Jew-ish

May. 23rd, 2017 01:45 pm
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
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. (Thanks to [personal profile] siderea for the link.) That really interesting and well-sourced post from [tumblr.com profile] realsocialskills 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. [tumblr.com profile] realsocialskills 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".

[twitter.com profile] karaspita 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 [tumblr.com profile] realsocialskills' 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.
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(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 12:51 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ewt
There's an open italic tag in the 9th paragraph of this.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 01:40 pm (UTC)
jae: (Default)
From: [personal profile] jae
Interesting. 'Moslim' is the way the Dutch spell the word (both when used as a slur and when not), so that's my immediate association with 'Moslem'. I suppose everything is fraught with Trump these days, though.

-J

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 05:12 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: (linguistics geekery)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
Some good points here. A little linguistic nitpicking:

I did get to meet some Somali Bravanese Muslims, an ethnic minority from Somalia via Kenya whom I hadn't encountered before.

Interesting. I encountered them once via the NNLS, I think.

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

Whilst it might be an older spelling, I think it reflects a difference in how you pronounce Arabic. If you say "Mohammed", you'll say "Moslem"; if you say "Muhammad", you'll say "Muslim". The latter is standard Arabic; I think the former might be Egyptian. OTOH, that doesn't necessarily say anything about its use in English.

I'm not that happy with Jew as an adjective either.

Technically, this usage is as a modifier (i.e. a noun being used like an adjective).

It's a slight simplification but I think that probably is true for the Yiddish equivalent, Yid

ISTR recall reading somewhere that in Yiddish it's always pronounced with a long I, yīd which distinguishes genuine Yinglish use from derogatory English use. But I've barely ever heard the Yiddish word in the singular (though the phrase "a frummer yid" springs to mind); it's almost always yid(e)n in the plural, and used in Yeshivish.

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.

As I understand it, in the nineteenth century, "Jew" referred to ethnicity, "Mosaic" to religion. Hence I remember reading, many years ago, about someone being described as being Polish by nationality, Jewish by people and Mosaic by religion.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 05:35 pm (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
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

My teeth grind every time I see PWD. I recognise that some people feel that they need to emphasise that we are not our disabilities, but for some of us our disabilities are very much inseparable parts of us, and some prominent disability groups explicitly reject PWD as a label. It's a label that I see as largely based in well-meaning ignorance.

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've repeatedly seen non-disabled people insist that disabled people use PWD, even tell them they are "wrong" to call themselves disabled, even when they are members of groups, such as the neurodiverse and Deaf, who explicitly reject PWD. I normally call it 'Clueless Ally Syndrome'.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 06:14 pm (UTC)
ghoti_mhic_uait: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ghoti_mhic_uait
I admit I'd kind of assumed that Moslem was offensive, because I've mostly seen that spelling used by the kind of people who are anti-Islamic. Similarly yid - when it's in English, it's people yelling at Judith, and it's clearly not meant to be polite. Although that does get mixed up with football stuff.

It never occurred to me that you would write anything other than 'Jewish' in the ethnicity section of forms. You've told me what you feel you should write, but, well, ethnicity is about sharing a common culture, not about skin colour. I used to write 'goth' because that felt the most accurate, but it doesn't any more, and that's OK. Ethnicity doesn't have to stay the same any more than any other personal characteristic, life happens and people change.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 07:49 pm (UTC)
smhwpf: (Sandman)
From: [personal profile] smhwpf
This is really interesting. I had not realized that these nomenclature issues (in terms of self-description) were also a problem for those like you who are Jewish by religion, ethnic background and culture!

I certainly find the expression "The Jews" uncomfortable. It seems always like it is part of a sentence involving a generalization, probably not flattering. There is also the problematic use in the Gospel of John - e.g. "...for fear of the Jews", when it is Jewish people he is talking about who have the fear (of the religious authorities). One can understand the context, in the wake of the final split between Christianity an Judaism, but it is still extremely problematic.

Jew as a noun, yeah, context is everything. I remember when I was a kid at school, other kids frequently used "Jew" as a synonym for "mean person", as in "Lend me 50p" "No" "Oh, don't be such a Jew", which I did not appreciate.

I have wrestled with the question of whether I am entitled to describe myself as Jewish - three Jewish grandparents and one Jewish step-grandparent, but not the bio-maternal-gran, brought up Atheist, converted to Christianity. When I was a kid I described myself as "Three quarters Jewish", but subsequently realized how absurd that is, and in particular became wary of playing the "I'm Jewish and I support the Palestinians" card, as being appropriative.

But I've always been willing, when someone says something anti-Semitic, to say "Hey, I'm Jewish and I find that offensive", and so now Trump is in power and with all the vileness around that, including much more prominent anti-Semitism, I have lost some of these qualms and am much more willing to describe myself as Jewish. (Or Jew-ish).

