I was recently at a student Shabbat dinner, potluck style. Amidst the animated conversation, one guest volunteered a private memory. “I have a Jew story!” he told the table. Startled at his phrasing, I asked him if he was Jewish himself. “No,” he said simply. “I don’t think I feel comfortable with you saying ‘Jew’ in that way then,” I responded. His remark felt mildly derogatory and disrespectful, irrespective of his intentions.
My reaction sparked a conversation I seem to be having a lot lately. What is and what isn’t okay to say in reference to Jews? Are the rules different when the speaker isn’t Jewish? How important are intentions? I told my fellow dinner guest that I didn’t think he’d meant badly – the story he ended up telling was actually complimentary of a Jewish person – but that the phrasing made me feel disrespected and embarrassed. He ultimately chose not to respect my feelings, and repeated “Jew” in this way several times.
Why is it that Jews are rarely given the courtesy of delineating how we want to be spoken about? Why do Jews themselves not demand this right? Considering our history of discrimination, non-Jews should be walking on eggshells when it comes to referring to Jews or Jewishness (as the way I stutter when asking an African-American person questions about their race). But no one stutters with me.
‘while i would never dream of touching an African-American woman’s hair, there seems to be less social stigma for the people who touch my curls unasked, or point out the size of my nose’
These questions came up a lot, in a far more painful way, while I was travelling in St. Petersburg, Russia, to connect with my family roots. I had struck up a friendly conversation with a few fellow travellers and invited them to join me for dinner. While we were waiting for an Uber, we watched part of the movie being shown that night in the hostel common room. In the scene we caught, from the film Snatch, criminals dressed as Haredi men entered a Jewish-run diamond business, pulled out an obscene number of guns and began robbing the business.
Unsettled by the scene, I turned to one of my new acquaintances and said, “This presentation of Jews is making me really uncomfortable”. Likely not understanding my English very well and not knowing I was Jewish, he said, “Oh yeah, those greedy bastards, right?”. I was stunned. I felt my face growing hot and my stomach twisting. I responded, although probably not forcefully enough, “Well, I’m Jewish”. He replied awkwardly, “Oh, sorry.”
The Uber arrived, and I found myself spending the next three hours with him and his friends, at a restaurant that took way, way too long to bring us our food. During dinner, I mustered up the courage to explain that my father had escaped the Soviet Union in the 1970s and refused to teach me Russian because of the anti-Semitism he’d suffered. That he was often verbally abused on the streets, and in his classroom. That he was discriminated against on more levels than they might understand. My companions were mildly receptive. I held in my tears until I was back in my dorm room.
I don’t want to shake this incident off. I don’t want to forget about it. This is a big deal because it’s 2017, and I’m afraid that so many others harbour hateful stereotypes about Jews. It’s a big deal because, in spaces like North American college and university campuses and in the left-wing corners of social media, it seems there are no social consequences, no reprimands, for a person who makes a comment about “greedy” Jews.
While I would never dream of touching an African-American woman’s hair, there seems to be less social stigma for the people who touch my curls unasked, or point out the size of my nose as “proof” of my Jewishness.
‘Stripping Jews of their right to define what is and what isn’t offensive to us on the basis of our so-called endless privilege is anti-Semitic’
I often find myself not supported by those around me when I encounter people who make jokes about Jews and who, when challenged, shamelessly defend their right to do so. No one on campus speaks out about how this is not okay. Why don’t liberal and left-wing Jewish students ask to be respected in conversations about their Jewishness? Why isn’t my identity included in the dialogue about privilege on university campuses?
What does it look like to lack privilege? It looks like walking into a high-end store and having a salesperson eye you uncomfortably because of your race. It looks like someone crossing the street to avoid you at night. It looks like many things. But, those leading conversations about privilege imply, it doesn’t look like being Jewish. I know that, as an Ashkenazi Jew, I am white, but I’m not just white. If my identity were that simple, people wouldn’t shout “Shalom” or “Hey, Jewish lady” to me in the streets.
Just because Jews don’t fit what’s widely considered to be the image of a person lacking privilege, doesn’t mean anti-Semitism is not a reality. Indeed, anti-Semitism is often based on a false perception of exaggerated Jewish privilege. Jews are hated because they’re perceived to be too rich, powerful, greedy. Because they “run Hollywood.” The last thing Jews need is anyone’s sympathy, the thinking goes. Jews have it all, and they’re screwing you and your family over for their own benefit. Sound familiar?
Stripping Jews of their right to define what is and what isn’t offensive to us on the basis of our so-called endless privilege is anti-Semitic. Proclaiming that anti-Semitism no longer exists because of all the privilege Jews are believed to have is, itself, anti-Semitic.
Students on campuses need to expand their understanding of marginalization and brush up on their Jewish history. People need to stop denying Jews a place in the dialogue about social justice for minority groups. If you’re reading this and you aren’t Jewish, I ask that you speak about other Jews with carefulness and respect.
Not everything you say will be okay with me, and I reserve the right to let you know when it’s not.
Zoë Goldstein is a fourth year psychology student at McGill University. She likes empathic conversations, reading and Shabbat. One day she hopes to be a therapist and own a dog.