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On hearing “F**king Jew!”

That title caught your attention, didn’t it? Let me explain…

I was talking to a teenager the other day – if you’ve read this blog before, you know I spend a lot of time with teenagers, both at home and at school – and he said something that shocked me to the core.

He was complaining about someone else, and I was waiting for him to finish his rant before making a comment, and he called her a “f**king Jew.”

He clearly realized the mistake he’d made as soon as it exited his mouth; he turned to me, eyes wide, sheepish, and stopped talking.

“What did you just say?” I asked. I couldn’t believe what I’d just heard.

“Nothing … I didn’t mean it! I’m sorry.” Shaken, and clearly worried about my reaction.

“You called her a ‘f**king Jew’.”

“I didn’t mean it! It just came out! I wasn’t thinking!”

I was astonished, speechless. I had no idea what to say to him. Trying to keep calm, I told him I didn’t want to talk to him right now and that he should go away. He left, without argument.

I read an article just last week about anti-Semitism in Europe. It reported on an Anti-Defamation League study [link updated to a 2015 version of the study] which measured anti-Semitic attitudes all over the world and, for each country, came up with a percentage of the population that held anti-Semitic attitudes. I was pleased, and not particularly surprised, that in the Netherlands, where I live, only 5% measured as anti-Semitic, far below the world average of 26% and the Western European average of 24%.

I’ve never personally experienced any anti-Semitism here. I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m Jewish, and I have a mezuzah on my front door. At worst, I get ignorant but well-meaning questions when people learn that I’m Jewish: “So does that mean you don’t celebrate Christmas?” (I don’t.) “So you don’t eat pork?” (I do.)

Later, when I talked to this kid again, after I’d calmed down, he immediately insisted that he has nothing against Jews, that he has Jewish friends (How’s that for cliché?).

“So where did that come from?”

“I heard it on South Park. And it just came out.”

We talked for a while, and I gave him what I hope was a clear explanation of how that had felt for me, why words matter, and so on, and of course he apologized profusely.

It’s occurred to me since then, though, that the way he used the word “Jew” as an epithet is exactly like how many kids use the word “gay” as an epithet: “That’s so gay,” which is as likely to be directed at a thing or action as at a person.

When they use this phrase, it often isn’t even connected to homosexuality; it’s “gay” as the equivalent of “stupid.” Often the kids the words are directed at aren’t gay. Here’s a public service announcement about “That’s so gay,” produced by ThinkB4YouSpeak.com: 

I don’t know if the person this teenager was insulting actually is Jewish. Nevertheless, the comment’s truth value doesn’t matter. It’s used as a put-down, so it’s inexcusable. In the kids’ view, however, it’s harmless, a rather low-level insult: there are far worse ones, in their world.

We adults know that it’s certainly not harmless. It creates an atmosphere that feels unsafe, and where people feel the need to hide who they are. And it’s incredibly insulting to give descriptive terms like “gay” or “Jew” a negative connotation, even a negative connotation that’s completely unrelated to the actual meaning of the word, as in this case, where the intended meaning is just “stupid.” It feeds into the already-existing homophobia and anti-Semitism, making them publicly acceptable.

gay

courtesy of ThinkB4YouSpeak.com

Whenever I hear a kid call someone or something “gay,” I call them on it. What I get in return is usually “But I didn’t mean it that way!” and “Everyone says it!” and “But he knows I’m kidding!”

I explain calmly why it is still completely unacceptable, and then the matter is dropped. Generally they’re more careful from then on about what they say around me.

Nevertheless, they’re still using these terms; I hear them in the hallways at school. All they seem to have learned from me is “Don’t say it around her.”

Since in this case, the epithet applies to me, I was far more upset about the word “Jew” than I have been in the past about the word “gay.” Part of me wanted to come down far harder on this kid, punish him or something.

On the other hand, if a show like South Park is using it that way, it’s not surprising that kids pick it up and think it’s acceptable. South Park is meant to be ridiculing such usages, I think, but kids can’t necessarily discern what is satire and what is serious. It’s up to us adults to let them know.

But how do we do that? If a particular epithet is banned, doesn’t that just make it more desirable to use it whenever authority figures aren’t around to impose a punishment? There must be some other way to discourage the use of these words.

It’s tricky, isn’t it? The words “Jew” and “gay” are not swear words. They are perfectly acceptable words. Yet they are very powerfully hurtful when used as insults. How do we teach kids the difference?

