Dr.Gerstenfeld’s article, The Word ‘Jew’ As a Curse in Europe’ was originally published in the Jerusalem Post, and published here with the author’s consent.
THE WORD “JEW” AS A CURSE IN EUROPE
At its very beginnings, the word “Jew” was just a noun. It comes from the Hebrew word Yehudi, which is derived from the biblical name Judah. The word Judaism comes from the religion of the Yehudim. By the time the Christian heroes of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” referred to Shylock repeatedly as “the Jew,” there was however no question that the word was an invective rather than a reference to the merchant’s religion, 1
The negative connotations of the word Jew were common in Europe for centuries. In France, in order not to insult Jews, since many years numerous people call Jews “Israelites” and often Jews do so themselves. A colleague of mine, when I lived in Paris, always spoke about Israelites when he mentioned Jews. I could not convince him that I did not recognize myself in this quite common expression and that I considered myself a Jew, or “Juif” in French.
Removing the word “Jew” as a pejorative from European society wasn’t easy. This was achieved only partly and gradually after the Germans murdered 6 million Jews in many brutal ways. At the end of the 1970’s, a Dutch Jew took the author of the main Dutch dictionary to court. He felt personally insulted that the dictionary defined the word Jew as “curse, or bad name.”
The dictionary also listed “old, filthy Jew” as an example for the use of the word Jew. It furthermore mentioned the metaphorical use of the word “Jew” as “cheat, and trickster.” There was also an exemplary sentence to help clarify the expression: “I wouldn’t like to buy from such a Jew.” Yet the author of the dictionary won the court case.
Nevertheless, the Dutch dictionary changed the definition in the next editions.2 That reality was temporary. CIDI, a Dutch organization which fights anti-Israelism and classic antisemitism expressed its concern about the degradation of the word “Jew” in its overview of 2016: “This word has become increasingly ‘normal’ in scolding. A striking example is the use of the curse “Kankerjood” (which translates as “cancer-Jew”) against the police in a demonstration in front of, and in support of, the Turkish embassy.”3
In the Netherlands another problem is superimposed on the general use of “Jew” as a slur. Non-Jewish fans of the major Amsterdam soccer club Ajax have adopted the word “Jews” as their group’s name. In soccer stadiums, fans of their opponents have for more than twenty years chanted songs such as “My father served with the commandos, my mother was with the SS. Together they burned Jews, because Jews burn best” and “Hamas, Hamas Jews to the gas.” These antisemitic hate songs have spilled over into the public domain and are also from time to time used against actual Jews.
There are many examples from the Netherlands, but it is far from the only country where the word “Jew” is used as a slur. In December 2018, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights published a major study titled, Experiences and perceptions of antisemitism in which a young woman from Denmark was quoted as saying: “My biggest problem has been that people use the word ‘Jew’ as an invective in their daily speech which I find offensive.”4
A Danish man said, “I am very scared about my children’s future, since ‘Jew’ is an invective in my district, and people hate Jews so much that life means nothing. We are scared that our children will be attacked in one way or another.”5
The result of all this is that Jews hide their Jewish identity. A Spanish Jewish student who volunteered a number of years ago in an Israeli research program on antisemitism that I directed told me that his best non-Jewish friends in Spain did not know that he was a Jew.
Last year Elvira Noa, chairperson of the Jewish community in Bremen, Germany, told the local daily paper, Weser-Kurier, that the word Jew has already been a curse in schools for a long time.6 A 2018 study on experiences of Jewish children and youngsters in German institutions of formal education was titled, “The Jew as an Invective.”7
Professor Julia Bernstein, a cultural anthropologist, who investigated discrimination in German schools, notes that “Jew” is used as a synonym for treason and stinginess, aggressiveness, and the embodiment of evil. She wrote that the result of this is that in such a school environment it becomes difficult to express Jewish identity as positive. This results in Jewish children and youngsters hiding their Jewish background. Bernstein pointed out that Jew is now also used in schools as a curse between non-Jews. As an example she described a scenario in which a pupil refuses to lend another student a ruler. The first one reacted by saying, “Don’t behave like a Jew.” Another example is: “You shitty Jew, don’t be a Jew, don’t do a Jewish thing.”8
The word ‘Jew’ is also used with adjectives. A German man was filmed shouting at an Israeli restaurant owner in Berlin, “Filthy Jews, you can all go to the gas chambers.”9
The use of the word “Jew’ as a curse seems to have greatly increased in a variety of European countries. Much of that is a return to the situation before the Holocaust. It is one of the many recurring expressions of antisemitism in European culture. If the European Union wants to become serious in fighting antisemitism this is one of the subjects it should order a study on. Only by knowing the details of the reality can one fight this damaging and widespread phenomenon.
4 fra-2018-experiences-and-perceptions-of-antisemitism-survey_en%20(11).pdf, pg. 17
5 Ibid, p.35