León, Spain: a young man out with some friends decides to indulge in the tradition of drinking spiked, carbonated lemonade during Holy Week (the week preceding and culminating in Easter). “Let’s go get some lemonade,” he suggests. “Let’s go kill Jews.”
It is very unlikely that our Spaniard truly meant what he said; after all, matar judíos is, in addition to its literal meaning of “to kill Jews,” the León vernacular for “to drink carbonated, spiked lemonade during Holy Week.” The strange usage is rooted in Middle-Age pogroms in Spain during Holy Week. Eventually, around 1320 CE, authorities decided to permit the consumption of a soft alcoholic beverage, overriding the usual prohibition against alcoholic drinks during Holy Week in the hopes that people forming mobs would drink themselves into a stupor and be unable to assemble against the Jewish communities. The drink evolved into carbonated lemonade and the original description of the traditional Holy Week practice was applied to the drink’s name instead.
Numerous other vernacular phrases of anti-Semitic origin exist in languages other than Spanish, especially among common plant names. For example, in English, numerous plants are known as “Wandering Jew” plants, named for their tendency to “wander” everywhere through vigorous growth and for their output of long tendrils. One of the household names given to the succulent plant Euphorbia tithymaloides is “Jewbush;” whether this is related to its use as a powerful emetic is unclear. A tree fungus, Auricularia auricula-judae, is known as “Jew’s ear,” likely from the phrase “Judas’ ear,” as it is particularly common to the type of tree that Judas Iscariot supposedly hanged himself from.
According to UCLA Hebrew Professor Dr. Yona Sabar, in Kurdish the phrase knishta Juhiya, or “Jewish synagogue,” is commonly used to refer to a noisy or unruly gathering. Even the chant often used to cheer or applaud, “Hip, hip hooray,” is described in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable as having been corrupted from the phrase “Hep, hep,” an acronym for Hierosolyma est perdita, or “Jerusalem is lost” which was chanted during German Jew-hunts during the Middle Ages.
Many questions can be raised by these phrases — their frequency of use and why they are still in use, for example — but one of the more pertinent questions involves the nature of anti-Semitism: does a behavior or attitude have to be deliberately anti-Semitic to qualify as such?
The Anti-Defamation League defines anti-Semitism as “[t]he belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish.” The exact definition of anti-Semitism is easy enough to understand in abstract, but what actually constitutes anti-Semitism is far hazier in nature.
From a legal point of view, the classification of the use of any of these phrases depends on the importance one assigns to intent. In Jewish law, intent to commit a crime is necessary for conviction on a severe matter, such as one which would incur capital punishment. A prime example is that of the accidental killer who is exiled to one of the cities of refuge, as outlined in Numbers 35 and Deuteronomy 19. A deliberate murderer is subject to the death penalty; an accidental killer who is judged responsible due to severe carelessness must pay a steep fee to the deceased’s family, among other penalties (such as a possible death penalty); and an accidental killer who is judged responsible for negligence is exiled to a city of refuge to flee blood vengeance from the deceased’s family, until the death of the High Priest in Jerusalem, at which point the killer may safely leave the city. Intent here is coupled with the degree of negligence involved, both of which are determined by a Jewish court of law, or beit din. While use of a historically anti-Semitic phrase is in no way comparable to the death of a human being, one could also apply this logic. It therefore seems that the accidental user of anti-Semitic language would be held responsible for his or her language choice. However, this would not be considered anti-Semitic to the same degree that deliberate, antagonistic anti-Semitism would.
Under Anglo-American law, intent must be proven in order to convict someone of criminal charges. In general, criminal intent is simply the intent to commit the action in question, whether or not the person was aware of its being criminal activity. In application to phrases of anti-Semitic origin, a person could thus be considered anti-Semitic for using such a phrase, since his or her intention would be to use the precise phrase, rather than another, even if the person’s motive was not to be anti-Semitic. Instead of “killing Jews,” for example, residents of León could simply “drink lemonade” as the rest of us do, or gardening enthusiasts could discuss the merits of “spiderwort” and “dayflower” instead of the “Wandering Jew.”
However, one could also argue that use of the aforementioned phrases, while insensitive, is not actually anti-Semitic. It is highly unlikely that a cheering crowd or person with a penchant for gardening intends to be anti-Semitic or even offensive. After all, language is only vocal communication using arbitrary sounds in common ways and with common meanings. One might say that just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so too would the act of drinking carbonated lemonade be no different no matter how it was communicated in speech. And even though “matar judíos” in particular might be construed as offensive regardless of how many centuries have passed since mobs gathered to attack Jews before Easter (as might “knishta Juhiya”), the other phrases might not be associated with anti-Semitism. For example, the word “jewel” contains no reference to Jews but rather comes from the Old French jouel and the Latin jocale; “Jewbush” could be thought to be derived from a similar language corruption.
Furthermore, the labeling of phrases of anti-Semitic origin as being anti-Semitic themselves could potentially be offensive. One might argue that such reference constitutes an abuse of language, since describing both the use of insensitive language and an act such as the 2012 shooting of Jews in Toulouse, France as anti-Semitic weakens an accusation of violent anti-Semitism. In this vein, the use of any of the aforementioned phrases could be categorized as insensitive and offensive, but accusations of anti-Semitism should be reserved for actual, blatant crimes.
It is difficult to limit personal language use, especially given the freedom of speech prized in the US and the remainder of the Western world. Whether or not one believes that calling a fungus “Jew’s ear” or a noisy gathering “Jewish synagogue” is anti-Semitic, we should all agree that it is better to avoid potentially insulting phrases. Perhaps it is time to kill the phrase rather than “kill the Jew.”
With thanks to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and Stanley L. Friedman.