Sunday, June 17, 2007

An Anti-Semitic Semite?

Thomas Friedman's column in today's The New York Times deals with a proposed "boycott" of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem by Britain’s University and College Union. (It's Times Select, sorry.)

Friedman tells us of several Palestinians who received their Ph.D.s at a recent graduation ceremony, and his point is that, rather than calling for a boycott, the Brits should acknowledge the benefits to the Palestinian people which will accrue from these new doctorates. Further, the Brits should take the lead in sponsoring other Palestinian doctoral candidates world-wide.

Friedman ends his writing, however, with a version of an old song: "But just singling out Israeli universities for a boycott, in the face of all the other madness in the Middle East — that’s what anti-Semites would do."

My question is, when did anti-Semitic come to mean, in reality, anti-Hebrew or anti-Jew?

A quick reference to Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, defines semite as an umbrella term including ancient tribes including "Hebrews and Arabs," as well as descendants of those peoples, and the definition is dated 1848.

A subsequent entry for Semitism specifically refers to "policy favorable to Jews" "and predisposition in favor of Jews" (1851).

So in three short years an extension of the word lost its all-encompassing meaning.

And today, in the muddle of language, we have a word which, under scrutiny, causes some confusion. Today, we have the potential semantic disaster of having an Arab opponent of Israeli government policies being labeled an anti-Semitic semite.

Unless, of course, you have something else to do on a cool Sunday morning.

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