My mother-in-law is originally from Appalachia in Kentucky—a place that’s not home to many Jewish people. In fact, growing up, she didn’t realize that Jewish people existed. “Jew,” for her, was a verb, which meant “to cheat, ” as in “don’t Jew me out of my 10 dollars.” She was mortified after she moved north and discovered that Jews were actual people, and that she had grown up using an ethnic and religious slur.
I was reminded of my mother-in-law’s story listening to Kayla Moore’s speech yesterday. She was defending her husband, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, and herself against various charges of bigotry, including anti-Semitism. Moore didn’t use the term “to Jew,” and she was clearly aware that Jewish people exist. “Fake news would tell you we don’t care for Jews,” she declared, adding, “One of our attorneys is a Jew!” The audience cheered.
Moore has been rightly condemned for the comment. Part of the problem lay with her intonation, which made her familiarity with a Jewish lawyer sound like a stunning revelation, rather than a perfectly normal person to know. Part of the issue was the way she made use of the classic bigot’s defense: “Some of my best friends are…” Then there was the inappropriate audience response; people clapped and hooted as if she’d performed some special trick by having a Jewish acquaintance.
But there is also the matter of Moore’s phrasing: “a Jew.” Most people would have said, “my attorney is Jewish,” because Jewish is one aspect of who the attorney is—not the person’s entire identity. But is it really bad to call someone “a Jew?”
That the phrase “a Jew” sounds offensive to many people’s ears is partly a matter of linguistics. Lynne Murphy, a linguist at Sussex University, has pointed out that Donald Trump often uses the definite article in referring to African-Americans. He will say, “I’m going to help the African-Americans” rather than “I’m going to help African-Americans.” By doing so, he subtly nudges his listeners to see black people in the US as “a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals,” according to Murphy. It’s a way to present black people in the US as a block of people separate from Trump and his intended audience.
“A Jew,” the way Moore uses it, works in much the same way. “‘A’ implies that the thing to which it refers is just that, a ‘thing,'” Nathan Atkinson, a scholar of rhetoric and politics, told me via email. Atkinson said that the “a” in “a Jew” functions as a form of reification. Reification is, in Atkinson’s words, “a rhetorical device where a speaker characterizes a person or activity as a thing. Basically, reification is a means to objectification.”
Jewish people have a painful history of being objectified in this way. Shylock in The Merchant of Venice is identified as “a rich Jew” and is referred throughout the play as “the Jew”—as in, “the Jew is the very devil incarnal.”
Shakespeare’s play is torn between anti-Semitism and anti-anti-Semitism; it demonizes Shylock and sympathizes with him both at the same time. One of the signs of the play’s ambivalence is the fact that Shylock mirrors the language that is used to dehumanize him, even as he pleads for his humanity. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Shylock says. He insists that Jewish people are people, but leaves intact that contrast between “a Jew” and “a Christian,” in which Jewishness is an existential, essential trait—a noun, not an adjective.
The most egregious use of definite articles as smears against Jewish people is found, inevitably, in Nazi propaganda. One 1943 pamphlet, “The Jew as World Parasite,” is typical in its rhetorical framing of Jewish people as a singular malevolent glob—a framing which in translation reads as an obsessive use of “the Jew” and “a Jew.”
“The Jew has crept in like a parasite not only into our people, but into all the peoples of the earth,” the pamphlet declares. “Never has a Jew, if he was honest, had any real interest in learning from his host people.” For the Nazis, “a Jew” and “people” are always linguistically separate. There are no Jewish people; only the Jew, and the people who are not Jews.
Of course, context matters. There are situations in which “a Jew” can be innocuous. If a friend asked, “Is Meghan Markle a Jew?” I’d probably think nothing of it. And some Jewish writers have argued that Jewish people should reclaim the term “Jew”, just as other marginalized groups have reclaimed terms used to slur them.
“Let’s take back the name Jew from its misuse by generations of anti-Semites. ”Let’s reclaim ‘Jew” from those who’d distort it, and start uttering it with pride, instead,” Yvette Miller writes at the Jerusalem Post. ”Each time we proudly say the name Jew… we’re declaring that we’re a link in a chain that goes back thousands of years.”
Kayla Moore isn’t Jewish, though, and she’s not reclaiming a slur. She was responding to the fact that her husband had said that George Soros, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, was going to go to hell. To deflect the accusations, she used a Jewish person who happens to work for her as a rhetorical shield. In this context, it doesn’t sound like she’s characterizing her attorney as a person who also happens to be Jewish. He’s just “a Jew”—an object to be deployed against her enemies, or consigned to the pit, whichever is more convenient.
My mother-in-law used to say “Jew” without knowing that it referred to human beings. Moore uses the word in a similar way. The main difference is that my mother-in-law has learned that talking about Jewish people that way is wrong. She doesn’t do it any more.