This weekend I went to another Jewish-Muslim interfaith event. I was not exactly the main target audience, which was mainly people whose actual job is religious education. I did get to meet some Somali Bravanese Muslims, an ethnic minority from Somalia via Kenya whom I hadn’t encountered before.
Anyway we had some very interesting discussions, including around the use of language. Some of the Muslim participants said they didn’t like what I had thought of as an otherwise neutral older spelling, Moslem. They said they associate that spelling and pronunciation with people like Donald Trump, and I can see that people who haven’t bothered to update their language might well be assumed to be hostile. I don’t particularly need to change my own language choices since I have been using the modern spelling anyway, but it’s useful to note.
Then of course the conversation turned to the Jewish side, and the somewhat fraught issue of what we should be called. There is undoubtedly a lot of discomfort with the word Jew. I think the answer is probably something unhelpful like, it depends on context and different people are going to have different views. But I’ve read some interesting stuff on this question recently, and I am treating this post as a kind of draft for something I might circulate to the group to see if we can shed any light on the question.
My personal view is that jew as a verb is by now purely offensive and everybody would be happier if it just weren’t used. (That doesn’t mean I want to ban the word; you certainly have a right to use the term and I’m not going to stop you personally nor attempt to use legal means to stop you. This isn’t about “censorship” or restricting anybody’s freeze peach, I’m writing for people who have made the choice to be polite but don’t necessarily know what terms are acceptable.)
I’m not that happy with Jew as an adjective either. I realize this has not always been true, but in contemporary English, Jew is primarily a noun and using it in an adjectival way is almost always derogatory. People who simply want to describe something as being connected to Jewishness will use the form Jewish. Jewish music, Jewish food, Jewish customs, Jewish humour, not Jew music, Jew food etc. And certainly not as an adjective for a person: Jew politician, Jew writer, those are always insulting and as far as I can tell usually deliberately so. When I was a teenager an elderly Welsh lady asked me if I was “one of those Jew-girls”, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t intending to be hostile, she just hadn’t interacted very much with anyone Jewish recently (if at all).
But what about Jew as a noun? Or “the Jews” as a name for people like me? There is certainly a trend towards prefering to say “Jewish person” or “Jewish people”, but I’m not sure that should be an absolute rule for all possible contexts. Sometimes insisting on that adjective, that person-centred language as it were, sounds stilted and over-corrected. I know a lot of people who refer to themselves as Jews as often as Jewish or even strongly prefer the noun form. I don’t really want the word Jew to drift into being exclusively a slur, even though it certainly sometimes can be. And it’s not as simple as just, it’s ok for Jews to use the term but not for non-Jews. (It’s a slight simplification but I think that probably is true for the Yiddish equivalent, Yid; for people speaking English that’s at best a reclaimed slur, and for many really quite a strong insult.)
I am really not a fan of “person of Jewish [noun]”; I can totally see how it’s calqued on terms like person of color and person with a disability, but even those are not always the right choice in all circumstances and “person of Jewish something” feels at best clunky. Not that I consider it anti-semitic, but it’s usually a sign that the speaker is well-meaning but doesn’t actually know any Jewish people personally. It makes me feel like I’ve time-travelled into a nineteenth century novel where people use elaborate circumlocations like gentleman of the Mosaic persuasison because Jew is basically synonymous with loan-shark.
I most certainly do not appreciate non-Jewish people insisting we can’t call ourselves Jews. That really interesting and well-sourced post from Real Social Skills on Tumblr brings up another problem: if you’re going to insist that Jewish can only be an adjective, and you feel a bit awkward about referring to someone as simply Jewish or a Jewish person, which is that they’re a person of Jewish… what? Jewish extraction? Jewish persuasion? Jewish extraction suggests it’s only their background whereas it might in fact be their actively claimed identity. Jewish persuasion, on the other hand, suggests that Jewishness is a set of beliefs that a person subscribes to, but being Jewish isn’t just an opinion, or even really an opinion at all since there are plenty of people who are perceived as and may well identify as Jewish who don’t actually agree with any of the central teachings of Judaism-the-religion at all. Real Social Skills goes into a great deal of detail about why person of the Jewish faith is a problem, because even religious Jews often don’t primarily think of Judaism as a faith, and there are many many more completely secular and atheist Jews than there are religious ones.
Of course, this whole discussion started in a context of an interfaith event. And I don’t mind using that term because that’s what it’s commonly called when people from different religious backgrounds enter into dialogue with eachother. But actually I think the whole emphasis on faith in these kinds of contexts is very largely because of Christian dominance of the interfaith scene, combined with nervousness around using religion-based adjectives or noun labels for people. Christians I think are a lot more likely than Jews to use the terms religion and faith interchangeably, or in the case of some of the more Evangelical sorts of Christians, explicitly say that Christianity isn’t a religion but rather a faith. Also, Christians often see their Christian identity as being mainly about faith; they don’t have a clear language for people who are undeniably Jewish (or indeed Muslim) but don’t particularly believe in or practise their religions. And yet, perhaps ironically, nobody sees the need to talk about “people of Christian faith” we just say “Christians”, but still end up stumbling over “people of Jewish faith” or “members of the Muslim faith community”.
Karaspita on Twitter pointed me to a really cool article by Boyarin: Yeah Jew! Boyarin is, as ever, writing very dense and academic dissection of some really complex ideas, but I think he expands really interestingly on Real Social Skills’ point. Sometimes the distinction between Jew and Jewish is more than a simple division between rude and polite, it’s about the way that Jewish identity is a complex interplay of cultural and ethnic factors with religious ones. Boyarin challenges that dichotomy, which he again argues comes primarily from a Christian worldview. Jewish speakers often say things like, you can’t translate the question “is Judaism a religion or a culture?” into Hebrew, and I find that kind of argument from lexical gaps basically fatuous, but it does often feel like outsiders are trying to get us to pick between two facets of identity which aren’t actually distinct.
I’m involved in discussions at work about adopting a formal definition of anti-semitism. It’s quite clear that any useful definition has to include attacks on people because of their religious Jewish beliefs or practices, which often affect Jews by choice with no Jewish ancestry, and attacks on people because of their (perceived or actual) Jewish ethnicity, where religious beliefs or lack thereof are no defence at all. And of course I don’t want to define my Jewishness in terms of why people hate me, but in a world where that hatred exists, I’m uncomfortable with being pushed into saying I’m a member of the Jewish faith, or that I’m from a Jewish background, because neither of those covers the whole story, though in my particular case both of them happen to be true. In current UK diversity monitoring questionnaires, I’m expected to write “Jewish” for the religion-and-belief category of the Equality Act (and I might well query why those two are conflated together in law), but I’m not really supposed to write “Jewish” as my ethnicity; I know I’m far from unique in uncomfortably defaulting to “white other”.
People often say kind of wrily, I’m not really a Jew, I’m just Jew-ish. And I have no problem with someone to whom it applies choosing to make that semi-joke, but I don’t want outsiders, in the name of trying to be polite, to push me into watering down what I say about myself.