Jew or Jewish?


Last week’s episode of the excellent radio program This American Life dealt with the trouble that can arise when people say or do something that alienates their former allies. There were two main stories. One dealt with a “dyed-in-the-wool, glock-toting, blood-red Republican from Louisiana” who proposed a bill in the state legislature that would make the bringing of toy guns to school a punishable offense. She did this after the sheriff in her parish (which is what they call counties in that state) told her about finding a gun in a school that was so realistic that it took him several minutes of close examination to figure out that it was a fake. And yet, even though that could have had deadly consequence if someone else mistook it for a real gun, he could not charge the person with any offense because there was no law on the books that prohibited highly realistic toy weapons, though these are increasingly available. But even though her proposed legislation dealt purely with toys guns and said nothing about real guns, the gun-nuts went ballistic on her, accusing her of betraying the Second Amendment because she was contributing to the impression that guns are bad.

The other story was about someone name Laci Green who is (was?) apparently a well-known feminist on YouTube who started dating a right-wing troll and speaking well of him and his supporters and saying that they were not really bad people, leading to charges that she was betraying the feminist and progressive movements.

But what I found most intriguing was the short three-minute opening prologue where the show’s creator and host Ira Glass introduces the stories. This time he spoke about his surprise when he was working on a different episode and reading the transcript that had been submitted for that story. The reporter, who is not Jewish, had at one point used the word ‘Jews’ and Glass said that during a discussion with a producer and another young staffer, the other two literally gasped at encountering the word and said that calling someone a ‘Jew’ was no longer considered acceptable and could, in some circumstances, be even considered a slur. They said that one should instead say ‘Jewish people’. Glass said that even though he himself is Jewish and over fifty years old, this was news to him. The other two people were aware of the irony that as non-Jews they were telling him the proper way to describe him, but they were adamant that they would not use the word Jew.

Glass was not offended and tells the story in his usual droll fashion that made me laugh and you should really listen to it. But it struck a chord with me. When writing my blog posts or speaking with someone and it becomes necessary to refer to someone’s Jewish heritage, I try to find a way to write it as Jewish (like I just did) instead of just as Jew. I do not feel the same hesitation in referring to someone as a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or a Tamil or a Belgian. So why this discomfort with calling someone a Jew? No one told me that it was bad to do so. I cannot recall ever reading this advice either. I just acquired that feeling by some kind of osmosis. As the two young staffers told Glass, they had just grown up feeling this way all their lives and suggested to him that the different way they felt compared to Glass was a generational shift. Maybe it is like the terms ‘Negro’ and ‘colored people’ that some older African-Americans may still feel confortable with but younger people of every ethnicity know to avoid without ever being told.

In my own case, maybe the source of the discomfort goes all the back to my early exposure to William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice where Shylock is the villain who is constantly referred to by others not by his name but as ‘the Jew’ and the word is definitely used pejoratively, as if labeling someone as such was sufficient to conclude that he is a bad person. That impression remains despite the powerful oration Shylock gives at one point where he appeals to the common humanity, both good and bad, that we all share:

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

I am curious what readers think of this issue, especially the possible generational difference. Is this just another case of, to quote Shakespeare again, a rose by any other name (as Glass seems to think) and that I am overthinking this? Or is there something of significance going on here, as his youthful co-workers clearly feel?

Comments

  1. says

    The other two people were aware of the irony that as non-Jews they were telling him the proper way to describe him, but they were adamant that they would not use the word Jew.

    I heard a bit on another podcast On The Media [otm]

    Back around 1977 or so, I attended the formation meeting of the R.A.S.T. The Reisterstown Association of Star Trekkers. I decided not to join, because the entire meeting was consumed with debate over the difference between “Trekkie” and “Trekker” – one being considered to be a bit dismissive, the other uplifting, etc., etc. In important cultural context, James T. Kirk, in his embodiment of William Shatner, had recently told some trekkies to “get a life” and apparently the shot hit below the waterline for some people.

    As with the trekkies and trekkers, I use whatever term people indicate to me that they prefer and cheerfully apologize when I get it wrong. Over the course of my life I’ve experienced several significant transformations of identity terms and I feel it’s important to respect them since sometimes they are terms given by an oppressor and other times they are carefully chosen parts of a person’s identity.

