Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Can A Suspect Be Described As "Of Jewish Or Eastern European Descent"?

Last Wednesday, the following story in Vail Daily caused an unexpected backlash from its readers:
Keep your windows locked when you are not home, is the message the Eagle County Sheriff's Office says it wants citizens to hear after multiple homes in Miller Ranch in Edwards, Colorado were broken into over the weekend.

At one home, an unknown number of suspects broke in through a window that was left cracked open by cutting through a screen. One of the residents was home during the burglary and saw a suspect.

He is described as a male, approximately 5-foot-9, 150 pounds with dark hair, large nose, pierced ears, narrow face and eyes that were close together. He was wearing a dark-colored baseball cap.
The part that caused angry responses from readers is no longer in the article. One of the editors explains in an apology to the readers:
Some of our readers were very offended by an article in Wednesday's paper in which a suspect in house break-ins in Edwards was described as “of Jewish or Eastern European descent.”

According to a press release from the Eagle County Sheriff's Office, the witness also told investigators the suspect had “dark hair, large nose, pierced ears, narrow face and eyes that were close together.”

The “large nose,” unfortunately, is an old and reviled Jewish stereotype which readers felt we have perpetuated. While some found the article misguided and insensitive, others found it downright appalling and anti-Semitic, comparing it to something the Nazis might have produced. And we are sorry for opening old and deep wounds.

As a Jewish American and one of the editors of the press release, I apologize to those who were offended. We will not argue with your outrage, we can only explain how the phrase “of Jewish descent” got in the paper with the consent of at least two editors.
[emphasis added]
The crux of the explanation is that although the use of the phrase "Jewish descent" was inappropriate because Judaism is a religion and not an ethnicity--nevertheless many Jews consider Judaism to be their ethnicity and their culture. The editor writes that while claiming that all Jews look a certain way is 'reprehensible', describing an alleged burglar as 'looking Jewish' was offensive and merely the result of poor editing.

By the time you finish reading the editor's apology, everything has been explained in a thorough and sensitive way--except why saying that someone 'looks Jewish' got people riled up in the first place. True, there was reference to Nazi stereotypes, but that was 60 years ago--and from the context it is clear no negative stereotyping was intended. Why can you say a suspect looks Hispanic, but not that he looks Jewish?

John Derbyshire has his own way of looking at the problem with the words 'Jew' and 'Jewish':
(1) The word "Jew" is now very nearly taboo, except in very restricted contexts. You have to say "Jewish person," or some such formula -- though I suppose in ten years or so that will slip into taboo status, too, and we'll all have to use some different formula ("Hebraic-American"?). Why this should happen to words is an interesting question, which I guess linguists have theories about. "Jew" is awfully short and handy, though, and it's a shame to lose it, especially for headline writers and, well, waiters and bartenders, who have a pressing practical need for short, handy words. (Jonathan Miller in "Beyond the Fringe": "I'm not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish, you know...")

(2) The idea that a person can look Jewish is no longer quite respectable, because of our current determination to believe that differences between human groups don't matter a bit. Whatever you may think of this tendency, it kills about 10,000 jokes stone dead -- all those jokes that end with: "That's funny, you don't look Jewish." These jokes have mainly been told by Jews -- oops, Jewish people -- are in fact a component of Jewish folklore. I suppose they can no longer be told, This, too seems to me a shame.
On the issue of why saying a person looks Jewish is problematic, Derbyshire misses the point.
But Jonah Goldberg doesn't:
But in another sense, hearing "Jew" is a bit jarring.

For centuries "Jew" was the preferred pejorative term for Jewish people. For example, "Don't Jew me" meant don't haggle me down to the lowest possible price. "Dirty" or "filthy Jew" were standard parings. Benjamin Disraeli the 19th century British Prime Minister offered perhaps the most famous defense of the word when he was taunted about being a Jew in parliament. "Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon."

Still Hitler was largely successful in smearing the word "Jew." The word was so beaten up that after the Holocaust most American Jews took to saying, "I'm Jewish," rather than say, "I am a Jew."
And while saying "I'm Jewish" is not jarring at all, saying someone "looks Jewish" can sound the same as saying someone "looks like a Jew"--with all the associated baggage.

In any case, that editor of the Vail Daily may have resolved the issue for his readers, but he may have unintentionally opened up another can of worms when he referred to himself as a 'Jewish American'. Just what is the difference between a 'Jewish American' and an 'American Jew'--and just what kind of statement was he trying to make anyhow...?

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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