June 24, 2004

The Jewish "Jew" Question

A while back I helped my Dad set up a (now-defunct) blog focusing on the relationship between Jews and the Republican party; I picked gopjew.blogspot.com for the URL. My Dad laughed as if this was somehow subversive, and later told me that my grandfather had been actually offended, but had said "gopjewish" would have been alright. This puzzled me, but I didn't think much about it until Eugene Volokh posted:

WHAT's WITH THOSE JEWISH PEOPLE?: Why do some people think that it's more polite to say "Jewish people" than "Jews"? I've heard some people say that "Jews" is somehow considered rude, and "Jewish people" is better, but I just don't see why.

Does anyone know the story here? People don't generally say "black people," "Catholic people," or "female people." Why should they call us "Jewish people" rather than just "Jews"? I don't quite get it.

(I'm not saying that "Jewish people" is wrong -- if you want to say that, it's fine with me, though it will sound affected to me and people who think like me, at least until we're persuaded that "Jews" is somehow bad.)

David Bernstein responded:

"JEW!": Regarding Eugene's question as to why some consider it impolite to called Jews "Jews" instead of "Jewish people," I can contribute a little history. By the 19th century, the word "Jew" was thought by enlightened folks to have derogatory connotations. The leadership of the Reform movement led an effort to abandon the word "Jew" in favor of "Hebrews" or "Israelites," I assume because they thought those words had positive Biblical vibes. Indeed, the confederation of American Reform synagogues is still known as the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. [It recently became the Union for Reform Judaism, as Bernstein notes in an update.] If I'm not mistaken, the leading American Jewish periodical before the wave of (decidedly non-Reform) Eastern European migration in the late 19th century was "The American Israelite." And if you read 19th century publications, friends of the Jews would often refer to them as "Israelites," "Hebrews," "Members of the Mosaic Faith," and other euphemisms that avoid the nasty-sounding word "Jew."

Neither Hebrew nor Israelite ever caught on, but discomfort with the word "Jew" remains. And indeed, anti-Semitic discourse seems to always use the word "Jew," not "Jewish people," as in "dirty Jew!"; or "the Jews control (the media, Hollywood, the Bush Administration's foreign policy);" or "Jews or so clannish." Indeed, I'm told that before I arrived at GMU Law School, one professor--who left before I started at GMU--angrily referred to one of my colleagues as "you little Jew." He disingenuously defended himself from charges of anti-Semitism by noting that my colleague is both diminunitive and Jewish.

This is all very interesting, and provides some insight into why different people might hear different connotations to the same word. But saying "Jewish person" for "Jew" still strikes me as a neurotic affectation to persist with.

While we're on the subject of brevity vs. affectation, let me share a pet peeve: the word "utilize," a favorite of middlebrow types who seem to think that a pretentious and unnecessary substitution for the perfectly respectable "use" will make the speaker sound more educated (it won't). It's almost entirely utilizeless.

Posted by John Tabin at June 24, 2004 09:05 AM