Why ‘Anti-Semitism’ Was Not in the Original Oxford English Dictionary

In a newly surfaced letter, the dictionary's founding editor wrote that it was not thought likely to be more than a "passing nonce-word…"

A recently surfaced letter penned by James Murray, the Oxford English Dictionary’s founding editor, sheds new light on “anti-Semitism” in the English language. The letter appears online here for the first time.

“Anti-Semitism” and related words do not have their own entries in the original edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the massive project which sought to publish a comprehensive lexicon of the entire English language. Murray became the founding editor of the OED in 1879, with the full edition taking 40 years to publish.

James Murray, founding editor of the Oxford English Dictionary

The reasons for the word’s exclusion are elaborated by Murray in the letter, which he wrote on July 5, 1900 to Claude Montefiore, a scholar, ardent anti-Zionist and scion of the renowned British Jewish family. Montefiore was a founder of Liberal Anglo-Judaism, and the great-nephew of Moses Montefiore, one of the most important early supporters of the modern Zionist movement.

Portrait of Claude Montefiore, by Christopher Williams, 1925

Besides the fact that “the material for anti- words was so enormous that much violence had to be employed” to get them all in, Murray noted the following:

Anti-semite and its family were then probably very new in English use, and not thought likely to be more than passing nonce-words, & hence they did not receive treatment in a separate article. Probably if we had to do that post now, we should have to make Anti-semite a main word, and add ‘hence Anti-semitic, Anti-semitism.’

You will see that Anti-slavery, which was, then at least, a much more important word, is also treated among the Anti– combinations (sense 4). Would that Anti-semitism had had no more than a fleeting interest! The closing years of the 19th c. have shown, alas! that much of Christianity is only a temporary whitewash over brutal savagery. It is unutterably sadding to one like myself who remembers ’48 and the high hopes we had in the fifties that we had left ignorance, superstition[?], and brute force behind us, and that the 19th c. was to usher in the reign of righteousness. How the devil must have chuckled at our fond & foolish dream!”

James Murray’s letter to Claude Montefiore, from the Abraham Schwadron Collection, the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel

In a post-script, Murray also notes that according to his German assistant, a variety of “anti-” terms were “English newspaper coinages” – “hardly words” at all, but rather “condensed expressions”.  It was shorter to write “anti-imperialistic opinions”, for example “than ‘opinions opposed to the new imperialism’.”

Some prevalent “newspaper coinages” of this type at the time included “Anti-boer, anti-foreign, anti-Japan[?], anti-imperialistic, anti-expansion, anti-silver”. The term “Anti-semitic”, in his view, did not seem to fit into this category: “Anti-semitic has however a flavor of the professor about it, not of the penny-a-liner, & looks like the perpetration of some Viennese pundit. The man in the street would have said Anti-Jewish.”

The letter came to light as part of a major National Library of Israel initiative, supported by the Leir Foundation, to review and describe millions of items in NLI archival collections, which include personal papers, photographs, and documents from many of the 20th century’s most prominent cultural figures.

According to expert National Library archivist Rachel Misrati, who catalogued the letter as part of the initiative and has written extensively on NLI archival materials, “The Oxford University Press was unable to locate Montefiore’s original letter to Murray. Nonetheless, we can see from the context that Montefiore was apparently surprised by the fact that ‘anti-Semitism’ seemed to be conspicuously absent from the dictionary intended to be the English language’s definitive authority.”

Interestingly, the term “Semitism” did appear in the first edition of the dictionary, along with mention of the fact that “In recent use,” it had already come to be associated with “Jewish ideas or Jewish influence in policy and society”.

Special thanks to Rachel Misrati for her keen eye and expertise.

The Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.


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The Roots of the Passover Blood Libel

When did the libel of Jews using Christian blood on Passover make its first appearance?

