What is a Jew, a Semite, a Zionist?

A guide to what each word means

Afp March 03, 2019
Even some ultra-orthodox Jews are anti-Zionists. PHOTO: AFP

What is the difference between a Jew, a Semite and a Zionist? With such terms are often confused or misused, here is a guide to what each word means.

Originally a Jew was an inhabitant of the ancient kingdom of Judah that existed in the Middle East, centred on Jerusalem, from around 940 to 586 BC.

The term Jew originates in the Biblical Hebrew word "yehudi", which means "from the Kingdom of Judah".

The word passed into Latin as "judaeus"; the "d" was dropped as it evolved into "giu" in Old French, later moving into early English in various forms from the year 1,000.

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It also is the root of Judaism, the Jewish religion which is one of the world's oldest monotheistic religions and established more than 3,500 years ago.

Its principle tenet is that there is only one God, who is the creator of the universe and with whom Jewish people have a special relationship.

Jews can be atheist, being Jewish by heritage but not believing in the God of the Bible.

Jewish law says the faith is transmitted through the mother, even if in the Bible people are identified by their paternal ascendants.

Israel's 1970 "Law of Return", which gives Jews the right to live in the country, defines a Jew as a "person who was born of a Jewish mother or has become converted to Judaism and is not a member of another religion."

Jews are not the only Semites: this term refers to people linked through related languages including Hebrew but also Amharic, Arabic and Aramaic.

Created by German historian August Ludwig Schloezer (1735-1809), the word is drawn from the name of one of the sons of the Bible's Noah, Shem, who is considered the ancestor of all Semites.

His descendants are said to have migrated from the Arabian peninsula to Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine around 3,000 years ago, and then into the Horn of Africa around 700 BC.

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Today Semitic languages are spoken by hundreds of millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa.

The term anti-Semitic, however, refers to a person who is specifically hostile towards Jews.

The term comes from "Zion" which is a synonym for Jerusalem but also for the land of Israel. It also has a spiritual meaning.

It takes its name from Mount Zion, which was first used to describe the site of the ancient Jebusite city which became Jerusalem, but today refers to a hill just outside the walls of the Old City, on its southwestern edge.

The terms Zionist and Zionism developed in the late 19th century to refer to the aspirations of Jewish people - who were exiled, dispersed and persecuted - to have their own independent homeland.

It had its first political expression in the 1896 pamphlet "The State of the Jews" by Austro-Hungarian journalist and writer Theodor Herzl.

A year later, the first Zionist congress was held in Basel, Switzerland, where it was stated the aim of Zionism was to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine.

Jews had already begun moving there and establishing agricultural communities in the 19th century, their flow accelerated by the rise of pogroms and anti-Semitism.

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After the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, when six million Jews were killed, Jewish people fled to Palestine in increasing numbers and the aspirations of Zionism became real with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

An anti-Zionist is someone who opposes the concept of the state of Israel as a Jewish state.

Some ultra-Orthodox Jews are also anti-Zionist, believing that only God can bring about Jewish sovereignty and refusing to recognise the authority of the man-made Israeli state.

Jews who advocate assimilation into the region can also be considered anti-Zionist.


Abuhuraira Zahid | 1 year ago | Reply

A very good and simplified article. Cleared a lot of Confusions

Bunny Rabbit | 3 years ago | Reply a very informative article .
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