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 07:51 pm (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
Yeah, I'm not a fan of 'the disabled', the criticism of that was valid, but swapping to PWD went too far in the opposite direction. Much as "person of Jewishness" is going too far! My friend Lisa had a great article on this in XO-Jane http://www.xojane.com/issues/i-am-not-a-person-with-a-disability-i-am-a-disabled-person As she notes there, no one is insisting she describe herself as a "person with gayness" or "person with womanliness". It's rather revealing we don't see the same pressure for people to refer to themselves as "a person of Protestant faith" or "a person of Catholic faith". It's almost as if there was a double standard at work!

I won't object if disabled people choose to use PWD, it's essentially a matter of how you view disability politics, and significant parts of the US disability movement are locked onto PWD. But some of the US professional bodies (psychs etc) apparently insist their practitioners use it, even when dealing with members of groups who explicitly reject that usage because who they are is indistinguishable from their disabilty. And when they start telling us how we should describe ourselves, that's edging into infantilization.

(Really didn't mean to hijack this away from Jewishness, but parallels)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 07:55 pm (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
I wouldn't dream of using yid, I don't think I've ever seen it used in a non-negative form by a non-Jew, so there's too much chance of being interpreted wrongly.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 07:56 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: (reflect)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
Hmm. I've been filling in "Jewish (Ashkenazi)" for years.

Incidentally, [livejournal.com profile] aviva_m was horrified when she first saw even just British documentation referring to "not discriminating on the grounds of [...] race", because to write such is to acknowledge that race exists, and such thinking is, for obvious historical reasons, deeply taboo in Germany.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 08:00 pm (UTC)
lethargic_man: (reflect)
From: [personal profile] lethargic_man
It would make sense that the anglicization Mo- rather than Mu- is from a different dialect of Arabic. I'm pretty sure it wasn't originally an offensive term in English, just that it's acquired negative connotations.

It's a bit like "Negro". For years I was puzzled by claims that this word was offensive before I discovered that... I forget, was it Malcolm X who decided that it was, and campaigned against its use; because I'm pretty certain it wasn't in the UK, and I certainly never perceived it as such; but now I'm shocked by hearing the word used in a recording of an event I was present at in 1990.

I got the impression that the Somali Bravanese community are quite tight with the Jewish community in the Barnet area; a lot of the people who came to this event had made connections via borrowing a synagogue building when their community centre was destroyed in an arson attack.

Ah, that was how I came across them, yes.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 08:59 pm (UTC)
ghoti_mhic_uait: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ghoti_mhic_uait
Yes, if they clearly mean race or even say race then I say white European or white other f my choice is Brit or gtfo. The ones where I came up with a culture answer were ones where they wrote ethnicity an I either thought they really meant ethnicity or wasn't sure which answer they were looking for.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 09:31 pm (UTC)
ghoti_mhic_uait: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ghoti_mhic_uait

Yeah, that's why I traditionally never wrote White British, because I did spend my childhood and teenagers being bullied and feeling unsafe for the German part of my nationality. It's a lot less relevant now, though.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 09:40 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ewt
No, it's fixed now -- I guess the wires got crossed.

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 10:10 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ewt
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.

Yup. I tend to think of it as partly a protestantism thing, but I have less experience of inter-"faith" discussion from a non-Christian perspective than you do.

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 wouldn't have dreamt of using Yid for anything even when I was at my most close association with a Jewish community; my (Jewish) then-partner did, but only in casual conversation with people around the same age.

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.

I tend to think of it as a sort of Venn diagram, where "Jewish" can refer to being part of the religious community or to the cultural community or to nebulous ideas around 'background' or a few other things, and there is considerable overlap, but not everyone is necessarily a member of all of the rings. So discrimination on the grounds of any of these aspects of Jewishness is wrong, but of course one doesn't have to conform to all of the aspects of Jewishness to be Jewish.

I also tend to think that unless the person describing themselves as Jewish voluntarily discloses what they mean by that, or it's directly relevant to the conversation or some practical matter (e.g. kashrut, Shabbat), which aspects of Jewishness apply to that particular person is really none of my business.

I know I'm far from unique in uncomfortably defaulting to "white other".

I also do this. I'm white, but I'm not British, even if one of my grandparents and a few of my great-great-grandparents were. I'm never sure how helpful it is, but there really isn't another option that fits. I'm definitely foreign, but also definitely "not that kind of foreigner" according to most xenophobes and racists.
Edited (Changed italic tag to quote tag) Date: 2017-05-23 10:10 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2017-05-23 10:12 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ewt
So discrimination on the grounds of any of these aspects of Jewishness is wrong, but of course one doesn't have to conform to all of the aspects of Jewishness to be Jewish.

NB I'm aware that it's actually more complicated than that; but in a context of formulating anti-discrimination policies, this is one way of looking at it.
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