Family travel with flair

Has “Jewish” become a schoolyard insult?

Star Of David Vector By VectorportalThe 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?



4 Responses to “Has “Jewish” become a schoolyard insult?”

  1. anonymous says:

    I was also shocked – and depressed – when I heard this, especially on top of news that anti-semitic incidents rose last year. Not sure what we can do though. English Jews don’t really like to raise their heads above the parapets (and I say that as one of them/us, hence not even leaving my name!)

  2. Harriet says:

    I hadn’t heard this (Radio 4 is on in my house but doesn’t get much “active” listening), but I’m horrified and really shocked.

    I’m half Jewish, my dad is Jewish and a lot of my identity is bound up with that – I’m immeasurably proud of my Jewish heritage, and the dark hair and stupidly pale skin that go with that, even though I’m neither a practising Jew, nor, indeed “eligible” to be a Jew in the Orthodox tradition (it’s what your mother is that counts).

    Like you, I’ve never heard anti-semitism, not even in the tiny rural communities in which I was brought up – in which it was totally accepted that my dad could be chairman of the church restoration fund, and attend services – he just wouldn’t say the creed.

    In fact the only time in my life I’ve heard anything anti-semitic was once in Russia when I told a man who was trying to chat me up on the metro that I had dark hair because my dad was Jewish (he wouldn’t believe I was British – apparently we’re all blond) and I watched him vanish (I used that line again several times with similar success…) and once when I overheard it from a 70 year old bigot in a conference call at work. I walked out of the room, which wasn’t that effective as he couldn’t see me.

    This is now deteriorating into waffle, but I suppose my point is that this is offensive, as it is offensive to use the term “gay” or anything else. If you’re implying that to be Jewish or gay or a woman is to be stupid, or uncool, then how can it not be at least mildly insulting and at worse, downright racist?

  3. Jennifer Howze says:

    Harriet and Anonymous, thanks for the comments.

    Harriet – it’s interesting that you haven’t experience anti-Semitism here but you did in Russia. I wouldn’t have guessed that.

    Anonymous – It does seem to be that Jewish identity isn’t a big part of English culture, so your comment about not raising one’s head above the parapet rings true.

    I appreciate ya’lls insights, especially since I’m not Jewish myself. They’re helpful and illuminating.

  4. Luke says:

    Hi Jennifer – I tweeted that it has been used in UK playgrounds for many years, but thought I would give some more detail for the benefit of Harriet and others.

    It isn’t the same as the use of ‘gay’, which is now used to mean ‘rubbish/bad’ in the same way ‘lame’ is used in the US.

    The use of ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ is used to mean ‘tight/mean’ in reference to the long-standing slur that Jewish people are not generous.

    So if a kid chooses not to pass a ball in the playground or won’t share his sweets with others, he might be called a Jew.

    It’s part of a lexicon of offensive insults that have become ingrained in British playground culture over decades, alongside ‘spaz’ (spastic = idiot), gypo/gypsy/pikey (poor or unclean person) and many many more.

    That said, I assume this was not how it was meant towards the NUS President and guess it was a politically-orientated jibe from those on the far left of student politics relating to Israel/Palestine??

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