I have a feeling this will be the article that receives all sorts of comments and accusations, but I feel it is an important topic to discuss when talking about the relationship between American Jews and the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Americans we have certain words that have an aura of negativity and so much negative connotation that we do not even use them. We have devised a nice sort of political correctness. These include the “N” word, the “C” word, the “S” word, etc. I have been giving tours to American Jews (mostly Hebrew University Students) to the West Bank for the past 18 months and a common theme comes up when talking to Palestinians. It gets asked many times why Palestinians and Arabs at large use the word “Yahud” to talk about Israeli Jews. They ask “why don’t they say Israelis…or why do they call us Jews” among other questions. There are many answers to this I have given over the past 18 months and I will lay out a few here.
First, this is a curious position regarding the angst with the Arab use of the term “Yahud (Yahude, Yahudiya)” which means Jew (s). As anyone who has taken an Orientalist class of history has heard, before the rise of nationalism in the Middle East, people identified with religious groups as their main identity. It is curious, then, that these American Jews, who mostly follow this line of thinking, get angry when they hear the word “yahud.” Especially more so when you hear these same people argue tribal theory to talk about the Middle East, in its glorious Orientalist nature.
Second, Jews only make up 75% of the Israeli population; not all Israeli are actually Jews. In addition, under Israeli law there is no Israeli nationality. There is a Jewish nationality but no Israeli nationality, one of the ways in which Israel is a discriminatory state. This can even be carried further since the Army is almost 100% Jewish Israeli; is it wrong to say it is a Jewish Army (Al-Jeish al-Yahude in Arabic)?
Third, Arabs and Palestinians in particular do not wish to give legitimacy to what they (and I personally) see as a European colonial settler movement. Palestinians even distinguish between the various ethnic groupings in Judaism and have preferences for personal interaction. If Palestinians are making a remark or generalization about Jews it is usually said “al-Yahud min Uruopa” (the Jews from Europe) and is usually in the context of talking about settlers or violence. Many older Palestinians who were alive during the Mandate had Jewish friends, the Mizrachim Jews who were here for the thousands of years (and non-Zionist) and speak of them as they would any human friend.
Hence the issue does not seem one of anti-semitism as is often portrayed among American Jews, but rather a conscious distinction within a self identifying Jewish group that has been shared by Palestinians. The word for Jew in Hebrew is Yahud (Yahudi, Yahuda, Yahudim, Yahudot) and it seems there is a desirability to monopolize the word instead of actually feeling an honest threat by the usage of the word. It is not Palestinians who are spray painting Stars of David or the word “Yahudim” in Hebrew on buildings in the West Bank. It is not as if Palestinians are using the word to mean a lesser human being as others in the world have done. It becomes even more curious when Benyamin Netanyhau wishes the Palestinians to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. They are speaking their language to talk about a group of people in a non-discriminatory factor. So I wish to move beyond this Americanization of political correctness to a situation that does not need it and to simply understand the usage instead of applying other cultural logic to its usage. Let us not term the word Yahud into the next “N” word.