8 Comments

  • anne ziff

    May 31, 2014 at 2:56 pm

    Rachel, I was a seventh grade English teacher in Rochester MN, 48 years ago (belly protruding pregnant, at that) and teaching Shakespeare. One of the boys in my class, son of a physician at the Mayo Clinic, spoke aloud about “being Jewed down”.
    Now, in NYC, NO ONE said things like that. But for sure, I knew what he was saying. And it was not ok with me.
    So, on my feet, in front of this class of 28 blonde kids, I asked, “What does that mean to you?”
    “Gypped, cheated,” he quickly responded.
    “Any Gyps in this class?” I asked. “or any Cheats?”
    Silence.
    “Just for the record, I’m Jewish. And both as a Jew, and as your English teacher, I need to tell you that your use of the expression “to be Jewed down” is reprehensible–here, and in the world beyond Rochester Minnesota.”
    Dead silence.
    They knew the meaning of ‘reprehensible’. I think most of them did not know anyone who was a Jew.
    I, however, was shaken to my core, and the exchange stays with me, always.

    Reply
    • rachel75

      May 31, 2014 at 3:53 pm

      This stuff just keeps coming back, doesn’t it? It really shook me too; I keep thinking about it. What a great response; how did you come up with that comeback so quickly? I was so shocked I couldn’t say anything until I spoke with the kid later.

      Reply
  • anne ziff

    June 1, 2014 at 3:04 am

    I think it’s like doing therapy–or parenting. It’s not from ‘thinking’ for me, more like just getting out of my own way and letting “it” flow out of my mouth….know what I mean?

    Reply
  • Lisa

    June 29, 2014 at 10:41 pm

    Fascinating discussion Rachel.

    I went to the Anti-Defamation League Study to check out my country! It’s surprisingly high (14%). Anti-semitism is so beyond my reality that I can’t even begin to guess where that 14% comes from. Within our population I don’t know who could hold such bizarre views. I read through some of the questions/answers which only compounded my bewilderment.

    On thinking about it though, perhaps it’s because racial/ethnic issues are more common ‘blood-boilers’ so other ‘isms’ just happen not to be discussed as frequently.

    In any case, it’s an appalling figure.

    I was also interested in the discussion from a language evolution perspective – using a particular aspect (gay, Jew) as an insult reminds me of the very old use of the descriptor Mongol which goes back hundreds of years.

    It’s important to reclaim the word both as a neutral, purely descriptive term but also as a very positive one from an emotional standpoint.

    It also reminded me of the ‘like a girl’ insults that are hurled around. In essence then, gender, race, religion, etc they’re all used inappropriately as an insult. It’s important to call people on such use – I tend to go for a standard – don’t do that / this is what you’re communicating / this is what it says about you / the word has a true meaning, use it properly – sort of thing.

    Reply
    • rachel75

      June 30, 2014 at 6:06 am

      I think anti-Semitism often flies under the radar because Jews aren’t immediately physically identifiable. So that 14% (what country is that?) could very well be your neighbors, but you won’t see it in their behavior because they themselves may not be aware of any Jews in the area. Yet if you polled them, they might give those anti-Semitic answers.

      I just saw something about this new ad campaign in the US by Always that addresses this “like a girl” idea. You’re right, it’s exactly the same thing. How does an identifying, factual word like “girl,” “gay” or “Jew” become an insult? And yes, I call people on these things too.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  • Dani

    June 22, 2015 at 8:45 pm

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post, Rachel.

    When I was in junior high I befriended a girl who challenged my sense of right and wrong. She was very outspoken, habitually swore, and often made derogatory statements, one of them being “that’s so gay”. Before I realized it, I was infected with the disease, saying the same. In the beginning, I felt sick about it, but as time wore on, it was like saying “what’s up?”–it was that natural.

    The friendship didn’t last (thank goodness!) and, when the dust settled, I decided to wear a rubber band around my wrist, which I snapped whenever anything unsavory crossed my lips. I only had to snap it a few chosen times before the words were scared to form in my mouth (they knew what was coming…).

    Looking from where I now sit, I can see how many children/teens use offensive language in a way they find acceptable and benign. I knew better, but didn’t choose better until I’d offended others and shamed myself. Certainly, I wish it wouldn’t have been that way. But I did learn my lesson. And if we are lucky enough to have living children, I plan to pass such lessons along to them.

    Under the same sky,
    Dani

    Reply
    • Rachel

      June 23, 2015 at 12:39 am

      Wow, you were a very self-aware teenager! Speaking from many years of daily contact with them as a teacher, I can assure you that most aren’t! That’s why I think it’s so important that we call them on it every single time we hear them use phrases like ‘That’s so gay.’ Thanks for commenting!

      Reply

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