Jewish World Review August 15, 2000 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5760
Proud and true:
He's a Jew
IF YOU HAVEN'T heard by now that Joseph Lieberman is the first Jewish candidate on a major party ticket in American history, you might also like to know that we put a man on the moon and that the eight-track tape is out of production.
With the media overkill there's not much left to say about Lieberman's religion. And we don't have much information yet about what America's reaction to it will be. But, thanks to the Lieberman boom, there is something interesting happening that nobody has commented on. The word "Jew" is being rehabilitated.
The day after Lieberman was tapped, a good friend called me. My friend is very well-educated and WASPy --- if he goes more than 72 hours without mayonnaise he needs to have it injected intravenously. He is also wildly pro-Jewish and would probably volunteer for the Israeli army long before me. Anyway, he called and said, "Hey, Jonah, isn't it sort of bad to call someone 'a Jew.'" After a brief moment to digest the question, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
It is bad to call someone a Jew, sort of.
The newspapers and nightly news shows keep using the word "Jew" where normally you would expect them to say "Jewish" or "Jewish person." Senator Lieberman is as often as not referred to as "a Jew" in print, television and radio.
"How will Americans react to a Jew in the White House," reporters have asked repeatedly. The New York Times blared in huge headline type, "FIRST JEW ON A MAJOR U.S. TICKET."
What's wrong with that? Well, in one sense, nothing of course. Lieberman is "a Jew" and it hardly needs stating that anti-Semitism is not one of The New York Times' - or the media's - many problems. But in another sense, hearing "Jew" is a bit jarring.
For centuries "Jew" was the preferred pejorative term for Jewish people. For example, "Don't Jew me" meant don't haggle me down to the lowest possible price. "Dirty" or "filthy Jew" were standard parings.
Benjamin Disraeli the 19th century British Prime Minister offered perhaps the most famous defense of the word when he was taunted about being a Jew in parliament. "Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon."
Still Hitler was largely successful in smearing the word "Jew." The word was so beaten up that after the Holocaust most American Jews took to saying, "I'm Jewish," rather than say, "I am a Jew."
Ironically, the Jew-Jewish distinction was brought to the fore recently by - or to be more fair - because of, another Democrat: Hillary Clinton. The allegation that she called an aide a "f***ing Jew bastard" 30 years ago, fairly or not, reminded some people that "Jew" can be a hurtful word. "F***ing Jewish bastard," oddly enough, would not have been as offensive.
According to the "Philologos" (word lover) column in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, the word "Jew" is unique in the English language. In English, there are two rules of thumb for using nouns as adjectives when referring to ethnicity or geographic origin.
In one system, the noun and the adjective are the same. "Russian," "German" and "Greek" are interchangeable as nouns and adjectives; you say, "he's Greek" and "he's eating a Greek salad." In the second system, the noun and the adjective are different. You drink "Turkish" coffee, but no one says "he is a Turkish."
"There is, to the best of my knowledge," according to Philologos, "only one consistent exception to this rule: the word Jew." You can use "Jew" and "Jewish" interchangeably. The column contends that using "Jew" as an adjective is therefore offensive because it inherently suggests that Jews are "unlike all other human beings."
If you call someone a "Jewish lawyer" you're being descriptive and grammatically correct. Call someone a "Jew lawyer" and you're being grammatically correct and you're suggesting that a Jewish lawyer can never be anything but a Jew. A "Jewish boy" is some kid named Sol you pat on the head. A "Jew boy" is something Nazis say.
It's kind of funny that "Jew" is being rehabilitated largely - I suspect - because "Jewish person" is too long for newspaper headlines and the TV news. Nevertheless, even though I hope Lieberman meets electoral defeat, I'm grateful that he's helped elevate a word that should never have been lowered in the first
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