    What gets funny (I have had this happen) is when I was berated by someone for being too flexible about their identity term – they said they wanted to be called Xish and I had called them X so I switched usage promptly. They then said “obviously you don’t care.” I said, “obviously. You can call yourself Baked Alaska for all I care.” This is a serious issue for some people, so I remember that 2-hour-long (and maaaan was that a long 2 hours) at R.A.S.T. while they argued over their identity.

  2. says

    Related: religious identity and cultural identity get mixed up a lot. I suspect that there will not be a debate between christians and christianish identities because christians are still a privileged majority. I tend not to capitalize religions because I don’t respect them as ‘things’ (we don’t capitalize other ideas; I am not a Bowler or a Baseball Card Collector either) – it’s another aspect of religious privilege, and I’ve had religious people complain about it to me, thereby neatly making my point.

  3. cartomancer says

    I don’t know much about how Jewish communities treat the issue, but it certainly seems pretty clear-cut as far as the gay community goes. Though it’s not entirely consistent. You would never find someone use “a gay” seriously – in fact it is used in this manner as a humorous quirk by more than one British sitcom or sketch show – though you would find “a lesbian” used in just that way with little fuss to be had. Conversely “a gay person” is entirely unremarkable, but “a lesbian person” sounds a bit odd.

    I think it has to do with the usage history a particular mode of address has had. Nazis and neo-Nazis tended to talk about “Jews” a lot, and many people outside a Jewish community have only ever encountered this usage in slurs and abuse. So it seems to them to be a usage confined to that register, where actual members of Jewish communities use it themselves and hear it used in other contexts all the time. I doubt there is much of a generational split here. You would have to ask younger members of the Jewish community.

    “Gay” is perhaps different in that it was adopted precisely as a positive term, when mainstream society and the language of bigots tended to talk of “sodomites” and “inverts” and “queers” (or, at the milder end, “homosexuals”, which sounds rather clinical and typological rather than like a meaningful marker of personal identity). So its use in negative contexts is much less common.

  4. MikeMa says

    @cartomancer, your reference to “a gay” brought an entirely different idea to mind from the “Tales of the City” by Armistad Maupin. Early in the series he often referred to “A Gays”, meaning San Francisco’s homosexual elites or upper crust. I was immediately transported to a party with many “A Gays” in attendance. Loved those books even more so because I missed them when they were originally published in the Chronicle.

  5. file thirteen says

    Unfortunately my youngest son (13) cannot be dissuaded from using “jew” (sic lowercase) as a perjorative. So it seems that among his age group it has become so.

    (He used to find it funny to do it, but reading him select parts from your post on neo-nazi recruitment tricks cured him of that. He still calls people “jew” when he gets really angry though, and no lecture or punishment will stop him. When he’s not angry he agrees that it’s not a word he should ever use as an insult, but occasionally he goes ballistic and simply cannot be reasoned with.)

  6. John Morales says

    ‘Jew’ is a noun, ‘Jewish’ is an adjective.

    The reporter, who is not Jewish, had at one point used the word ‘Jews’ and Glass said that during a discussion with a producer and another young staffer, the other two literally gasped at encountering the word and said that calling someone a ‘Jew’ was no longer considered acceptable and could, in some circumstances, be even considered a slur. They said that one should instead say ‘Jewish people’.

    This idea that only the adjectival form is appropriate is silly; semantically, they refer to the same thing. A Jewish person is a Jew; Jews are Jewish people.

    cartomancer:

    I don’t know much about how Jewish communities treat the issue, but it certainly seems pretty clear-cut as far as the gay community goes. Though it’s not entirely consistent. You would never find someone use “a gay” seriously – in fact it is used in this manner as a humorous quirk by more than one British sitcom or sketch show – though you would find “a lesbian” used in just that way with little fuss to be had. Conversely “a gay person” is entirely unremarkable, but “a lesbian person” sounds a bit odd.

    ‘Gay’ started out as an adjective, not a noun.