The Church’s position toward the Jews in medieval times is well known and documented: the presence of the deniers of the Christian Gospel was to be tolerated, their skills and abilities utilized, damage to their bodies or property avoided and their degrading and humiliating status preserved. But if this was the case, how then was the blood of thousands of Jews still spilled across Europe throughout both the Middle Ages and the modern era?

In the year 1150, the Benedictine monk Thomas of Monmouth, who resided at Norwich Cathedral Priory, began collecting documents and testimonies for a book. According to the chronicle he compiled, a boy named William from the English town of Norwich, an apprentice leatherworker, was persuaded to leave his home with the promise of work. He stayed for a few days at the home of a wealthy Jew. On orders of the homeowner, one of the leading bankers in the city, William was kidnapped, subjected to “all the tortures of Christ,” and finally murdered, the text claims. Then, the Jews carried his body to the nearby forest, where a crown of thorns was placed on his head, a rope was wound tightly around his neck and a gag placed in his mouth. He was left hanging from a tree for many days until his body was discovered. Thomas argued that because the murder was an exact imitation of Christ’s passion, 12-year-old William should be recognized as a saint. And so he was.

A depiction of the crucifixion of William of Norwich according to “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” Holy Trinity Church, Luddon, England

Thomas’ book, completed twenty years after the alleged event, which became known as “The Life and Passion of Saint William of Norwich,” was published and distributed in England after which it was copied and sent to France and the rest of the continent. Assisting Thomas in his research was a converted Jew by the name of Theobald of Cambridge, who supposedly provided Thomas with insider knowledge of the secret activities of the Jews. Theobald told Thomas that every year a Jewish council would meet to select a country where a Christian child would be murdered around Easter, in the belief that this would hasten the coming of the Messiah. In 1144, the year of William’s death, England was chosen.  Thanks to this false testimony, Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative received something akin to a seal of approval and the blood libel about the ritual murder of Christian children perpetrated by the Jews became firmly rooted in the collective European psyche.

With the spread of the blood libel in medieval Europe, a pattern emerged: Every time the body of a Christian child was discovered, suspicion would fall on the local Jews. Generally, these accusations tended to surface during the week before Easter, as the Jews were celebrating Passover, and sometimes also around the festival of Purim. The British historian Cecil Roth linked this to the Jewish custom of “hanging” an effigy symbolizing Haman, the villain of the Purim story. Roth argued that this custom was interpreted by Christian observers to be a reenactment of the murder of Jesus of Nazareth. Other historians have explained the timing of the episodes by linking them to the thawing winter snows – dead bodies that had been hidden all winter would be uncovered and discovered around the beginning of spring time. Either way, the connection between Passover and the blood libel about the use of the blood of Christian children to make matzo can be traced back to the story of William of Norwich, even if it does not appear in Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative in its full form.

The “success” of the blood libel forced Jewish leaders throughout the ages to come up with ways to combat the phenomenon. One in particular that comes to mind is the precaution suggested by Rabbi David, one of the arbiters of the Shulchan Aruch, who argued that drinking red wine on Passover should be avoided “because of the libelous claims of our many transgressions.”

The 16th century legend of the first Jewish superhero developed from this blood libel – the Golem of Prague, conjured by Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal of Prague, to protect the Jews of the city from the yearly blood libel and mayhem that came with it.

The Golem and the Maharal, by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899

The official position of the Church has generally been opposed to blood libels, and most popes objected to these false accusations. The majority of the blood libels were private initiatives, but they were often backed by local authorities. The last blood libel to receive the official backing of a European government emerged during “the Beilis affair”, an episode that began with the discovery of the body of a murdered 12-year-old, Andrei Yushchinsky, in a cave outside Kiev in April, 1911.

After a hasty investigation, the Kiev police arrested the manager of a brick factory located near the cave where Yushchinsky’s body was discovered. Although the evidence against Beilis was shaky and the boy’s real killers were found not long after Beilis’ arrest, the authorities refused to release him. Only at the end of October 1913 – after more than three years during which Beilis languished in the Tsar’s prison – did a jury acquit him of the charges.  In response, Jewish publishers in Warsaw rushed to publish The Album of the Beilis Trial.

