Friday, May 10, 2013

Calling Jews by their name

It's the end of the semester so I'm grading papers and projects for my courses. I'm coming across an odd phenomenon that I've encountered before. Some students simply will not use the word "Jew" or "Jews" in their papers. They come up with all different kinds of circumlocutions - "Jewish people," "Jewish followers," "followers of the Old Testament," "followers of Judaism." There's even the occasional "Hebrew"! I've asked students about their reaction to the words "Jew" or "Jews" before, in my Judaism course, and some of them say that they feel uncomfortable using the word "Jew," as if there is something derogatory about it. I've heard this reaction from non-Jewish students who don't wish to say something offensive. I explain to them that this is not the case, that the word "Jew" is not offensive. Still this strange phenomenon continues.....


  1. I think you should cut your students some slack. First, obviously, you should be clear not to use "Jew" as an adjective ("Jew bankers played an important role in Medieval Europe"). But beyond that, I understand where they're coming from. Use of ethnic identifiers (Jew, Black, etc.) is always fraught. I've often been in situations where people will go to great lengths to not identify a given person as Black, even when it is obvious, non-derogatory, and helpful. You'll ask them to point out "Carl", and they'll say "oh, he's the one over there in the grey shirt ... you know kinda tallish ... um, he doesn't have a hat ..." usually a whole minute or two of flailing before they say "you know, he's" (voice drops to a whisper) "black". This when "Carl" is the only black guy in the room.

    Moreover, I understand the sense of risk. It's not just a sense of unclearness about boundaries, though it is that. Using ethnic identifiers can be threatening if there doesn't seem to be good reason for it (why does it matter that Jack is a Jew anyway?). And historically, a non-Jew going out of their way to point out that someone is Jewish typically is not doing so to hand the Jew a cookie.

    Of course, none of that is a good reason in the context you're talking about (a class about Jews). But old habits (and feelings of danger or impropriety) die hard, and I understand where these stem from.

    1. David, I am confused about your hesitance on using Jew as an adjective. Wouldn't you say "Italian Barbers in 19th Century New York" or "Basque Farmers" or "Arab shepherds"? I went looking for the answer myself and came across this interesting commentary in the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus, 2nd Edition:

      "A student of mine—a Jewish man—took me to task once for writing that an essay he had submitted, and which in my view was trying too hard (and failing) to be amusing, had about it an unfortunate Jackie Mason-ish tone. This, he said, was an example of the insidious, all-pervading nature of anti-Semitism, which infects almost all who are not of Jewish faith or forebears. I replied that I was merely comparing his style with that of a comedian I have long found singularly unfunny—but the damage was done. I am tarred with a brush, at least in this young man's mind, from which it is impossible to ever be cleansed. Hence my particular need to tiptoe through the lexical and social minefield of whether, and when, it is currently acceptable to use the word Jew, instead of the adjectival form, Jewish. There is an answer: Jewish and Jew are essentially interchangeable— he is a Jew, he is Jewish —in a purely technical sense, describing one as being of Hebrew descent (from the Semitic tribe, descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob), a follower of the religion of Judaism. But there is one sense in which Jew and Jewish are not the same: in medieval times in England the monarchs forbade Christians from setting up as moneylenders, but gave Jews the monopoly to do so, making Jews their protégés. So to be a Jew was to be a lender of money, a usurer and, by association, one who strikes hard bargains. This specific use, though perhaps of historical interest, is today highly offensive. Indeed, it is so unpleasant to many that it suggests the word should never be used, since one risks, even if using it in an innocent way, conferring the opprobrious inference that was intended in crueler times. Rarely would I suggest ever abandoning a word, or at least being extremely circumspect about its use: but in this case, I do. And it goes without saying that when used attributively— Jew boy —or as a verb to denote miserly behavior— to Jew down —it is highly offensive too."
      — SW

    2. David, I can see the sense in what you say in a class that is not about Jews. But all of my classes are in Jewish Studies, and some of them even use the word "Jews" in the title. Shouldn't that clue students in to the idea that "Jew" is a neutral, not a derogatory term? We discuss Jews in every class. I've noticed the problem in speech as well - some students will only say "Jewish people" or "Jewish person," never "Jews" or "Jew." I've sometimes called them on it.

      Nathan - I think the next time I will have to make clear why I insist on using the word "Jew" and not a supposedly more polite circumlocution. I think that insofar as the word is still associated with the stereotype of the Jew as usurer, we need to challenge that stereotype and reclaim the word "Jew" as a name that we are proud to bear. The word goes back, after all, to Judah the son of Jacob, to the tribe of Judah, to the southern kingdom ruled by Saul and then David, and then to the southern part of the united kingdom. What in all of that is shameful and not to be mentioned? I refuse to let antisemitic traditions tell me what I should call myself. I also want to teach my Jewish students that there is nothing shameful in being called a Jew - it is a name to bear with pride.

      Nathan - the word "Jew" is a noun, not an adjective. When "Jew" is used as an adjective it is insulting. Why that is, I am not sure. Any ideas, Nathan or David?

  2. I have noticed the same thing. After living in Israel for three years I returned to the U.S. using the word "Jew" with reckless abandon. On a boat from Haifa to Cyprus I asked my seatmate is she was Jew. She gave me a dirty look and said she is JewISH. If I were a Jew I would be very proud.