Sunday, January 13, 2008


Webster's on "Anti-Semitism"--An Update (sort of)

More than three years ago, I sent out a message about the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee's (ADC) March 2004, Action Alert: "Demand Merriam Webster Correct Definition of 'anti-Semitism' ". Here's part of what I wrote back then: "I heard about this a couple of days ago ... I simply did not believe it at first. ... I also called the library today and asked the librarian to read me the definition of "anti-Semitism" in Webster's Third New International Dictionary. They had the 1993 edition and the definition she read to me was almost exactly the same as the one that appears below."

The definition is:

Main Entry: Anti-semitism
Function: Noun
Usage: usually capitalized S
1: Hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial minority group often accompanied by social, economic, and political discrimination — compare RACISM
2: Opposition to Zionism : Sympathy with opponents of the state of Israel

This story was covered by the Washington Post in 2004 (you can find a copy of "Dictionary Urged to Delete 'False' Definition of Anti-Semitism," archived by the ADC here). But before that the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited the definition approvingly in 2001 as part of an orchestrated propaganda offensive against the World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The good news is that Webster's may fix the problem. According a 2005 article in the Jordan Times, quoting spokesperson Arthur Bicknell, "it is 'highly likely' that the next version of this dictionary will not include any reference of Zionism in the definition. He noted that the collegiate desk version of the dictionary has never included this less-used sense of the word."

In the meantime, you can keep the pressure on by dropping a line to Merriam-Webster. Below is the updated action item from the ADC. As of May 2006, Morse was still the man-in-charge:
Please contact John Morse, President and Publisher of Merriam-Webster, and demand that the company formally repudiates senses two and three in the outrageous definition of anti-Semitism that is contained in the "Third New International Dictionary." Please point out that
  • this issue must be dealt with at once and not some time in the next ten years, and
  • it is a simple matter for Merriam-Webster to begin to correct the error and repair the damage by issuing a public statement which repudiates senses two and three.
You can use the online form at:
or mail to:
Merriam-Webster, Inc.
47 Federal Street
P.O. Box 281
Springfield, MA 01102
Tel: (413) 734-3134
Fax: (413) 731-5979

ADC has recently sent a letter to Merriam-Webster demanding that the company take steps to correct the definition of "anti-Semitism" in its "Third New International Dictionary," which was recently reprintined. The definition reads: "1) hostility toward Jews as a religious or racial minority group, often accompanied by social, political or economic discrimination (2) opposition to Zionism (3) sympathy for the opponents of Israel." The letter from ADC Communications Director Hussein Ibish points out that:

"By failing to state for the record that the term will definitely be corrected in future editions Merriam-Webster gives the continued appearance of actually supporting the current definition. Moreover, reprinting the Third in 2002 raises the possibility that it will be years before another edition will appear, meaning that for the foreseeable future, Merriam-Webster will be legitimating and promoting a definition of anti-Semitism that:

a) Merriam-Webster itself does not believe is accurate;

b) Conflates the first, accurate definition with two inaccurate ones, thereby undermining and even trivializing the very concept of anti-Semitism and damaging efforts to combat prejudice and discrimination against Jewish groups and individuals;

c) Smears and impugns the motives of all those who support the human and political rights of Palestinians;

d) Undermines the efforts of Jewish groups and individuals working for Mid-East peace;

e) Stigmatizes perfectly legitimate political opinions and activities."

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