The murdered boy Andrei Yushchinsky and the “cave” where his body was discovered, from  The Album of the Beilis Trial

Even in Nazi Germany – where blood libel allegations were once again raised in newspapers and children’s books – this poisonous accusation never materialized in an actual trial. The persecution of the Jews and their systematic murder in the Holocaust was explained in racial-biological terms.

“Haven’t you heard about the ritual murders of the Jews?” from the Nazi children’s book The Poisonous Mushroom (Der Giftpilz)

The blood libel about the Jews’ use of Christian blood for matzo on Passover has not completely disappeared and echoes of it are heard from time to time (today mainly in Arab countries), and will probably continue to reverberate for many more years to come. However, we can take some comfort from Gerd Mentgen’s assessment in his article on the subject, that, “in our time, only the most incorrigible antisemites believe in the fictitious truths of the blood libel.”


Further reading:

E.M. Rose, The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Gerd Mentgen, “The Origins of the Blood Libel”, Zion, The Historical Society of Israel, 1994, p. 343-349 (Hebrew).


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The Exceptional Lilli Henoch: The Sad Story of a Champion Athlete

Lilli Henoch won championships and set new world records, but her accomplishments weren't enough to save her from the bullets of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen soldiers


From the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

Lilli Henoch was an exceptional athlete. She was not only an outstanding sprinter, but also a long jumper. She not only set a shot put world record, she set another in the discus throw. Not only did she compete in individual fields of athletics, she was also a leader of women’s teams in both handball and hockey. Lilli Henoch was a ten-time German champion in various fields of athletics, a holder of world records – but she was also Jewish.

Lilli Henoch’s story may have a familiar ring to it. Some may recall the figure of Gretel Bergmann, a high jump champion, whom the Nazis banned from taking part in the1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. Many know the story of Béla Guttmann, a legendary soccer player and coach, who survived the concentration camps. Lilli Henoch’s story is even more tragic.

Henoch was born in 1899 in the city of Königsberg, East Prussia (now the Russian city of Kaliningrad), the second child in a middle-class Jewish family. From time to time, the family would host their friendly neighbor, Albert Einstein. From a young age, Lilli loved to jump and run, but life wasn’t all fun and games. Her father, Leo, passed away when she was only 13 years old. Several years later, the family moved to Berlin, and Lilli’s mother remarried. Lilli quickly joined the Berliner Sport-Club (BSC) and engaged in athletics, at a time when the field was considered “masculine” and inappropriate for women.

Lilli Henoch takes part in a race; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

There, at the famous sports club laden with history and trophies, began the glorious career of one of the best and most versatile athletes in German history. For example, in 1924 alone, Henoch became the German national champion in four different fields: the shot put, the discus throw, the long jump, and the 4×100 meters relay. During this period, she set two discus throw world records, another world record in the shot put, and was part of the running team that achieved a world record in the 4×100 meter relay race in 1926. There are those who claim that her achievements, as well as the achievements of other German female athletes, were what encouraged the International Olympic Committee to approve women’s participation in athletics for the first time in the 1928 Olympics.

Lilli Henoch as a shot putter; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

However, as if often the case in any new field of sport, by the time the Olympics took place in Amsterdam, other athletes had already bypassed her achievements, and Henoch did not take part. Nevertheless, Lilli Henoch continued to be a prominent figure in her Berliner Sport-Club. She was captain of the handball team (a sport that was actually regarded as “proper” for women at the time), and was considered one of the best-known athletes in Berlin. Lilli was so well-respected at the Berliner Sport-Club, that on January 18th, 1933, she was elected chairwoman of the women’s athletic section.

