Semites” were people who spoke one of several related languages, all of whom traced their roots to the Bible’s Shem, Noah’s son.

The term “antisemitism,” coined in 1879, was not a reference to groups of people who spoke similar Levant-based languages. Rather, as “invented” by German journalist Wilhelm Marr, “antisemitism” was intended to give an air of modernity and science to old-fashioned Jew-hatred.

After its inception in Germany, antisemitism — without a hyphen — spread across the continent. The term was never hyphenated in German, Spanish, or French. In English, however, the term has come to appear with a hyphen in most popular usages, outside of Europe.

For the IHRA, the addition of a hyphen to antisemitism is problematic in part because the group sees the hyphen as a “[legitimization] of a form of pseudo-scientific racial classification that was thoroughly discredited by association with Nazi ideology.”

Notorious Nazi physician Josef Mengele as a young doctor and the ‘ramp’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau in May of 1944, where Mengele sometimes selected inmates for life, death or ‘experimentation’ (public domain)

According to the alliance, adding a hyphen also “divides the term, stripping it from its meaning of opposition and hatred toward Jews. Antisemitism should be read as a unified term so that the meaning of the generic term for modern Jew-hatred is clear.

“At a time of increased violence and rhetoric aimed towards Jews, it is urgent that there is clarity and no room for confusion or obfuscation when dealing with antisemitism,” stated the alliance.

‘Overreaction to Arab claims’

Since 2015, governments around the world have adopted the IHRA’s definition of antisemitism, and Microsoft no longer “forces” a hyphen into the term. However, most English-language media outlets and writers outside of academia — including this one — continue to employ a hyphenated anti-Semitism.

Unlike those in the ivory tower, in the assessment of some Jewish communal practitioners, now is not the time for a semantic debate. When questioned by The Times of Israel, very few experts expressed concern about anti-Semitism continuing to be spelled with a hyphen among the general public.

Nikolay Mladenov, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process speaks during the 6th Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism conference at the Jerusalem Convention Center, on March 19, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ken Jacobson, the Anti-Defamation League’s deputy national director, believes the conversation is “intellectually dueling and largely divorced from reality.”

In Jacobson’s assessment, the debate is “is an overreaction to Arab claims that they can’t be anti-Semites because they are a Semitic people,” he said.

Calling the term anti-Semitism “archaic and strange,” Jacobson noted that “it took the shock of Russian pogroms and the Holocaust to bring the term into everyday usage,” as he told The Times of Israel.

Because the term anti-Semitism has been spelled with a hyphen “millions of times in every vehicle possible,” said Jacobson, “changing it will not enhance anyone’s understanding and could even undermine a word that aptly conveys the power of this evil.” said Jacobson.

For Rob Leikind, head of Boston’s American Jewish Committee chapter, “There are good arguments with which to contend that the spelling ‘antisemitism’ more accurately depicts anti-Jewish hostility or prejudice than the spelling ‘anti-Semitism.’”

A Holocaust memorial created in the ‘sauna’ facility of the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, with photographs of people deported there, October 2017 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

However, said Leikind, “‘anti-Semitism’ is the common way to spell the word, some extremists excepted. Nearly everyone understands that this word references Jews alone, and changing to ‘antisemitism’ would accomplish little beyond causing additional confusion.”

Clarity is also on the mind of journalist Cnaan Liphshiz, a Netherlands-based reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

“In my professional capacity I use whatever the style guide requires. Personally, I find the debate too persnickety to feel strongly about one way or another,” said Liphshiz, who regularly writes about anti-Semitism in Europe.

“However, I’m inclined to use the non-hyphenated variant because that’s how it’s spelled in virtually all the European languages that I monitor for my reporting,” said Liphshiz.

‘Embedded in our collective consciousness’

Among experts questioned by The Times of Israel, several made cases for the importance of “antisemitism,” as opposed to “anti-Semitism.”

“The term anti-Semitism (as you apparently spell it) is meaningless, because there is no Semitism one can be ‘anti’ to,” wrote Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer in an email to The Times of Israel.

According to Bauer, “There are Semitic languages, including for instance Tigrean in Ethiopia, and the term hardly refers to antipathy towards the Tigre. You cannot be anti-Semitic just as you cannot be anti-Indo-European,” said Bauer.

Illustrative: anti-Israel students at Columbia University erect a mock ‘apartheid wall’ in front of the iconic Low Library steps during Israel Apartheid Week, March 3, 2016. (Uriel Heilman)

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, head of the AMCHA Initiative focused on campus anti-Semitism, wrote that “Anti-anything — with a hyphen — describes a state of being opposed to a particular policy, idea or thing at a particular time.”

However, added Rossman-Benjamin, anti-Semitism goes beyond “opposition” to Jews, and involves “a profound and irrational hatred of them, a phenomenon embedded in our collective consciousness that has existed longer than any other form of hatred. Anti-Semitism — with the hyphen — does not seem to me to capture this understanding of the word,” she said.

According to Rossman-Benjamin, a hyphen-less antisemitism “is also the recognized spelling among scholars of antisemitism and the one we use in all of our scholarly work. The confusion arises because anti-Semitism — with the hyphen — has become the accepted spelling in most dictionaries and spell-checkers.”

Despite her case for ditching the hyphen, Rossman-Benjamin was pragmatic about the likelihood of “anti-Semitism” disappearing from popular use.

“The approach we take is to use antisemitism in the vast majority of our work, including scholarly articles, research, reports and presentations,” said Rossman-Benjamin. “However, when writing for news outlets we have no problem including the hyphen to be consistent with the preferred spelling of reporters, editors and fact-checkers, and it saves us much back-and-forth on corrections.”

Students at a “Hebrew Liberation Week” event at Columbia University, initiated in 2017 (Maccabee Task Force)

Another organization with a focus on combating Judeophobia on campus is StandWithUs, which provides activists with strategies and materials about — for example — how to defend Israel against the BDS movement.

According to StandWithUs co-founder and CEO Roz Rothstein, her organization has always used a hyphenated anti-Semitism.

“As incidents of anti-Semitism across the US and other countries have escalated, and the conversation should address both the incidents and the immediate need for solutions, we don’t want to distract people from the importance of the conversation by throwing a new spelling at them,” said Rothstein.

Echoing that sentiment was Alvin H. Rosenfeld, director of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.

“Will spelling the word in an unhyphenated way as “antisemite” and not “anti-Semite” correct its misuse? Probably not for those who willfully misuse it, but for others, it may clarify that no one ever beat or cursed a Jew because he hated ‘Semitism,’ but only because he hated Jews,” wrote Rosenfeld.

Most Popular
read more: