Who is a Semite? It’s a tricky question. It has two very different meanings. So when some Arabs claim that as Semites they can’t be anti-Semitic, what do they actually mean by Semite?
The term Semite has biblical roots but doesn’t appear in the bible. It was introduced into scholarly usage in the eighteenth century, initially to describe a family of languages and, then, for anti-Semitic reasons came to be used as a negative term for the Jewish people by proto-Nazis within the German scholarly community.
The term “Semite” derives from the biblical name Shem, one of Noah’s three sons. According to Genesis 10, the descendants of Noah’s three sons over multiple generations become the founders of many of the nations that make up the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern nations. Genesis has two different genealogies for Shem, one in Genesis 10 and one in Genesis 11.
The Genesis 10 version splits into two branches with the two sons of Eber, Peleg and Joktan. Peleg is the end of one branch in Genesis 10 but in Genesis 11, that branch continues down to Abraham. Elsewhere in Genesis, Abraham’s descendants include Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, the chief patriarchs of Israel and the Jewish people. So, in the bible, the Jews are descended from Shem.
Why is there a family of languages called Semitic? It is because those languages show a linguistic relationship to Hebrew. Because the Israelites spoke Hebrew and are descended from Shem, the term Semite is used to identify the group of languages.
Arabic is classified as a Semitic language because it belongs to the same language family as Hebrew. But does speaking a language similar to Hebrew a sufficient reason to call Arabs Semites? This is where things start to get complicated.
Since the Bible shows many of Noah’s descendants as the founders of nations, shouldn’t that bring a lot of Arab nations into the Semite fold? Not according to Genesis. Let’s take a closer look.
Noah’s three sons are Ham, Japheth, and Shem. Ham is the father of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Libya, and Canaan. The latter, according to Genesis 10, is the father of all the non-Israelite nations described as in Genesis as living in the land of Canaan, which is approximately equivalent to the territory we think of as Israel and Palestine, the land between Syria and Egypt. The bible, therefore, defines the Egyptians, Ethiopians, Libyans, and all of the non-Israelite nations between Syria and Egypt as Hamitic, not Semitic. On the other hand, some of these nations spoke languages similar to Hebrew, some classified as Semitic and others classified as Hamitic-Semitic or Afro-Asian, with Semitic as a branch within the larger grouping.
Does the language spoken define people as Semitic or does their alleged origin as Hamitic (and not Semitic) in the bible define them as other than Semites? While academics chose the term to apply to a class of languages rather than genealogy or biblical identity, they did so by choosing a term associated with Shem’s descendants.
So, who belongs to Shem’s branch. According to Genesis 10, Shem’s children are Elam, Asshur, Arpachshad, Lud, and Aram. Elam represents the nation of Elam, which was situated mostly in what would now be western Iran. Its language was not Semitic. It is mostly isolated to the Elamites, who had a long political history in ancient times. Are the Elamites, descended from Shem but who don’t speak a Semitic language, Semites? Depends upon how you define Semite, by language or biblical genealogy. And speaking of Iran, they don’t speak a Semitic language either.
A similar situation exists with Shem’s son Lud, who is often thought to represent the nation of Lydia, in what we now refer to as western Turkey. Lydian is not a Semitic language. And while we are stopping over in Turkey, neither is Turkish.
On the other hand, Asshur probably signifies Assyria, which corresponds approximately to northern Iraq and portions of Syria and Iran. Assyrians spoke a Semitic language so they get a two-fer, descended from Shem and speaking a language similar to Hebrew. So they could be Semites under either definition.
Almost nobody else in Shem’s line is easily identifiable with any other nations and any guesses would be purely speculative. According to Genesis 10, most of them lived within a territory which extended from “Mesha in the direction of Saphar, the hill country of the east.” But where that is we don’t really know. Again, we would be speculating. So, ironically, almost no one in Shem’s Genesis 10 branch other than Asshur can be specifically identified as speaking a Semitic language.
Japheth, the last of Noah’s sons appears to be identified with Islands in the Mediterranean and possible coastal territories in or near Greece. Many of his descendants are difficult to identity with a territory. Among the most likely identifications would be Tarshish, Kittim, and Rodanim, which probably represent (Paul’s) Tarsus, Cyprus, and Rhodes. Of his other descendants, Javan may be the Ionians of Greece, Elishah may be Greece (I.e., Hellas) and Gomer may be the Cimmerians. None of these nations appear to have Semitic connections.
Among the missing nations in this power list are the Babylonians (Southern Iraq) and Arabia and Yemen, although many of the unidentifiable peoples in Ham and Shem, might have connections to those territories. We just have no strong evidence that this is the case.
So, my opening question. Are the Arabs Semites? Well, I guess we first have to identify what we mean by Arab. Are they the people living in Arabia, or they the twenty or more nations that speak Arabic? At this point, I think I’m getting off the merry-go-round. The one point I will make, anti-Semitism only refers to the Jews, based on their cultural identity, and has nothing to do with languages spoken or geographical relatives. So, when some Arabs argue that as Semites they can’t be anti-Semitic, are they Semites because they have an affinity with the Jews or because they speak a Semitic language other than Hebrew?