That the term “antisemitic” is bandied about so much begs questions about its origins and implications. As the massacres in Gaza and the West Bank continue, it becomes urgent to expose how anti-Semitism is weaponized to silence dissent and to accuse critics of Israeli actions of being anti-Jewish, even when the critics are themselves Jewish. A recent one-sided resolution in the US Congress conflates “antisemitism” with opposition to Zionism, as do some European governments. This conflation in effect subverts Palestinian rights and avoids seeing the conflict for what it is, as resistance to dispossession and colonization since 1917.
To unravel the terms “Semitic” and “anti-Semitic” requires examining their source in mythic biblical genealogy. It also raises questions about associated elements of the Zionist claim system, which are based on biblical narratives that should be seen as traditions to be respected as such, not as literal facts. Some narratives had been adapted from earlier regional sources. As indicated below, though questioned as history by scholarship and discoveries, these narratives are still aggressively employed in Zionist ideology to justify notions of entitlement to a land long inhabited by its indigenous people over many millennia, in a region that started civilization as we know it.
Arthur Koestler, the internationally renowned Jewish author, embarrassed the Zionists in his 1976 The Thirteenth Tribe by showing that Ashkenazi Jews are not descended from the Israelites of antiquity, but from the Khazars, a Turkic people in Eastern Europe who converted to Judaism in the 8th century CE. His point was that these Jews, who now comprise the majority, have no biological or racial connections to “Semites,” and therefore the label “antisemitic” is faulty and inapplicable. Earlier, Koestler lived in Palestine for some years, and wrote a mildly Zionist, fairly balanced book, Promise and Fulfilment: Palestine 1917-1949. In it, he called the creation of “Israel” “a freak phenomenon of history” and the Balfour Promise “contradictory.”
In Invention of the Jewish People (2009), Israeli scholar Shlomo Sand rejects Zionist land claims, and he documents other instances of late conversion to Judaism in various countries. DNA studies support these findings, though some have tried to dilute them, and in at least one instance attempts were made to suppress a study after its publication.
“Semite” is a dubious term in the first place, being derived from genealogical myths in the Bible. It was first given currency in the 18th century with the misguided adoption of “Semitic languages” by members of the Göttingen School of History. Its etymology comes from Sām, one of the three sons of Nūḥ (Noah) who populated the earth after the flood. Sām has five sons and one of them leads to the notion of a “chosen” people in the family tree. This family tree purportedly descends from Ibrahīm (Abraham), whose second son Iṣḥāq (Isaac) begets Yaʿăqūḇ (Jacob). Yaʿăqūḇ is given the pseudonym “Israel,” thus the people descended from him are called “Israelites.”
This legendary genealogy, however, conveniently excludes Canaʿan, who is made to be the son of Ḥām and is arbitrarily cursed, despite the fact that Canaʿanite language and mythology is the foundation of much that is called “Semitic.” It does include other descendants of Ibrahīm from his eldest son Ismaīl (Ishmael), who is traditionally associated with nomadic “Arabs.” In the account, Ismaīl and his mother are banished because of Sarah’s jealousy and to allow Iṣḥāq to become the heir. Thus, in this sense, “Arabs” and other presumed regional descendants in Mesopotamia, Syria, and Arabia are also “Semites.”
What knowledge helps us to unmask other invented claims and associated privileging entitlements? The issue is not only whether to regard the narratives as religious traditions, as we should, but rather to recognize that some stories have been abused to implement self-serving policies. Religious beliefs should normally solicit humility in us all, not exclusive ownership, not exploitation of accounts to justify aggression and to take away other people’s rights.
One entitlement relates to how we view the nature of divinity. Is God a merciful high figure who cares for all, or is he a vengeful tribal god who favors one people, gives them the land of others, and sanctions slaughter? In his remarks about the Gaza war, Netanyahu (as do others of his ilk) chose to defend his actions by quoting the story of how Yahweh (“Adoni”=”Lord”) ordered Saul to destroy the Amalekites, to kill man, woman, child, and infant, although he saved the fat animals (1 Samuel 15:1–9; similarly of other people, in Deuteronomy 7:1-5, 20:10-18, and Joshua 6:17, 21-24). One would expect such genocide to be disallowed by modern moral standards.
