Removing a Hyphen Won’t Stop Anti-Semitism

Symbolic gestures aren’t what’s needed in the fight against anti-Jewish bigotry.

Illustration of a pair of scissors cutting the word "anti-Semitic" in half
The Atlantic

If you’ve read enough about anti-Jewish bigotry, you’ve probably noticed that no one can agree how to spell it: Is it anti-Semitism or antisemitism? Regular readers of The Atlantic know that this publication uses the hyphenated version. But before I came here, I wrote for a Jewish outlet that removed the hyphen. And just this past week, The New York Times acknowledged that it had quietly revised its style guide to do the same. So does the spelling really matter? Having covered anti-Jewish prejudice for a decade, I’m not convinced that it does.

To be sure, the term anti-Semitism is certainly problematic in a variety of ways. To begin with, the word was popularized by an anti-Jewish bigot named Wilhelm Marr. In 1879, Marr, a German nationalist, founded the League of Antisemites, which sounds like what you’d get if you handed the Marvel Cinematic Universe over to Mel Gibson. Marr wanted to make his anti-Jewish prejudice sound more respectable and used anti-Semitism to suggest that Jews—“Semites”—belonged to an inferior race.

The problem is not just that this word for anti-Jewish prejudice was popularized by a perpetrator rather than the victims, but that it easily lends itself to pedantic objections. Some critics claim that Jews are “not real Semites” and so anti-Semitism doesn’t refer to them. In the Arab world, conversely, others claim that they can’t be anti-Semitic, because Arabs are also Semites. This is not just a Middle Eastern canard. In 2015, the former U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader declared that “the Semitic race is Arabs and Jews and the Jews do not own the phrase anti-Semitism,” adding that “the worst anti-Semitism in the world today is against Arabs and Arab-Americans.”

All of this is ahistorical nonsense. The term anti-Semitism was chosen by an anti-Jewish bigot to lend a sophisticated sheen to his hatred of Jews. The term has never popularly referred to Arabs or other “Semites,” which is why the definition of anti-Semitism reads: “discrimination against or prejudice or hostility toward Jews.” Anyone suggesting otherwise is at best ignorant, or at worst attempting to undermine discussions of anti-Jewish prejudice.

To counter such bad-faith objections, some scholars have advocated for removing the hyphen from anti-Semitism. By collapsing the term into a single word and removing the separate, oft-abused reference to “Semitism,” they hope to head off the semantic games before they start. Back in April, this movement scored a major victory when the Associated Press revised its influential journalism style guide accordingly. And this past August, The New York Times followed suit.

This seems like a story of good people getting good results. So why am I raining on this rhetorical parade? Because I worry that such symbolic steps are actually a distraction from the more difficult task of combatting anti-Semitism. As much as we might wish otherwise, changing how we spell anti-Semitism is not actually going to reduce anti-Semitism, and so it’s not worth the level of attention it typically receives.

I’ve spent a decade covering anti-Semitism and have seen firsthand that the version of the word I use has not altered the bad-faith responses I receive. Upon reflection, the reason for this is pretty simple: The problem isn’t the hyphen in anti-Semitism. The problem is that anti-Semites hate Jews and any attempt to discuss discrimination against them. The hyphen is the excuse, not the cause. Take it away, and the trolls will continue to make the same claims, because their real aim is simply to dissimulate and divert.

Some critics of the word Islamophobia have employed similar linguistic gymnastics, contending that their prejudice is not a phobia, because it’s not irrational, or that their objections are to particular Muslims and not to Islam. But Islamophobia, like anti-Semitism, is simply the word adopted by the targeted community to describe its experience of discrimination. That’s reason enough for any decent person who is serious about fighting prejudice to use it. Those who mumble about how Jews aren’t the only Semites, like those who insist their Islamophobia is not a phobia, are simply playing semantic games to avoid confronting obvious prejudice.

Sadly, changing the word is not going to change these people’s minds.

The best way to counter these individuals is not to call out allies who happen to spell anti-Semitism differently but to educate audiences about what the term really means, and to teach them to rebuff the disingenuous responses it generates. In my own work, I do this by using anti-Semitism, anti-Jewish prejudice, and anti-Jewish bigotry interchangeably throughout my articles—like this one!—implicitly informing my readers that these terms mean the same thing. As the premier news organization on the planet, the Times might publicly commit to covering anti-Semitism around the world, or hire a reporter with that dedicated task. The paper might also renew its contract with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the global Jewish news agency that it dropped in 1937 over fears that its coverage of the Nazi regime was overly biased.

Users of social media love fights over style rather than substance, and language is far easier to police than actions, so it’s understandable that those looking for a win against a seemingly intractable prejudice such as anti-Semitism would gravitate toward this issue. But the time and energy spent on this subject would be much better spent on combatting anti-Semites and educating allies.

That’s a lot harder than changing a word’s spelling, but then, real change usually is.