The first time I heard this “phrase” was in the movie School Ties. The movie used the phrase to make a point. It was 1992. I was 15 years old and I didn’t even know what it meant, only that it wasn’t nice.
I wasn’t brought up with any particular religion and I don’t subscribe to one now. But my father’s family is Jewish. My great-grandfather snuck out of Russia in the early part of the last century when Russia still had czars. I learned recently that czarist Russia required all Jewish men to serve 30 years in the Russian army with no chance of promotion from the lowest rank. It wasn’t a nice place to live and probably not an easy place from which to escape.
And it’s only one small part of a very long history of persecution and bigotry.
I won’t go through the entire list of people who used the phrase “Jew … down” in front of me. Most of them knew my family was Jewish. I know those same people would never use the N word in front of a black person and probably not even not in front of a black person. I will, however, talk about the most recent event.
There were several of us sitting around a kitchen. My friend was talking about her husband’s annoyance with their satellite television company and his friend (who I only met for the first time moments before) said that the husband was “being a Jew” about paying the bill.
His response to the silence and somewhat shocked stares? He repeated himself.
And then he said, “Oh, is anyone here Jewish?”
I raised a hand and an eyebrow. He actually thought I was joking. And when he realized I wasn’t, he didn’t apologize. He laughed it off. He said I shouldn’t be upset because he was “just kidding” and he (a Japanese-American) jokes all the time about his own heritage. Somehow, he didn’t see the difference and didn’t think I should be upset. I tried to talk to my friend about what happened — just the two of us, away from everyone else. She told me to “just let it go.”
I can’t “just let it go.” I’m more than insulted that she advised me to “just let it go.” I also know that it wasn’t worth arguing about at the time.
Still, I need to explain why this particular insult and stereotype is so horrible: The idea of Jews as cheap moneyhoarders has been used for centuries to blame Jews for any misfortune that befalls a particular group of people. Most notably in recent history would be the Nazi Holocaust. Adolph Hitler believed and convinced entire nations that the Jews were responsible for Germany’s post-World War I financial difficulties. People suffering from the world-wide Great Depression needed a scapegoat and Hitler offered one with an apparently very easy to accept explanation.
You all realize, don’t you, that Jews control all the financial institutions in the world and withhold their money from the truly needy? Right? The Aryan Nation thinks so. You can Google the group’s website if you’re interested.
Where does this come from? Mostly, it traces to the Middle Ages. The Catholic Church decided that borrowing and lending money was sinful and forbid Christians from engaging in the practice of money-lending. Jews, not being Christians, were exempt from the law and therefore became the people Christians went to for loans. Even William Shakespeare incorporated this into his play The Merchant of Venice (from which the phrase “a pound of flesh” originates. This is also a Jewish slur, but has evolved past its original meaning.).
So don’t say it.