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Thursday, January 23, 2014


A random nomenclature question:

Is it offensive to call someone "a Jew"simply in referring factually to that person's religious/ethnic background (in other words, not saying it with a sneer or to further an anti-Semitic remark). The alternative would be to say "He's Jewish." Is one OK and the other not? If so, how is it different than saying "He's a Republican" or "He's a liberal" or "He's an Elk." Is there a difference when talking about political categories as opposed to racial/ethnic/religious categories.

I grant that it would be jarring to hear someone say it that way, but that is because it is uncommon--we generally say "he's Jewish". But is it uncommon because of its offensiveness?

Posted by Howard Wasserman on January 23, 2014 at 06:46 PM in Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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A corollary to the rule stated by my high school English teacher (who went to school in the South): Jewish is inoffensive unless spoken as a single syllable ("Jesh").

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 26, 2014 5:37:48 PM

On this matter It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia is instructive: "Jew" is inoffensive unless spoken with a hard J.

Posted by: Think Like a 1L | Jan 26, 2014 3:59:58 PM

While the discussions about reductivism, etc., may well be true, I don't think that's the active reason I flinch at the term. After all, it would be just as reductive to say of me, He's Presbyterian, but if someone were to use that term I wouldn't find myself crammed into a category that denies all else about me (notwithstanding that for me, as with many people, my faith is a centrally important part of who I am).

To me, it's a matter of associations and personal branding. I have in mind a mental image of someone who says, "He's a Jew," and it's not a pretty image. I think of blacklists and exclusions, and the kind of person who finds that a dispositive argument when someone is presented for club membership or a hiring interview. I don't want to be associated with those kinds of people, and so I avoid the terminology such a person would be use. I don't want to be seen as in any way being in their camp.

This circles back to the question of whether it's offensive because it's rare, and I think that is part of the explanation. In my experience, there are a few people who are quick to say "He's a Jew" rather than "He's Jewish," and in my personal, anecdotal, non-scientific observations, they tend to be people I want to differentiate myself from.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 26, 2014 6:26:56 AM

Thanks for all the great responses, particularly Adam's doctoral dissertation on the subject. And I think the comparison of nationalities (Dutchman, Chinaman) works. And it confirms my thought in the initial post--whether inherently offensive (note that Merriam-Webster defines Chinaman as offensive), the pejorative edge historically accompanying these terms led to their disuse. And FWIW, I rarely hear people say someone is "a Christian" or "a Muslim." If asked about Prof. Goldstein's religion (or ethnicity or nationality), I would say "He is Jewish." And I would find it jarring if I heard someone say it any other way.

Nancy mentions "identity categories," but I think we need to parse that further, because not all identity categories are treated alike. It is perfectly common, and accepted, to speak of "a conservative"or "a Democrat." So we're back to some distinction between political identity and racial/ethnic/national/religious/other identity. And then the question is where having a disability fits--I guess because it is involuntary?

I thought the problem with illegal immigrant wasn't noun v. adjective, but the word "illegal." And I thought things had settled on "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented." Which would seem to fall on the political side of things.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jan 24, 2014 3:15:10 PM

There's nothing inherently offensive with it, but it just isn't common English usage and can therefore sound jarring and pejorative, much like using the term "Jewess" to describe a Jewish woman. There's another angle, however, namely that using the term "Jew" emphasizes nationality, while "Jewish" emphasizes religion or culture. The former has an implication that sets Jews apart from the other group (e.g., from American), while the implication of the latter is that Jews are a subset within the other group (Jewish Americans are Americans who happen to be Jewish, while American Jews are first and foremost Jews who just happen to live in America). At least for English-speaking Jews, there is a general political preference for the latter identification.

The current preference for Jewish over Jew has anything to do with a negative reaction to German usage, which is the same as the Yiddish usage: in Yiddish, one says "er iz a yid" (He is a Jew) not "er iz yidish" (He is a Jewish) or "er iz a yidisher mentsh" (He is a Jewish person). (Compare French and Italian where the difference with simply whether one adds in an indirect article: "Il est un Juif" vs. "Il est juif" and "Lui è un Ebreo" vs. "Lui è ebreo" with Russian, which lacks articles: "On eyvrey" would always be used, not "On evreyski". Even in the languages with articles, the difference between the noun and adjective is very minor. Then again, in Russia, at least, being Jewish is understood much more as a nationality than it is in the US.

I think the analogy to "black/a black" isn't quite right. Instead, the better analogy is to certain now archaic nationality terms like Scot or Dutchman or Chinaman than to black. We tend to eschew these nationality terms in favor of Scottish, Dutch, or Chinese not because of any inherent quality to the words but in an attempt to disassociate with the pejorative edge that sometimes accompanied these terms.

Posted by: Adam Levitin | Jan 24, 2014 1:16:52 PM

I think its the difference between using the term as a noun or an adjective.

If you use the word as a noun ("he's a Jew," "she's a Black"), you're reducing the individual to a single identity in an offensive way. If you use it as an adjective ("he is Jewish," "she is Black"), then you're simply describing one thing about them, but also recognizing that there are many other facets of their individuality.

Just my two cents.

Posted by: Anon | Jan 24, 2014 10:26:04 AM

Wanted to add: the parallel to "a black" would be "a Jewish" which just makes no sense grammatically. "Jew" vs. "Jewish person" is much more akin to "African American" vs. "African American person," both of which are fine.

Posted by: Andrew Selbst | Jan 24, 2014 10:22:22 AM

I disagree. You'd say someone's a Christian or a Muslim or any other noun form of religious observances. As brad points out, there are ways to make it negative with tone of voice, but I don't think it's naturally so.

Posted by: Andrew Selbst | Jan 24, 2014 10:20:06 AM

I agree with Asher et al. and would just add that there are some (admittedly imperfect) parallels to other identity categories.

For example, the Department of Labor suggests talking about a "person with a disability" as opposed to "the disabled" or "the handicapped": http://www.dol.gov/odep/pubs/fact/comucate.htm

And there has been a somewhat similar conversation regarding the term "illegal immigrant," which the AP dropped from its stylebook last year. It's not completely clear what should replace it, although the AP seems to be moving towards using verbs rather than nouns (i.e. "person who immigrated illegally") and more specificity:

Posted by: Nancy Leong | Jan 24, 2014 10:12:57 AM

Asher explains it very well, I think.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Jan 24, 2014 12:25:41 AM

Yea, I think it's best to avoid it because it's reductive.

Posted by: anon | Jan 23, 2014 10:03:32 PM

In some contexts it's fine.

"What religion is Professor Goldstein?"
"He's a Jew."

Doesn't really seem at offensive to me (absent negative tone of voice or the like.)

Posted by: brad | Jan 23, 2014 8:45:41 PM

I advise non-Jewish people against it. It sounds even worse in the plural. I would compare it to calling someone "a black." Why it's more offensive to use a noun instead of the adjectival form, plus "person," is hard to say, but "a Jew" or "a black" or "blacks" seem to be used as terms of opprobrium much more often than "Jewish person" or "black person." Nazis talked about Juden, that is, Jews, not Jewisj people. Perhaps because the noun is more racially essentialist - a thing one simply is, rather than a trait one has - and it also avoids affirming the Jewish person's personhood.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Jan 23, 2014 7:58:58 PM

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