When I was young, the word ‘antisemitism’ confused me quite a bit. For me, antisemitism meant exactly what it says: anti Semitic people. There are many different Semitic language speaking communities- Arabs, Assyrians, Samaritans etc, so I couldn’t understand how an Arab, for instance, could possibly be antisemitic. I mean we ourselves are Semitic, so how would that even work? But then I realized with time that the word had developed a cultural meaning and in reality anti-Semitic actually meant anti-Jews and depending on the political context even anti-Israel. There is no specific word for someone who is anti-Sikh, anti-white people, anti-Arab or anti-Italian. Of course, we can simply use ‘racist’/’racism’, but these words aren’t exclusive or specific to a certain community, nor are they fully inclusive.
So what does it mean when we have a specific word for discrimination against Jews or Jewish culture? For one it draws attention to our behavior towards these communities in particular. It’s saying that discriminating against Jews is a very very bad thing, and it’s so bad that we need to have a word for it.
Just for it.
And if you do discriminate against this community, we won’t simply dub you as a ‘racist’, no, we will call you a specifically nasty word befitting your nasty behavior. If you discriminate against a black person, you’re a racist but if you discriminate against a Jew you’re antisemitic, and I’ve always felt that in some ways, the latter feels somehow more serious, more unethical, more controversial and more politically charged. This is a testament to the power of language.
Muslims, we have our own words too- they’re terrorism and terrorists. If you search for the technical definitions of these words, you won’t find mention of us there. But the media has made them our words. There’s no hiding from the aching fact that there is a cultural and mental association between Muslims and terrorism. This is despite facts highlighting the terrorist activities of other groups, faiths, corporations and governments. Language is powerful and dangerous. I’d like to remind everyone of another loaded word that was historically used (and still is used) to degrade and demonize entire groups and communities.
It was spat in the faces of many innocent blacks. And now in the 21st century people spit the word ‘terrorist’ in the faces of innocent Muslims. Muslims of different ethnicities, colors, backgrounds, languages and sects. European Muslims, Asian Muslims, African Muslims, Middle Eastern Muslims. And we don’t want these to be our words. They are not representative of our diverse communities, ideologies, histories, philosophies and theologies. Those heartless, greedy, big money corporate companies can have them. Those behind the pathetic safety standards in Grenfell Tower can have them. Please be our guests and take them off our shoulders. You’re the real terrorists. Governments that sell weapons to countries who bomb other countries like Yemen are terrorists. Governments that invade other countries, bomb them and then complain about refugees are terrorists. Governments who are negligent towards the poorer pockets of our communities are terrorists. And we need to fight the damaging and irresponsible use of this dirty word in the media.