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June 13, 2019 1:37 pm

How Should We Spell ‘Antisemitism’?

avatar by Edward Alexander

Opinion

Antisemitic placards at a pro-Palestinian demonstration in London. Photo: courtesy Campaign Against Antisemitism.

In 1977 I attended a meeting with Yehuda Bauer, the preeminent Israeli Holocaust scholar, and the late Naomi Pascal, then a main editor of the University of Washington Press, to discuss the planned publication of four lectures he had given, to enormous crowds of 500 or more people, on “The Holocaust in Historical Perspective.” In these discussions Bauer was his usual sweet and reasonable self except for one matter: how to spell “antisemitism.” (This was by no means the only dispute over terminology in the history of the Holocaust. After Churchill remarked that “the barbaric fury of the Nazis” put mankind in “the presence of a crime without a name,” Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide.”)

Bauer would not allow publication of the book to proceed unless the word denoting hatred of Jews was spelled “antisemitism,” and not “anti-Semitism.” In fact, he insisted, and got, the following note in his opening chapter: “We prefer the spelling ‘antisemitism’ to ‘anti-Semitism,’ in order to avoid the implication that there is a ‘Semitism’ to which Jew-haters are opposed. In fact, the term ‘antisemitism’ was coined in the late seventies of the nineteenth century by individuals who were looking for a pseudoscientific term for ‘Jew-hatred,’ which had come to sound barbaric. Antisemites do not hate Semites; they hate Jews.” Bauer prevailed in this matter, and his book became, by the very modest standards of university presses, a best-seller.

But there is little sign that his (irrefutable) argument has won many converts to a more sensible and probably less mischievous spelling. During the decade or more that I wrote regularly for Commentary, I often objected to their hyphenated spelling, but to no avail: “house style” was sacrosanct. Other editors of other journals, including those that publish prose that reminds one of somebody eating soup with a fork, would invoke the high authority of the University of Chicago Manual of Style in favor of “anti-Semitic.”

Now Deborah Lipstadt, in her new book Antisemitism: Here and Now has devoted the last section of her opening chapter to a thorough scholarly review of the dispute, coming down on the side of Bauer — and me. (I should add that she worked with me in arranging those long-ago lectures by Bauer.) Will she succeed where others have failed? Probably not, but “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

Edward Alexander is professor emeritus of English at the University of Washington. Among his books are Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill and Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew.

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