Can al-Maliki Be "Anti-Semitic" If He's a Semite Himself?

05/25/2011 11:55 am ET

Howard Dean pissed off a lot of people this week when he referred to Iraqi prime minister al-Maliki as "an anti-Semite" for his opposition to Israel's incursion into Lebanon.

Dean's use of the term anti-Semite prompted all sorts of hand wringing reactions. I'll leave others to parse the politics, but the dumbest reaction by far - and the most predictable - is the increasingly-expressed idea that someone like al-Maliki cannot possible be an anti-Semite because...ta da!...he's a Semite himself.

It may seem like a minor point, but any attempt to dilute the term anti-Semitism by linking it to all the peoples of the Mideast, and not just the Jews, is an insidious form of, well, anti-Semitism.

To understand why, a bit of background:

The term anti-Semitism is a relic of the late nineteenth century, when the mania for dressing up ancient prejudices and hatreds with "scientific" phraseology reached its height.

In this case, anti-Jewish agitators in Europe had a problem in the 1870s and 1880s: The general term for their ideology - Jew Hatred, or Judenhass - seemed so darn harsh. So in keeping with the modern, rationalist spirit of the age, anti-Jewish racists like the German Wilhelm Marr set out to popularize a new, "scientific" term for Jew Hatred.

He started with the fact that a century earlier, linguists had decided to classify a number of related Middle Eastern languages as "Semitic." Why Semitic? 19th century pundits believed that the Hebrews and their linguistic cousins who spoke Aramaic, Arabic and Syriac were all descended from Noah's son Shem (Greek: Sem). These Sem-descended populations should therefore be called "Semetic." Scientific, right?

But racists like Marr took the idea even further.

If Jews were, by definition, "Semites," then those who opposed them could be called "anti-Semites." It sounded so modern, rational and enlightened.

And hey, it got rid of the ugly (but accurate) "Jew Hatred."

It is not clear why anyone else went along with this linguistic sanitizing of one of mankind's oldest, ugliest prejudices. But it is clear that "anti-Semitism" was never, ever, meant to include opposition to other peoples of the Mideast.

European racists of the 19th century had zero communications with speakers of Syriac, Aramaic, Arabic, etc. They popularized Anti-Semitism exclusively to describe and sanitize their hatred of the Jews in their midst.

Flash forward to today, of course, and we have lots of relations with other "Semites." And one of the sorriest results of our adoption of the pseudo-scientific term anti-Semitic is that it now gives additional, unexpected cover to Jew haters.

Anti-Jewish Arabs, for instance, can prattle on about Jewish conspiracies and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and then turn around and say: Hey, we're not anti-Semitic. We're Semites ourselves!

And Howard Dean can - rightly or wrongly - accuse al-Maliki of anti-Semitism and face the usual cries of protest: How can al-Maliki be anti-Semitic? The man's a Semite, for god's sake!

I don't think Wilhelm Marr had this in mind when he worked to popularize the term in the 1870s. But I'm sure he'd be very pleased.

In the end, we can complain all we want about this perversion of an already perverted term. We can argue that anti-Semitism was never intended to cover any so-called "Semites" but Jews, and that arguments to the contrary are deliberate obfuscations.

But words are important. As long as we routinely utilize a pseudo-scientific term originally intended to demonize Jews and sanitize anti-Jewish hatred, we're fighting a losing battle.

My suggestion: Let's drop anti-Semitism and go back to Jew Hatred. It may be old fashioned, but it has the ugly ring of truth.