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As a gentile who finds himself writing about Judaism in the ancient world, I've found myself reluctant to use the word "Jew". I tend to use phrases like "Jewish people" and "Hebrew" when it makes sense. Even writing this question makes me uneasy.

It turns out Google (of all organizations) explained this phenomena:

If you use Google to search for “Judaism,” “Jewish” or “Jewish people,” the results are informative and relevant. So why is a search for “Jew” different? One reason is that the word “Jew” is often used in an anti-Semitic context. Jewish organizations are more likely to use the word “Jewish” when talking about members of their faith. The word has become somewhat charged linguistically, as noted on websites devoted to Jewish topics such as these:

Someone searching for information on Jewish people would be more likely to enter terms like “Judaism,” “Jewish people,” or “Jews” than the single word “Jew” In fact, prior to this incident, the word “Jew” only appeared about once in every 10 million search queries.

With that background, does the Jewish community generally encourage the rehabilitation of the word "Jew" by it being used in non-anti-Semitic contexts? Are there cultural pitfalls to be warned about when using the word?

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Maybe try instead "People of the Mosaic Persuasion"~ –  Ariel K Oct 3 '13 at 0:05
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I can't speak for the Jewish community generally, but I, for one, do support the use of "Jew" in non-anti-Semitic contexts, consistent with my experience that this is, in fact, a standard use of the term to which Jews do not take offense and my general aversion to unjustified taboos.

I have been an English-speaking observant Jew for over three decades now, and in my experience, Jews tend to use the noun "Jew" all the time, with no pejorative intent.1 I do not recall ever seeing a Jew express offense at being referred to, or seeing another Jew referred to, by that term.

Pitfalls and notes to be aware of:

  • "Jew" as a verb or as an adjective (as opposed to "Jewish") are generally the sole provinces of anti-Semitic speech.

  • According to The American Heritage Dictionary (as well as other dictionaries surveyed at EL&U), the term "Jewess" for a female Jew is "widely regarded as offensive." I'm not sure if this is on grounds of anti-Jewish or anti-female prejudice. In any case, this is not a term I've seen used much at all in my experience. It's probably best avoided. On the other hand, unlike the non-noun usages of "Jew" I wouldn't take its use as strong evidence of anti-Semitic intent or context.

  • "Jew's harp" is a misnomer, but not offensive.


1. I believe I have seen a few instances of more secular Jews using the term "Jewish person" instead. The only one that I remember specifically was actually a Jewish character on a TV show whose writers may or may not have been Jewish. In fact, the fact that this usage struck me enough that I remembered enough about it many years later to be able to find the specific reference is further evidence of its rarity in my experience.

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I once heard a rabbi say as a side point in a sermon that Europeans (I guess British) use the word "jew" as a verb meaning no offense (though its origins certainly were) –  b a Nov 30 '12 at 21:08
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Google also thinks it's offensive, but apparently most Yodeyans don't. google.com/… –  Double AA Dec 2 '12 at 1:07
    
I have only ever heard "Jewess" twice and they were both anti-Jewish and anti-female in their context. –  fredsbend Sep 4 '13 at 18:19
    
Just a guess, but I was thinking that the instrument might have become known as a "Jew's harp" because of the medieval belief that Jews and Gypsies were basically the same. And in the histories we see that Gypsies we well known for playing small instruments for their entertainment, and also to make a buck or two street performing. –  fredsbend Sep 4 '13 at 18:23
    
@fredsbend, I think it's just a corruption of "jaw harp." –  Isaac Moses Sep 4 '13 at 18:28
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"Jew" does not need to be rehabilitated. It is perfectly normal for Jews to use the word, and I find it quite jarring when I hear other words used instead. The fact that some antisemitic websites use the word in a derogatory sense is irrelevant to the fact that it is our name.

However, as Isaac noted, when it is used as an adjective, instead of "Jewish", it is clearly meant as a pejorative because it doesn't make grammatical sense. Whenever a noun is used as an adjective for the purpose of emphasizing an individual's or a group's "other"ness, that use is offensive, as it is intended to be.

I will depart from The American Heritage Dictionary's assessment, however, about "Jewess" being insulting, and Isaac's advice to avoid it. I don't think it's offensive unless it is meant to be. It is a proper term for a female Jew. If someone means to insult me by emphasizing "Seth" with a glaring look or a sneer in a context of insulting or accusing language, I will be offended, but not because they used my name. "Jewess" is not widely used, but that's because it feels awkward. It's stuffy and uncomfortable in everyday English speech. But in Hebrew or, indeed, in any language with gender specification, the equivalent term is used.

When referring to national events, it is appropriate to use the term "the Jewish people" or "the Jews", but in the context of ancient history, I think it is more accurate, especially in the post-Exodus Biblical period, to use "Israelites".

Please note that the use of the word "Jew" as a verb (usually meaning "cheat" or "steal", as in, "Don't try to Jew me. I know what it really costs!") is woefully offensive, and it should go without saying that this use will not be appreciated by most Jews. But there, I said it.

Here is a handy, albeit comical, chart that I hope never actually helps anyone (because they're sensitive enough not to need it).

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The problem some have with "Jewess" isn't "Jew" but "ess". If "Jew" means a Jew of either sex then "Jewess" seems contrived since there is no "Jew-male" word. This is only a factor in English IMO, not Hebrew where everything has gender. When talking specifically about a woman in English, I'm used to seeing "Jewish woman" (and, analagously, "Jewish man" if talking about man-specific issues). –  Monica Cellio Dec 3 '12 at 18:50
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@MonicaCellio, I agree that it is only a factor in English. However, the word itself is not offensive. It is a word that has been used, like "lass", for centuries to denote, specifically, women. In my experience, perhaps because I'm a man, whenever something Jewish is specific to women, it's emphasized. Whenever it's specific to a man, the maleness is de-emphasized (perhaps because it is assumed). This is, perhaps, why the word exists at all. I think, though, that the issue that is seen as offensive is the two-fer. It's an uncomfortable emphasis of both the Jewishness and femaleness. –  Seth J Dec 3 '12 at 18:56
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@MonicaCellio That seems just like the English convention of "waiter" and "waitress" and numerous other examples. –  Double AA Dec 3 '12 at 18:59
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@DoubleAA, several decades ago "waiter" was understood to be male and "waitress" female. I don't think that's true now; in restaurants women routinely tell me they'll be my "waiter" or "server". In that context, "waitress" seems to say "ooh, let's emphasize that she's a woman", which feels weird because it usually doesn't matter. And that's how I see "Jewess", since I've never known "Jew" to be male-only. This may be community-specific, of course, but I don't think I've ever heard a "neutral" use of "Jewess" in modern usage. (Historical, yes.) –  Monica Cellio Dec 3 '12 at 19:12
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When writing about history, "Israelite" can be confusing since the Northern Kingdom is often referred to as Israel and the Southern as Judah. –  Jon Ericson Dec 3 '12 at 19:40
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