The word ‘Jew’ as a curse in Europe

The word “Jew” has returned with full force as a mainstream invective in many places in Europe. No adjective is required. For many people, the expression “filthy Jew” is a tautology.

March 6, 2019 21:42
4 minute read.
A CARNIVAL FLOAT of the Jewish community at the traditional Rose Monday carnival parade in Duesseldo

A CARNIVAL FLOAT of the Jewish community at the traditional Rose Monday carnival parade in Duesseldorf last year. (photo credit: THILO SCHMUELGEN/REUTERS)


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The word “Jew” has returned with full force as a mainstream invective in many places in Europe. No adjective is required. For many people, the expression “filthy Jew” is a tautology.

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 Jews. By the time the Christian heroes of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice referred to Shylock repeatedly as “the Jew,” there was no question that the word was an invective rather than a reference to the merchant’s religion.
The negative connotations of the word Jew were common in Europe for centuries. In France, in order not to insult Jews, for many years numerous people called Jews “Israelites” and often Jews have done so themselves. When I lived in Paris, a colleague of mine always spoke about Israelites when he mentioned Jews. I could not convince him that I did not identify with this common expression and 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 gradually after the Germans murdered 6 million of them in the Holocaust. At the end of the 1970s, a Dutch Jew took the author of the main Dutch dictionary to court. He felt insulted that the dictionary defined the word Jew as a “curse, or a bad name.”

The dictionary also listed “old, filthy Jew” as an example for the use of the word Jew. Furthermore, it mentioned the metaphorical use of the word “Jew” as “cheat, and a trickster.” There was also an exemplary sentence that helped 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 following editions. But that reality was only temporary. CIDI, a Dutch organization which fights anti-Zionism 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 the Turkish Embassy.”

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 from time to time used against actual Jews.

There are many examples from the Netherlands, but it is not the only country where the word “Jew” is used as a slur. In December, 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.” 

The result of 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 non-Jewish friends in Spain did not even know that he was a Jew.

LAST YEAR, Elvira Noa, chairwoman of the Jewish community in Bremen, Germany told the local daily paper Weser-Kurier that the word Jew has been a curse in schools for a long time. A 2018 study documenting experiences of Jewish children and youngsters in institutions of formal education in Germany was titled, “The Jew as an Invective.”

Professor Julia Bernstein, a cultural anthropologist, who investigated discrimination in German schools, noted 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 an environment, it becomes difficult to express Jewish identity as a positive. This results in Jewish children hiding their background. 

Bernstein pointed out that the word Jew is now also used in schools as a curse between non-Jews. As an example, she described a scenario in which a pupil refused 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.”

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.”

The use of the word “Jew” as a curse seems to have greatly increased in a variety of European countries. It seems as if we are returning to the situation before the Holocaust. It is one of the many recurring expressions of antisemitism in European culture. If the EU wants to seriously combat antisemitism, then this is an issue which it should focus on. Only by acquainting oneself with the reality, can one fight this damaging and widespread problem.

The writer is the emeritus chairman of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

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