From the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

However, just like a multitude of brilliant scientists, famous artists, educators, and others – her achievements didn’t stop the Nazi government from banning her from athletic activity from the moment they came into power in 1933 – less than two weeks after Henoch was appointed to her prestigious position. She was forced to look for a new professional home. She then joined the Jüdischer Turn-und Sportclub (JTSC), an organization affiliated with non-Zionist, assimilated Jews. She played for the club’s handball team in the Jewish leagues of the 1930s, and won two championships. She also became a gymnastics teacher at a Jewish school in the city.

Lilli Henoch playing handball; from the private collection of Martin-Heinz Ehlert

Years later, Lilli’s sister Susie said Henoch received an offer to move to the Netherlands and work there as a coach. Henoch refused, although it was already apparent that staying in Germany was dangerous. She preferred to stay in Berlin with her mother, who was widowed for the second time. In 1942, the mother and daughter were deported from Berlin and sent by train to Riga, in Latvia. There is contradictory information regarding what exactly happened next. However, what we do know for certain is that Lilli and her mother Rose were executed by Einsatzgruppen death squads and buried – with many others – in a mass grave in the woods near the Latvian city.

Thanks to the tireless efforts of one German scholar, Martin-Heinz Ehlert, the name of Lilli Henoch has been commemorated across Berlin. Several sports venues are named after her: a school gymnastics hall, a soccer field not far from the Jewish Museum, and a small street.

So why is Lilli Henoch’s name not so familiar here in Israel? Why is so little written about her in Hebrew? Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that Henoch was not a Zionist, and did not join a well-known Jewish and Zionist club, like Berlin’s highly successful Bar Kochba club. For Henoch, sport was not a political cause, but a passion, a pleasure, and a haven for her competitive nature. Lilli Henoch simply wished to jump and run.


Thanks to Ronen Dorfan for his assistance in writing this article.


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The Last Resort: The Man Who Saved the World from Two Pandemics

What if you found a vaccine for a deadly disease and no one believed you? What if your only option was to inject yourself with a weakened strain and hope for the best?

Waldemar Mordechai Wolff (Zeev) Haffkine

Scandal, anti-Semitism, and experiments on human beings – when we opened this fascinating archive to have a look at the documents contained within, we could not have imagined how this incredible tale would unfold – the story of a Zionist scientist who was determined to save the world from the plague and cholera against all odds. Introducing Waldemar Mordechai Wolff (Zeev) Haffkine.

Haffkine was born in the Russian Empire in 1860 in what is today the Ukraine. His life trajectory was determined as soon as he completed his studies in Switzerland in the late 19th century, when he decided to dedicate his life to the study of tiny organisms. At the time, Louis Pasteur was one of the best-known scientists in the field, and Haffkine decided to seek work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He was accepted but was given a job as a librarian, as that was the only available opening at the Institute. Bureaucracy, what can you do?

While Haffkine was working with experts like Pasteur and Ilya Mechnikov, cholera outbreaks in Russia and India emerged as a serious threat. Haffkine felt his time had come, and after tireless research, he managed to develop a cholera vaccine based on attenuated bacteria. People may have been dying in masses of a rampant pandemic, but no one stepped up to support Haffkine’s research. He decided to take a drastic step – a last resort to prove the vaccine’s credibility: Haffkine picked up a syringe full of an attenuated strain of cholera, inserted the needle into his arm, and injected the disease straight into his bloodstream. How many would have done the same?

Written plans of Haffkine’s tour with a government delegation, during which he would inoculate villagers, the National Library of Israel

After several days of suffering from fever and worrisome symptoms – the long-awaited turnaround arrived, and on July 30th, 1892, Haffkine reported his findings and the success of the vaccine to the Biological Society in France. But France and other European countries remained skeptical and suspicious of his methods, and refused to accept his results. At the time, European official medical establishments weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea of vaccines in general.