    (Such a fuss over verbing and nouning!)

  7. jrkrideau says

    4 cartomancer

    I’d suggest a simple grammatical explanation for gay versus a lesbian.

    Gay is an adjective that has been around for a long time in common use. There is some song that goes “ blah, blah, blah, and we’ll have a gay old time”. Then there is “a gay blade” and I am sure many others.

    Lesbian, in common usage, is relatively new as far as I am aware and can switch more easily between adjective and noun as it is less fixed in the language.

  8. Holms says

    Since jews themselves don’t seem to mind being called jew or described as jewish – that is, they don’t fuss over the noun or adjective form – I don’t find it worrisome in the slightest to use either. It all comes down to the sentence structure to determine which is warranted. Where I draw the line however, and I think people here will agree with me on this one, is using ‘jew’ as a name or label for someone, or as a way of singling a person out. As always, context is key.

    #1
    Did they expect you to adamantly refuse to switch terms or something??

  9. Acolyte of Sagan says

    jrkrideau, the ‘gay old time’ song is The Flintones theme tune. Gay, in that sense, meaning carefree.

    On the Jew/Jewish question, it’s possible that because Jew can be seen as an abbreviation of Jewish, and one that has been used as an insult, the word itself causes the same reaction in some people as hearing ‘Pakistani’ abbreviated does for most of us, whereas hearing ‘Brit’ or ‘Aussie’ is not problematic.
    It’s all about the context in which ‘Jew’ is used, really, and unless Jewish people in general start to object to the word being used in any context, then there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable with its use as long as it isn’t being applied as an insult.

  10. Acolyte of Sagan says

    Superfluous ‘the’ inmthe last sentence of my comment #10. It should read ‘..unless Jewish people in general……’.

  11. DonDueed says

    The reason I’d hesitate to use “Jew” rather than “Jewish” is that the former is often used by bigots pejoratively, as an adjective — as in the term “Jew banker”. I think that has tainted its more reasonable use as a noun.

  12. sonofrojblake says

    I do not feel the same hesitation in referring to someone as a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or a Tamil or a Belgian

    Getting it wrong is less likely to ruin your career. Being labelled “anti-semitic” is toxic, and whether or not the label is justified is irrelevant. The people lobbying against BDS know this very well and use it.

  13. lanir says

    I think the Jew/Jewish split might be due to rarity. If you hear someone who is very obviously spouting off views you find repellant and there are terms and words in there you don’t encounter otherwise, you are a lot less likely to pick up those words and use them yourself. Words are just symbols and when the same symbol is used in many different contexts it’s hard for it to hold onto strong connotations. If a symbol is rarely encountered and only when it has a clear, strong negative meaning then I think it’s more likely to have strong negative connotations.

  14. anat says

    And in response to the Jew-ish puns, it gets one additional layer in that ‘ish’ is Hebrew for ‘man’.

  15. CJO says

    I have a friend who is Jewish, and he once asked a young woman working at a bookstore if there weren’t “any Jews who work here” (in the context of her bemoaning that she had to work on Christmas Eve). Again, a generational thing. He’s late forties, she was mid twenties. She was apparently aghast, but to him it was an unremarkable way to refer to Jewish people in the abstract.

    I should note that I think it’s a generational thing among Jewish people particularly. For myself, middle aged also, and non-Jewish, I don’t believe I would have been comfortable referring to anyone as “a Jew” at any point in my life. As John Morales notes, it’s curious, because there really isn’t a semantic difference. But I think I’ve always been similarly uncomfortable with “the blacks” and certainly “cororeds” or “negroes” or any of the racial terms that were already archaic by the time I was a child, and for some reason “a Jew”, “the Jews” has the same flavor.

  16. Some Old Programmer says

    I wonder if the verb form has any bearing. A very few times I’ve heard people I know and respect use some variant of the phrase “Jew (someone) down”, leaving me very taken aback. I trust I don’t need to explain that it lands with a definite smack of bigotry (as do many references to Jews and money). The people who I heard use this were both from an insular, rural, US background, leaving me with the impression that they didn’t understand the subtext, and that the phrase was in circulation in their past.

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