Monday, May 13, 2013

Once again, calling Jews by their name: genteelism, not gentilic

Oliver Kamm, in his column The Pedant in the Times of London, also just wrote about the curious reluctance of some people to use the word "Jews" when they are, in fact, writing or speaking about Jews. In his case, he discovered this usage in the recent document published by the Church of Scotland denying any connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. The church's argument is based on the ancient Christian doctrine of supersessionism - the belief that the people of Israel has been abandoned by God and that the promises made to Jews have been transferred to Christians.

This document rarely uses the words "Jew" or "Jews." It predominantly uses the term "Jewish people" to mean "Jews," but without the article (above I used the phrase with the article in order to indicate Jews as a collectivity, or as a gentilic - look it up).

Kamm quotes a sentence from the report to give a feel for how it uses the term "Jewish people": “There has been a widespread assumption by many Christians as well as many Jewish people that the Bible supports an essentially Jewish state of Israel.”

In this sentence the word "Jews" would have been perfectly natural in the place where "Jewish people" occurs.

He comments:
The phrase “the Jewish people” is, of course, not only legitimate but an exact description. To be Jewish is not necessarily to be religious; it is to be part of a people. But the report’s authors didn’t mean the Jewish people collectively, otherwise they’d have used the definite article. By “Jewish people” they meant, simply, Jews. 
The Church has belatedly removed the document from its website, so I can’t check this, but I recall from it not a single use of the noun “Jew”. I can only guess why this should be and offer my opinion that the authors’ use of language should not be emulated. [RL - actually, the nouns "Jew" and "Jews" do occasionally appear].
The term “Jewish people”, with no preceding article, is a genteelism. A genteelism (the word is a nice coinage by H. W. Fowler, the lexicographer) is a word or expression thought by its utterer to be more refined than a common synonym. There is a widespread if unexpressed premise that the word “Jew” is blunt and that politeness requires that it be softened. 
It’s a bizarre and misconceived notion. I’m confident, however, that it explains the linguistic diffidence of the authors of the Church of Scotland report. It’s a modest irony that they’ve couched their argument in unnecessary euphemism while failing to anticipate the inflammatory nature of their conclusions. 
My advice on language is to embrace the noun “Jew”. Writers who avoid it are typically just averse to plain speech, but it has a less benign connotation too. The Church report provoked outrage because, among other things, it contrasted Jewish particularism with Christian universalism. This used to be a common theme of Christian theology but is now little heard. The implication is that Christianity supersedes its Jewish origins, and thus that the survival of the Jews into modern times is in some sense historically aberrant. That notion has come to be seen by most Christian churches as outmoded and insensitive since the Holocaust. 
This isn’t the place for an assessment of the ideas behind the Church of Scotland report, but its critics’ allegation that it is anti-Semitic is on my reading correct. That conclusion is reinforced by the authors’ fastidious aversion to using the term “Jew”. In attempting to avoid the taint of insensitivity, let alone prejudice, they have haplessly conveyed a highly traditional anti-Jewish stance.
If you would like to read the original document (it has been removed from the Church of Scotland's website because of the objections raised to it), you can go to Scribd - The Inheritance of Abraham and judge for yourself its use of the terms "Jew," "Jews," and "Jewish people."

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