The Pejorative Use of the Term "Jew"

On dit "hâshâka," sauf votre respect, quand on est obligé de parler de sang, d'ordures, d'un maquereau, d'une entremetteuse, d'une prostituée, d'un traître, d'un juif, &c., … aussi quand on parle d'une femme et de tout qui la regarde, comme étant au dessous de la dignité de l'homme…"
[One says "hâshâka," saving your presence when one is required to speak of blood, of excrement, of a pimp, of a procuress, of a prostitute, of a traitor, of a Jew, etc., … also when one speaks of a woman, and of everything which relates to her, as being beneath the dignity of a man…]

This quotation from R.P.A. Dozy's still indispensible Supplément aux dictionnaires arabes (Leiden, 1881) vol. 1 p. 293 sheds light on the use of the word "Jew" as an insult. This mode of making a polite excuse when one was forced to refer to the unmentionables listed above was in vogue in Algeria in Dozy's day.

The negative overtones of the word "Jew" are fairly universal in the western world. Some are inclined to pin this on the fact that the name of the disciple who betrayed Jesus was "Judas", but it seems to me more likely that it simply reflects the despised status of the Jew for centuries. After all, Muslims who lived in Christian lands had the option of escaping to the world of Islam if living in Christendom became onerous, but Jews had no such escape.

Examples of the opprobrious use of "Jew" in English are legion. A "jew nail" according to the second edition of Webster's International English Dictionary (1939) is a corrugated or crooked nail used by carpenters. "To jew" or "jew down" means the same as to cheat (compare "to gyp" which is taken from the name of another reviled group.) The OED cites a typical example from the Chicago Tribune newspaper for December 14, 1872:

If he jews, he will get it [lodging] for comparatively little. (OED, volume 8, p. 229c)

In the Wall Street Journal for April 9, 2007 there is an entertaining article by Joseph Epstein entitled "The Last Tycoon?":

"World's Greatest Newspaper," the Chicago Tribune used to bill itself with P.T. Barnumesque modesty. World's Greatest it never was, but, viewed from my neighborhood in Chicago, it always seemed the world's least Jewish newspaper. Which makes the fact that the paper is now owned by Sam Zell, son of immigrant Jewish parents from Poland, the first of the ironies associated with Mr. Zell's much-publicized recent acquisition of the Tribune Company, the crown of which is the Trib…The Chicago Tribune under Jewish ownership–incroyable, as they scarcely ever say at City Hall…
The OED quotes other examples of this use of the verb from as late as 1972.

For a number of years Jacob Sarna, the father of Nahum Sarna, and grandfather of Jonathan Sarna (both Judaic scholars of distinction) tried hard to get the negative definitions of "Jew" removed from the Oxford dictionaries, but was always rebuffed on the ground that this meaning was an historic fact which could not be avoided. At the time, this seemed to me a reasonable response to Mr. Sarna. But I recalled his attempt many years later when it was revealed that one of the Oxford dictionaries published in the Soviet Union had changed a number of definitions to conform with Communist ideology, since otherwise the work would not have been cleared for publication. It would seem that expediency won out over consistency. The OED now has the following note s.v. "Jew."

In medieval England, Jews, though engaged in many pursuits, were particularly familiar as money-lenders, their activities being publicly regulated for them by the Crown, whose protégés they were… Thus the name of Jew came to be associated in the popular mind with usury, and any extortionate practices that might be supposed to accompany it, and gained an opprobious sense.
This opprobious sense is especially noticeable when the word is used attributively, "Jew-boy, Jew-broker," etc. It became common in the nineteenth century to substitute "Hebrew" or "Israelite", as having less of an offensive feel about them. Hence come the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia, etc. I saw the point of this in 1950 when as a student I represented Jews' College London on the governing body of the University of London Student Union. Whenever "Jews' College" was mentioned there were jeers or ribald remarks. (The College later changed its name, and no longer exists.) And when I was a child, polite Christians preferred "a Jewish gentleman" to "a Jew."

I asked Mr. Lameen Souag about the use of hashâka currently in Algeria. He replied that the word is still in use, but noone he knew would apply it to Jews. He perceptively notes that a word such as this would probably be used differently according to the community of the speaker. It is true that most groups which may be referred to by derogatory appelations, have themselves similar terms for other groups.

Other European languages do not lag in respect of negative terms for Jews. In Funk and Wagnalls' French and English Dictionary of 1903, edited by James Boïelle, juiverie is defined inter alia as "Jew's bargain or trick," and trucage is rendered "Jewing." In French too Israélite came to be preferred as less pejorative. Hence the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a body which spread French culture widely among Jews in North Africa and the Near East.

In Russian, the word zhid acquired distinctly negative connotations, and was replaced in polite society by yevrej(skij). Accordingly yevrejskij yazik comes to mean "Yiddish," while Biblical Hebrew is called drevnyj (old) yevrejskij yazik, and they have some difficulty in finding an appropriate term for Modern Hebrew. And the Russian word moshennik, which means a scoundrel or swindler looks suspiciously as if it derived from the common Jewish name Moshe (Moses.) [It is clear to me now that this conjecture is incorrect. The archaic Russian word moshna means "purse"; the diminutive form moshonka means "scrotum". So the moshennik is the one who physically or by stealth grabs your purse.]

What is my conclusion from this unscientific survey? That the use of the word for "Jew" in a negative sense in eighteenth century North Africa is not particularly surprising. It had negative connotations in most other places. At that time most intergroup relations at the rhetorical level were bad. This does not mean that these relations at a personal level were necessarily bad. The influence of thinkers such as John Locke (1632-1704) who insisted that religious belief should be reasonable and tolerant, and faith should not be coerced in others, gradually won the day in much of Western Europe, although we well know that the story is not finished. These ideas penetrated the world of Islam much less, and it should come as no surprise that negative attitudes, often expressed in ways that we find repellent, should occurs in these texts, which often reflect daily life. I do not wish to be misunderstood on this. I do not approve of denigrating other groups. But perhaps if we try to understand how such conduct came to be we can progress in rooting it out. Please see my remarks elsewhere on a related topic. And to finish on a more upbeat note, you may want to read my story based on a Tunisian Jewish folktale.


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Alan D. Corré
corre@uwm.edu