When Semantic Change is Anti-Semitic

Semantic Change is the process through which the meaning of words changes over time.  Societies are not static and cultures utilize linguistic flexibility to suit new beliefs or redefine the way we perceive the world.  Consequently, our dictionaries get larger and grandparents have more and more difficulty understanding their grandchildren.   You can imagine the curiosity on my mother’s face when I told her to “Run and Tell Dat,” regarding the price of oranges at the Giant.

Sometimes there is no value judgment in the way we change words.   For instance; command, shift or control express vastly different concepts in the digital age, but none of these words express a new value judgment or now connote moral significance.

Unfortunately, words that once were positive, even beautiful and elegant can be downgraded and utilized to sway opinion and influence the way people communicate.  Within the context of the Jewish world, semantic change can be a way to express anti-Semitism without having to take responsibility for your beliefs.  The following words provide examples of how simple, often positive words can be utilized to express bias and racism:


Zionism is a varied and complex system of beliefs, not a uniform ideology, but it does on some level speak to one attribute: the advocacy of the Jewish people in the State of Israel.  It represents Jewish self determination and re-establishing Jewish Statehood in the biblical land of Israel.  It is axiomatic to the modern mind that a group of people exerting self determinism against colonialists has a positive connotation, with the exception of Zionism.

Why did Zionism change?  Why is it now reasonable for modern nations to condemn the “Zionist Regime” as though it is wrong implicitly by its being Zionist? I think because lies repeated enough times become believable.  See the recent article by Alistair Cook for Al Jazeera titled, “Misunderstanding Israeli Motives.”  In his article, he argues that Israel’s motives are in fact not for the purpose of creating a Jewish state, but to create a Zionist state.  He hides behind a not-so-subtle argument, in order to reaffirm his previously held belief that Zionism is in some way bad.  He believes Palestinians do not come to the table with much to offer because it is within Israeli self interest to support the creation of a Palestinian State for demographic reasons.  That is to say Cook believes that according to the Zionist philosophical structure, it benefits Israel to help in the creation of a Palestinian state because the demographic shift from the influx of Palestinians would threaten the “Zionist Objective.”

This accusation is fallacious and just another excuse to push absolutist and racist agendas.  One needs only to examine riots in Iran, Lebanon, Tunisia and Egypt in order to distinguish where real problems with representation exist.  There are three Arab political parties in Israel (one of them being joint Arab-Jewish), there is an Arab-Israeli on the Israeli Supreme Court and Arab-Israelis exercise the same voting rights as Jewish-Israelis (not to mention Arab-Israelis have access to healthcare and celebrate a higher life expectancy then Americans.)

If Zionism was in fact a racist regime, explain its countless benefits which have created booming economies, individual liberties and a high quality of life.  Finally, I pose the following question, if Cook’s accusations are true, why would Israel extend citizenship to Palestinians living in “occupied territories?”


The Jewish Daily Foreword published an article in 2009 titled “The New York Times: Ignorant and Anti-Semitic?” which references an article in the New York Times titled “Pharisees on the Potomac.”  The author examines how we should take great care of the word Pharisee which describes, according to the author, “the founders of rabbinic tradition and the direct spiritual and intellectual ancestors of the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud who came after them.”  Random House actually defines a Pharisee as a self righteous or sanctimonious person.  Our society has demonized this word and therefore demonizes the Jewish people and our religious tradition.


As noted by comedian Louis C.K., Jews are the only group of people whose name, in and of itself, is an insult.  All one needs to do is say Jew in the right tone and facial expression and it is overflowing with derogation.  Of course, Louis C.K. was being funny, but often comedy sheds light on very serious elements of our society.  It should be alarming that those wishing to insult Jews need not use a slur, to those people, being a Jew is bad enough.

People of the Book?

The Jewish people have been called the “people of the book.”  If this is true, we should be acutely aware of the way words create and influence ideas.  We should also be the people of words and seek a deeper understanding of the power of language.  Under no circumstance should Jews or normative society allow for the purposeful manipulation of language to demonize the Jewish people.  It should be our collective responsibility, Jewish or not, to rehabilitate words hijacked by agenda driven propagandists.  I should be allowed to be a proud Zionist Jew, without jeers and criticism.

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1 Response to When Semantic Change is Anti-Semitic

  1. Sahand says:

    Very interesting article. Sadly, you bring up a valid point. It seems that when someone hears the word “Jew”, they have to first find out whether or not it was used in a derogatory context. Also, the situation can’t be compared to the argument regarding the use of the “N” word in the black community, because the the word “Jew” is the proper term for the people. It is hard to say how the word will be returned to its proper form. As of now, it seems that the sentiment is being passed down through the generations.

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