Haffkine refused to believe that a drug, which could cure millions, would not see the light of day. He decided to try his luck in England, where a successful demonstration of his ideas finally gained him access to the outbreak’s epicenter – India. Soon enough, Haffkine was working on the subcontinent. The widespread outbreak of cholera in India led the desperate Bengali government to officially authorize Haffkine to vaccinate the residents of its territory.

אישור מהממשלה של בנגל לחבקין לבצע חיסונים בהודו
The Bengali government’s letter of authorization, the National Library of Israel

An outbreak of another disease, the bubonic plague in Mumbai, impelled the Indian authorities to turn to Haffkine to help them find a vaccine. In January 1897, after three months of intensive work, Haffkine once again inoculated himself with an experimental vaccine for the plague – because hey, it worked once, what could go wrong, right? Well, it worked again! Haffkine very quickly started to experiment on other people, apart from himself. He worked with a number of volunteer prisoners, who agreed to take part in the experiment, dividing them into two groups. Haffkine compared the results between the two groups in order to ensure the vaccine was truly effective. During this period, he set up a laboratory in the neighborhood of Byculla. “The Haffkine Institute” would later be named after him.

A letter from an Indian citizen, C.H. Dady, who wrote to Haffkine and asked him vaccinate his family, the National Library of Israel

The success of the vaccine among the Indian population was phenomenal. By 1900, Haffkine had saved four million people thanks to his treatments. Even the Russians contacted him through secret channels and requested vaccines for cholera. Nevertheless, just as some people enjoy seeing a rising star, there are always those who love seeing that same star crash and burn, and Haffkine barreled toward the incident that would tarnish his name and cost lives.

In 1902, Haffkine arrived at the village of Mulkowal in order to inoculate the villagers. Several days after the treatment was given, 19 villagers died from tetanus. Accusatory fingers immediately pointed at Haffkine, with complaints emerging that something had gone wrong with one of the vaccine bottles.

Some of Haffkine’s cholera vaccination records from India, 1908, indicating children aged 9, 13, and 16 received cholera vaccines, the National Library of Israel

Rumor spread like wildfire that the vaccine was infected with tetanus. A commission of inquiry was appointed which found Haffkine guilty. Soon after, he was deported back to England in shame. The episode came to be known as the “Little Dreyfus Affair,” and was accompanied by an air of anti-Semitism, which Haffkine was familiar with from his life in Russia.

However, he was not going to give up easily. A number of famous friends and scientists published a letter in The Times supporting Haffkine. They argued that their fellow scientist was entitled to the benefit of doubt, and that it was impossible to establish that he was personally responsible for the deaths. This half-hearted acquittal helped Haffkine return to India and continue his work against cholera and the plague. He proved himself such an effective scientist that, after returning to Calcutta in 1907, the Indian authorities issued a report that wholly acquitted him in relation to the “Little Dreyfus Affair,” stating that his innocence did not rest only on reasonable doubt and that he deserved to be fully exonerated.

The report exonerating Haffkine, featuring a typo on the cover: The Mulkowal (India) Tetanu[s] SAccident of 1902, the National Library of Israel

But saving the world wasn’t enough for Haffkine. After retiring in 1914 and returning to France a year later, he continued to invest his time in scientific work and in matters of Judaism and Zionism. Haffkine supported Zionist organizations and provided aid to Jewish war victims during and after WWI. Following the war he founded the Haffkine Foundation which fostered Jewish education in Eastern Europe. Towards the end of the 19th century, he even met with Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in an attempt to persuade him to sell lands in Ottoman Palestine to Jews. The Sultan wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea.

Haffkine’s enthralling story and even his archive, continues to fascinate us to this day. Perhaps it’s too bad that Haffkine isn’t here with us today during the current challenging period, with a new pandemic spreading across the globe. Who knows, maybe he would’ve saved the world for the third time? He certainly would have jumped at the opportunity.


Thanks to Rachel Misrati from the National Library’s Archives Department for her help with this article.

The Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.  

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