From anonymous radical-right xenophobes in Britain came the call to make April 3 “Punish a Muslim Day.” Letters were sent through the mail to addresses across England, calling for violent attacks on Muslims. The sick mailings assigned a point score for levels of violence from “Verbally abuse a Muslim” (10 points) to “Beat up a Muslim” (100 points) to “Burn or bomb a mosque” (1,000 points) to “Nuke Mecca” (2,500 points) Police were on alert, and women who wear the hijab were advised to stay home. No actual attacks were reported. There were also reports that some of the letters had arrived at New York addresses, causing the city’s Muslim community to mobilize and the NYPD to beef up security. (BBC News, WPIX) The Daily News reports that Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams joined multi-faith leaders at a press conference to condemn the threats. His comments there were laudable in intent, but revealing in their wording: “Our message must be just as loud. Not punish a Muslim, let’s embrace a Muslim, let’s embrace a Christian, let’s embrace a person of Jewish faith, let’s embrace the diversity that this city has to offer.”
We hear constructions such as “person of Jewish faith” or “Jewish person” more and more, and there seems to be an unspoken assumption behind it: that the word “Jew” is a slur. For many, evidently, it sounds derogatory. Because it has been been used as a slur by anti-Semites for so long, those who wish to show themselves as free from any taint of anti-Semitism balk at speaking it. Muslims may now be the group most aggressively targeted by the fast-growing radical right. But it was the barrage of hate brought forth by a search for the word “Jew” that actually prompted Google to issue a disclaimer that appeared above the search results a few years back. (That disclaimer is now gone, my search results reveal, which may have to do with Google tweaking their algorithm to downgrade sketchy sites in response to the recent “fake news” scandals.)
There is a danger to this rhetorical trend: of ceding the word “Jew” to the Jew-haters, and paradoxically legitimizing its use as a slur. And speaking on a personal note, I’ll point out that Adams’ construction leaves me out. As an atheist, I am not a “person of Jewish faith.” But I am damn sure a Jew, as the anti-Semites never tire of reminding me. So this ill-conceived nicety ironically ends up vinidcating an anti-Semitic trope: that there is no Jewish ethnicity, only a Jewish religion, and an atheist Jew (like me) isn’t “really” a Jew, and a Polish or Romanian Jew is just a Pole or a Romanian who happens to be Jewish. Which is bunk.
Calling someone a “Jewish person” always reminds me of two things. One is an exchange between (a fictionalized) Isaac Asimov and (a fictionalized) Robert Heinlein in _The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown_ by Paul Malmont where Heinlein stumbles over what to call Asimov and Asimov replies, “Jew’s fine, Bob. I’m a Jew. Not a Jewish person.”
The other is an exchange from the TV series “30 Rock” where Irish-American executive Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is talking to his girlfriend and asks what her ethnicity is called. “Puerto Rican,” she replies. “Yes, that’s what you call yourselves, but what do *I* call you?” “Puerto Rican.” “That doesn’t sound right.”
The same principle can be seen at work in this painfully awkward exchange from 30 Rock. This sheltered white business dude is so used to peeps in his peer group using “Puerto Rican” with derogatory intent that for him it is a slur.
One Facebook participant chimed in to defend the notion that Jewish identity is only a matter of religion. Oddly, this fellow has a Jewish surname, yet insists he doesn’t “identify” as a Jew. It is certainly his right not to, but he seemed not to get that his position was intrinsically denying my right to identify as a Jew. “I don’t agree that Jews are all one particular ‘people’,” he said. I responded that I hadn’t said “one” people. He came back: “If Jews can be a whole lot of ‘different peoples,’ where does the great connection exist—except for the fact that all these different ‘peoples’ had ancestors who believed in the Jewish religion?”
As we’ve stated: Jews are a multiplicity of ethnicities (Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Sephardi, etc.) with common bonds of identity and shared histories of persecution. Hebrew nationalists (inclduing but not limited to Zionists) believe that these ethnicities together constitute a nation, but this question isn’t relevant to the one at hand. Arguably, Polish Jews and Yemeni Jews have no more to do with each other than Polish Christians and Yemeni Christians. But they are each ethnically distinct from other Poles and Yemenis. It is not just a question of religion, but of culture. Polish Jews had (and some few survivors still have) their own language in Yiddish, while Polish was a second tongue learned to get along in the larger society. Yemeni Jews similarly speak Aramaic as their native tongue, and use Arabic for intercourse with the larger society. You can argue that the erosion of Yiddish among the dispersed Polish Jews makes this difference less significant. But erosion of the old-country native language isn’t thought to erase ethnic identity in, say, Italian-Americans. Are Jews held to a different standard?
This idea is also utterly ahistorical. If Polish Jews were simply Poles who happened to be Jewish, this was certainly not the perception of their neighbors who periodically carried out pogroms. Thinking you can erase this historical reality by erasing Jewish identity is as deluded as the risible notion that Obama’s election made the United States a “post-racial” society. Similarly, Yemeni Jews are not merely Yemenis who happen to be Jewish. If they were, you might want to ask why they are being kicked around so much—and were even well before the current sectarian malestrom in Yemen.
And while the fellow who made this argument on my Facebook page was an earnest progressive type, his position is the same as that of the Jew-haters who basically tell us to assimilate or die.
Jewish identity exists, and is by no means merely a matter of religion. And those who embrace Jewish identity, whether religious or ethnic, are Jews.
We state again: It is time for Jews to take back the word “Jew” just as gays have taken back the word “queer.” Using such ludicrous locutions as “Jewish person” or “person of Jewish faith” just concedes ground to the anti-Semites. Say it loud—I’m a Jew and I’m proud!