The term Semites (from the biblical "Shem", Hebrew: שם) was historically also used as a racial category, referencing three great "races" or groups of peoples descended from the sons of Noah. The "Semites" were the natives of Asia (i.e. the Near East), alongside the Hamites as the natives of Africa (i.e. North Africa) and the Japhetites as the natives of Europe. The terminology was first used in this way in the 1770s by members of the Göttingen School of History.
The term was later introduced in historical linguistics and physical anthropology to describe a "Semitic" racial group as opposed to an "Aryan" group speaking Indo-European languages. This usage is now mostly obsolete.
While the adjectival "Semitic" remains in use in reference to the Semitic languages, the noun "Semites" is mostly obsolete, except for occasional or informal use as "a kind of shorthand" for ancient Semitic-speaking peoples. Various scholars have stated that the concept of "Semitic ethnicity", "Semitic culture" should be avoided or does not exist.
Ethnicity and race
In the racialist classifications of Carleton S. Coon, the Semitic peoples were considered to be members of the Caucasian race, not dissimilar in appearance to the neighbouring Indo-European, Northwest Caucasian, Berber and Kartvelian-speaking peoples of the region. As language studies are interwoven with cultural studies, the term also came to describe the religions (ancient Semitic and Abrahamic) and Semitic-speaking ethnicities as well as the history of these varied cultures as associated by close geographic and linguistic distribution.
Some recent genetic studies have found (by analysis of the DNA of Semitic-speaking peoples) that they have some common ancestry. Although no significant common mitochondrial results have been found, Y-chromosomal links between modern Semitic-speaking peoples of the Middle East like Arabs, Hebrews, Mandaeans, Syriacs-Arameans, Samaritans and Assyrians have proved fruitful, despite differences contributed from other groups (see Y-chromosomal Aaron).
A DNA study of Jews and Palestinian Arabs (including Bedouins) found that these were more closely related to each other than to people of the Arabian Peninsula, Ethiopian Semitic-speaking people (Amharas, Tigrayans , Harari and Tigre people), and the Arabic speakers of North Africa.
Genetic studies indicate that modern Jews (Ashkenazi, Sephardic and Mizrahi specifically), Levantine Arabs, Assyrians, Samaritans, Syriacs-Arameans, Maronites, Druze, Mandaeans, and Mhallami, all have an ancient indigenous common Near Eastern heritage which can be genetically mapped back to the ancient Fertile Crescent, but often also display genetic profiles distinct from one another, indicating the different histories of these peoples.
Antisemitism and Semiticisation
The terms "anti-Semite" or "antisemitism" came by a circuitous route to refer more narrowly to anyone who was hostile or discriminatory towards Jews in particular.
Anthropologists of the 19th century such as Ernest Renan readily aligned linguistic groupings with ethnicity and culture, appealing to anecdote, science and folklore in their efforts to define racial character. Moritz Steinschneider, in his periodical of Jewish letters Hamaskir (3 (Berlin 1860), 16), discusses an article by Heymann Steinthal criticising Renan's article "New Considerations on the General Character of the Semitic Peoples, In Particular Their Tendency to Monotheism". Renan had acknowledged the importance of the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Israel etc. but called the Semitic races inferior to the Aryan for their monotheism, which he held to arise from their supposed lustful, violent, unscrupulous and selfish racial instincts. Steinthal summed up these predispositions as "Semitism", and so Steinschneider characterised Renan's ideas as "anti-Semitic prejudice".
In 1879 the German journalist Wilhelm Marr, in a pamphlet called Der Weg zum Siege des Germanenthums über das Judenthum ("The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism"), began the politicisation of the term by speaking of a struggle between Jews and Germans. He accused them of being liberals, a people without roots who had Judaized Germans beyond salvation. In 1879 Marr's adherents founded the "League for Anti-Semitism" which concerned itself entirely with anti-Jewish political action.
Objections to the usage of the term, such as the obsolete nature of the term Semitic as a racial term and the exclusion of discrimination against non-Jewish Semitic peoples, have been raised since at least the 1930s.