Other biblical contexts, however, allow for seeing God as an almighty fatherly figure who ministers to all peoples rather than only one favored or chosen people. He is mentioned as “El Shaddai” or “Elohim” in Genesis and in Exodus 6: 2-3, as well as in names like “Ishma-el” and “Isra-el,” and other occurrences. ʼĒl /Īl has an ancient ancestry from the Ugaritic cycles of NW Syria in the second millennium BCE. He also appears as the almighty father in a biblical passage, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, from the Dead Sea/Qumran Scrolls, dating to the 3rd-1st centuries BCE. (The first scrolls were, somewhat ironically, discovered by an Arab shepherd in 1947.) Until then all common Bible translations of this passage were based on the somewhat different text of a much later Masoretic copy from the 11th century CE, which was used to translate into all the common languages.
Today, only a few versions (the New Jerusalem Bible, the New Revised Standard Version, and the English Standard Version) give us the original reading from the Dead Sea Scrolls, whereas all other popular translations still retain the Masoretic text. . Incidentally, it appears to be ʼĒl /Īl whom Jesus Christ calls on the cross in the only Aramaic sentence left in the gospels: “Elahi, Elahi, lema sabachthani?” A medieval Arabic dictionary, Al Qamūṣ Muḥīṭ, mentions Īl/El as “Allah/God the Almighty.”
Epigraphic findings over the last two centuries had already shown that certain stories were already available as antecedents in earlier regional repertoire. A Mesopotamian seal depicts two figures along with a tree and a snake, suggestive of the creation story of Adam and Eve. The epic of Gilgamesh, about 2000 years older than the Bible, contains a deluge account duplicated in Noah’s flood.
Zionist ideology, however, employs biblical narratives, such as the Conquest and the Kingdom of David and Solomon, with intensified fervor to stake claims of ownership. The narratives in themselves go back to times long before Judaism developed as a religion. Even some Israeli archaeologists have expressed doubts about the exact historicity of such legendary narratives (e.g., Ze’ev Herzog). Others of Zionist persuasion are keen to twist evidence to associate “discoveries” with King David and a large kingdom. One of these archaeologists (Eilat Mazar) declared a re-excavated stone structure in Silwan to be “the palace of King David,” which received wide media coverage—only to be disputed by other archaeologists who date the stones to a much later period and otherwise question the finding’s integrity (Israel Finkelstein, et al; Margreet Steiner). It’s the same with the ruins of Khirbet Qeiyafa (خربة قيافة), which an Israeli archaeologist jumped to identify as an administrative center of “King David,” although others have classified it based on the evidence as Canaʿanite or Philistine (Yosef Garfinkel vs Nadav Na’aman).
Still, no humbleness has resulted from any of the discoveries noted above, nor is there much recognition that religious traditions should apply esteem to everyone. Zionism continues to appropriate biblical accounts to lay exclusive claim to a “City of David,” to dispossess the people of Silwan, and to allege a “Temple” at the site of Al-Aqsa in Al-Quds/Jerusalem. Even Byzantine and Muslim-kept traditions are exploited to control various sites, as in Al-Khalil/Hebron where Abrahamic tradition was used to turn a mosque into a synagogue, and in Al-Quds/Jerusalem with similar designs on the Al-Aqsa compound built with stones crafted by others.
Colonists in the West Bank, what they call “Judea and Samaria,” are under the illusion that they descend from ancient Israelites, that “God” gave them the property of others as inheritance, and so feel emboldened to uproot olive trees, attack villages and kill the native inhabitants. Netanyahu, who is Ashkenazi, has said that he is also partly Sephardic, and even that the ancient Israelites are his “ancestors.” All that is not much different from the employment of Old Testament models of conquest in colonial projects in the Americas, where early “pilgrims” and pioneers identified with Israelite narratives and saw the natives as Canaʿanites and Philistines to be exterminated (which similarly occurred in Australia and apartheid South Africa). For West Bank colonists to make such claims is not unlike Muslims in Indonesia or Afghanistan saying that Mecca and Arabia belong to them because they follow the religion of the Qur’an and identify with its traditions.
Compared to the enormity of what is transpiring in Gaza and the West Bank, the use of antisemitic tropes pale in relevance. It evades what is happening. Nothing of knowledge has diminished all the claims, or their privileging in mainstream thinking and fundamentalist ideology. Their persistence can be considered among the most regressive dangers to the development of human consciousness. On the ground, they are exposed in drastic violations of human rights and genocidal crimes committed in front of our eyes that threaten the very foundation of morality.