A site visitor wrote to ask me why I didn’t call attention to the problematic term anti-Semitic, which I had used in a sample sentence to illustrate an unrelated error.
The root of the root word is Semite, which refers to one of the three biblical divisions of people, each consisting of descendants of one of Noah’s sons: Shem, Ham, and Japeth. According to the tradition, Shem’s descendants are the Jews and the Arabs, though there is some overlap with the children of Ham, who also include the peoples of North Africa. Japeth’s offspring, meanwhile, populated Central Asia and Europe. (Where East Asians, South Asians, and black Africans come from is a bit muddled.)
By this definition, anti-Semitic would refer to prejudice against all the Semitic peoples, but that would mean that Arabs hostile to Jews (and Jews hostile to Arabs) would also be described as being hostile to themselves. (Can’t we all just get along?)
So, why do we use the term anti-Semitic to specifically describe antipathy to Jewish people, religion, and culture? In western Europe and in other countries settled primarily by people from there, most Semites they encountered were Jews, not Arabs, so the term became identified with the former.
How, exactly? In the late nineteenth century, a German racist introduced anti-Semitism in one of his rants to refer to his philosophy of hatred of Jews, and, like many repugnant ideas, it spread widely and rapidly. (To Wilhelm Marr’s credit, he later renounced and apologized for his anti-Semitic views. But the damage had been done.)
As a result, many people don’t realize that technically, Arabs are Semites, too. (And their languages, as well as Hebrew and others, are part of a language group called Semitic. In addition, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are collectively called the Semitic, or the Abrahamic, religions because they all derive from the same tradition.) But when it comes to racism, logic has no place. And now, even those who are not anti-Semitic in either sense of the word are stuck with a connotation that deviates from the literal meaning.
What can we do about it? Not much. You can write “antipathy to the Jews” or some other phrase to describe what most of us understand to mean “anti-Semitism,” or you can go with the flow, as we do with many other technically incorrect usages in English.