The news that the president of the National Union of Students was subjected to anti-semitic abuse last week was disturbing, but as the student protest have become more chaotic and fractured, I had chalked up some of that to a small group of idiots demonstrating their, well, idiocy. But tonight I heard a segment on Radio 4 in which students of various ages talked about how “Jewish” has become an run-of-the-mill insult – as they describe it, it’s not actually related to being Jewish. You know, it’s just like saying something or someone is “gay”. That doesn’t refer to actual homosexuality; it’s simply a term of disapprobation. It’s a schoolyard insult, they said – seemingly implying that as a result it shouldn’t be read as anti-Semitic.
Whatever your thoughts about the leadership of the NUS’s Aaron Porter, the idea that someone wants to insult him and reaches for the word “Jewish” is profoundly depressing and alarming. It’s made all the more surreal by news reports that point out he isn’t in fact Jewish, which kind of draws attention to the fact that the word is being used as an insult while in a way also distancing him from the root meaning of the insult. Whether or not he’s wearing a yarmulke and going to temple is wholly beside the point.
I was an adult before I ever heard an anti-Semitic insult. (Like most places, where I grew up wasn’t without its racist insults but – also like most places – they were directed at the most immediately visible minority groups. We didn’t have many Jewish families in my town so I didn’t even understand why people would think calling someone a “Jew” was any more offensive than calling them an “Episcopalian”.)
Then I moved to New York where I not only met a lot of Jewish people and learned a lot about Judaism but also more frequently came across anti-Semitism. Here in London my awareness of it had once again been subsumed under other visible ethnic bigotries. That makes hearing a schoolgirl telling a reporter it’s “just something you say” all the more of a shock. It’s truly worrying if these young people weren’t just a random selection that the BBC dug up but are representative of attitudes among kids.
It’s the easy rationalisations that unsettle – the way these kids describe that it doesn’t mean what it really means. To a lesser extent, the same thing happens with terms like “girl” and “woman” – ie “don’t be such a girl about it” — read: lame, weak, a loser. (Talk about an enshrined use in the schoolyard – for sports coaches this one is practically from their motivational handbook.) It all comes from the same nasty place.
People say by way of excuse, Yes, we might use words like “Jewish” or “gay” or “woman” but it doesn’t relate to the actual identity behind those words. We’re just using a description of who you are a garden variety insult. No offense, OK?
Have you heard young people use these terms as insults? Do you think it’s a growing problem?