The Dreaded “Y” Word

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.

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2 thoughts on “The Dreaded “Y” Word

  1. Not a bad explanation of the term’s use. Most people don’t look past the term and see that there’s a distinct political intention behind using it rather than the term “Israeli.”
    Another thing to note is that the vast majority of Arabs in the Middle East have not met any Jewish people ever, not to mention any NON Israeli Jews (American Jews, Irish Jews, Mexican Jews, etc.). To them, the image of Jewish people is equated to Israel, as this is their only interaction, whether through the media or through popular conception, with Judaism. Palestinians, the one Arab society that interacts with Jews on a daily basis, are still not likely to meet and Jews that aren’t Israelis. It’s yet another reason why the two terms are often equated.

    1. I agree to a point. Many Arabs have met Jews though, either through travels or Jews who live in their society still. We can not ignore that Morocco and Tunisia (until January) had Jewish communities still and travel of Israeli Jews to these countries is allowed. There are still some in Syria and Lebanon as well. Jordan and Egypt have Jewish tourism. I think most Arabs have developed many distinctions between Jews. Whether they are from European/American lands, or from Arab countries, just as Jews in Israel do. Your other point about Palestinians having the most contact and mushing them together is wrong to me at least. WHen they talk about Palestinians with Israeli citizenship they said that, by usually mentioning their ID. When they talk about Druze they just call them Druze since they cross many different borders.

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