OKLA. CITY —
Often, people have visited the synagogue where I work and have tried to show their kindness by checking with me on the correct way to refer to someone of my religion. They say, “I have heard that it is offensive to call someone a ‘Jew,’ right? Aren’t we supposed to call you ‘Jewish’?”
Why on earth should “Jew” be an offensive thing to call a Jewish person? Well, at its heart, it is not an offensive thing to call a Jewish person. It is the noun form, where “Jewish” is the adjective. The reason that “Jew” has been considered offensive in the past has been the way in which it has been said.
When people say, “Jew,” with a sneer on their faces and contempt dripping from their voices, it is a slur — they could say anything with the right tone of voice and make it into an insult. In order to overcome anti-Jewish discrimination, Jews started to teach that we should be called “a Jewish person” — emphasis on the person — in order to highlight the fact that we are still people just like everyone else. This technique has been used in many minority communities and is still a prevalent and effective way of focusing on the personhood of those with physical or mental challenges — for example, “a person with epilepsy,” rather than an “epileptic.”
Today, however, “Jew” is supposed to be as neutral a term as “a Jewish person,” and as long as it doesn’t come along with any other offensive context, it should be all right to use.
I really dislike hearing people complain about “having” to speak in a “politically correct” manner. Being politically correct is supposed to help us train our mouths to say what we mean. It is supposed to keep us from accidentally hurting someone else’s feelings or making an ethnic slur. It gives us proper modes of address, rather than risk repeating something that we have heard so often we forget how offensive it really was when people started saying it.
It is not supposed to be a way of being offensive that will allow us to say whatever hateful thing we want without “those people” complaining about it. Political correctness is not a nicer way of saying something nasty.
I think the last straw for me was when I heard someone use the word “diverse” as a negative. The person said to me, “I don’t like going to that section of town. It is very … diverse,” — as though I were supposed to know that she meant it was full of people from a different ethnicity and then understand why she would not want to go there.
It does not make it any better to call something odd “mentally handicapped.” It is not acceptable to express anger at having been cheated by saying that someone “Jewish-person-ed me down.”
Our words matter. The thoughts behind our words matter, too.
RABBI ABBY JACOBSON serves Emanuel Synagogue in Oklahoma City. She may be reached via email at email@example.com.