- Einleitung in die synchronistische universalhistorie, Gatterer, 1771. Described first ethnic use of the term Semitic by: (1) A note on the history of 'Semitic', 2003, by Martin Baasten; and (2) Taal-, land- en volkenkunde in de achttiende eeuw, 1994, by Han Vermeulen (in Dutch).
- Baasten, Martin (2003). "A Note on the History of 'Semitic'". Hamlet on a Hill: Semitic and Greek Studies Presented to Professor T. Muraoka on the Occasion of His Sixty-fifth Birthday. Peeters Publishers. p. 57–73. ISBN 9789042912151.
- Anidjar 2008, p. (Foreword): "This collection of essays explores the now mostly extinct notion of Semites. Invented in the nineteenth century and essential to the making of modern conceptions of religion and race, the strange unity of Jew and Arab under one term, Semite (the opposing term was Aryan), and the circumstances that brought about its disappearance constitute the subject of this volume."
- Anidjar 2008, p. 6: "To a large extent, or rather, to a quite complete extent, Semites were, like their ever so distant relatives - the Aryans - a concrete figment of the Western imagination, the peculiar imagination that concerns me in the chapters that follow. And just as the witches (the simultaneous efficacy and deep unreliability of "spectral evidence"), Semites were - I write in the past tense because Semites are a thing of the past, ephemeral beings long vanished as such - Semites were, then, something of a hypothesis (Chapter 1), contemporary with, and constitutive of, that other powerfully incarnate fiction named "secularism" (Chapter 2). Again, and as underscored by Edward Said, who raIsed anew the "Semitic question", the role of the imagination can hardly be downplayed."
- Lewis, Bernard (1987). Semites and Anti-Semites: An Inquiry into Conflict and Prejudice. W W Norton & Co Inc. ISBN 0393304205.
The confusion between race and language goes back a long way, and was compounded by the rapidly changing content of the word “race” in European and later in American usage. Serious scholars have pointed out–repeatedly and ineffectually-‑that “Semitic” is a linguistic and cultural classification, denoting certain languages and in some contexts the literatures and civilizations expressed in those languages. As a kind of shorthand, it was sometimes retained to designate the speakers of those languages. At one time it might thus have had a connotation of race, when that word itself was used to designate national and cultural entities. It has nothing whatever to do with race in the anthropological sense that is now common usage. A glance at the present‑day speakers of Arabic, from Khartoum to Aleppo and from Mauritania to Mosul, or even of Hebrew speakers in the modern state of Israel, will suffice to show the enormous diversity of racial types.
- Liverani1995, p. 392: "A more critical look at this complex of problems should advise employing today the term and the concept "Semites" exclusively in its linguistic sense, and, on the other hand, tracing back every cultural fact to its concrete historical environment. The use of the term "Semitic" in culture, subject as it is to arbitrary simplifications, shows methodological risks which exceed by far the possibility of positive historical analysis. In any case the Semitic character of every cultural fact is a problem which in each situation must be ascenained in its limits and in its historical setting (both in time and in the social environment), and may not be assumed as obvious or traced back to a presumed "Proto-Semitic" culture, statically conceived."
- On the use of the terms “(anti-)Semitic” and “(anti-) Zionist” in modern Middle Eastern discourse, Orientalia Suecana LXI Suppl. (2012) by Lutz Eberhard Edzard: "In linguistics context, the term “Semitic” is generally speaking non-controversial... As an ethnic term, “Semitic” should best be avoided these days, in spite of ongoing genetic research (which also is supported by the Israeli scholarly community itself) that tries to scientifically underpin such a concept."
- Review of "The Canaanites" (1964) by Marvin Pope: "The term “Semitic,” coined by Schlozer in 1781, should be strictly limited to linguistic matters since this is the only area in which a degree of objectivity is attainable. The Semitic languages comprise a fairly distinct linguistic family, a fact appreciated long before the relationship of the Indo-European languages was recognized. The ethnography and ethnology of the various peoples who spoke or still speak Semitic languages or dialects is a much more mixed and confused matter and one over which we have little scientific control."
- Glöckner, Olaf; Fireberg, Haim (25 September 2015). Being Jewish in 21st-Century Germany. De Gruyter. p. 200. ISBN 978-3-11-035015-9.
...there is no Semitic ethnicity, only Semitic languages
- The Races of Europe by Carleton Stevens Coon. From Chapter XI: The Mediterranean World – Introduction: "This third racial zone stretches from Spain across the Straits of Gibraltar to Morocco, and thence along the southern Mediterranean shores into Arabia, East Africa, Mesopotamia, and the Persian highlands; and across Afghanistan into India."
- "Semite". Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.
- Nebel, Almut; Filon, Dvora; Brinkmann, Bernd; Majumder, Partha P.; Faerman, Marina; Oppenheim, Ariella (2001). "The Y Chromosome Pool of Jews as Part of the Genetic Landscape of the Middle East". American Journal of Human Genetics. 69 (5): 1095–1112. doi:10.1086/324070. PMC . PMID 11573163.
- Alshamali, Farida; Pereira, Luísa; Budowle, Bruce; Poloni, Estella S.; Currat, Mathias (2009). "Local Population Structure in Arabian Peninsula Revealed by Y-STR Diversity". Hum Hered. 68: 45–54. doi:10.1159/000210448. PMID 19339785.
- Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, Alberto Piazza, The History and Geography of Human Genes, p. 243
- "Anti-Semitism". Merriam-Webster's Collegiate® Dictionary, Eleventh Edition.
- Reprinted G. Karpeles (ed.), Steinthal H., Ueber Juden und Judentum, Berlin 1918, pp. 91 ff.
- Published in the Journal Asiatique, 1859
- Alex Bein, The Jewish Question: Biography of a World Problem, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1990, p. 594, ISBN 0-8386-3252-1 – quoting the Hebrew Encyclopaedia Ozar Ysrael, (edited Jehuda Eisenstadt, London 1924, 2: 130ff)
- Moshe Zimmermann, Wilhelm Marr: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism, Oxford University Press, USA, 1987
- Sevenster, Jan Nicolaas (1975). The Roots of Pagan Anti-Semitism in the Ancient World. Brill Archive. pp. 1–2. ISBN 90-04-04193-1.
It has long been realised that there are objections to the term anti-Semitism and therefore an endeavour has been made to find a word which better interprets the meaning intended. Already in 1936 Bolkestein, for example, wrote an article on Het “antisemietisme” in de oudheid (Anti-Semitism in the ancient world) in which the word was placed between quotation marks and a preference was expressed for the term hatred of the Jews… Nowadays the term anti-Judaism is often preferred. It certainly expresses better than anti-Semitism the fact that it concerns the attitude to the Jews and avoids any suggestion of racial distinction, which was not or hardly, a factor of any significance in ancient times. For this reason Leipoldt preferred to speak of anti-Judaism when writing his Antisemitsmus in der alien Welt (l933). Bonsirven also preferred this word to Anti-Semitism, “mot moderne qui implique une théorie des races”.
- Zimmermann, Moshe (5 March 1987). Wilhelm Marr : The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism: The Patriarch of Anti-Semitism. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 112. ISBN 978-0-19-536495-8.
The term “anti-Semitism” was unsuitable from the beginning for the real essence of Jew-hatred, which remained anchored, more or less, in the Christian tradition even when it moved via the natural sciences, into racism. It is doubtful whether the term which was first publicizes in an institutional context (the Anti-Semitic League) would have appeared at all if the “Anti-Chancellor League," which fought Bismarck’s policy, had not been in existence since 1875. The founders of the new Organization adopted the elements of “anti” and “league," and searched for the proper term: Marr exchanged the term “Jew” for “Semite” which he already favored. It is possible that the shortened form “Sem” is used with such frequency and ease by Marr (and in his writings) due to its literary advantage and because it reminded Marr of Sem Biedermann, his Jewish employer from the Vienna period.
- Anidjar, Gil (2008). Semites: Race, Religion, Literature. Stanford University Press. ISBN 978-0-8047-5694-5.
- Liverani, Mario (January 1995). "Semites". In Geoffrey W. Bromiley. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 387–392. ISBN 978-0-8028-3784-4.
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