When stereotypes go gentle into that good night.
“Hey, Robert.” asked my co-worker. “You’re Jewish, right?”
I confirmed that I was, already polishing up my ‘Difference between Jewish ethnically, Jewish culturally, and Jewish religiously.’ mini-lecture in case he was going to ask me a difficult question.
He dropped his voice a bit. “Can you tell me what means to Jew someone down?” he said. He sounded…slightly worried.
“Um.” I said. “Well, you see, in the middle ages, there were these things called usury laws, which prohibited lending money at interest to Christians, so Jews ended up doing a lot of banking and moneylending, which lead to a reputation of…”
I stopped, realizing I’d overshot.
“It’s a slur.” I said. “It literally means ‘to bargain or haggle so someone drops their price’, but it’s saying that Jews do that all the time because they’re greedy.”
“Oh!” said my co-worker. “I’d heard the phrase in a HR lecture and I had no idea what it meant.”
Which was, when you think about it, quite a trick. It’s easy to taboo a concept or an idea, once you’ve in a position of cultural dominance, but actually eradicating it from mainstream thought?
I feel like there’s some reverse nonviolent struggle hierarchy going on here. First, you win, meaning that the tide of public opinion turns, and a majority of people feel “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t call Jews kikes any more.” Then, they fight you, as the people who were really invested in calling Jews kikes push back against public opinion bending the other way, and lose. Then, they laugh, as those people are reduced to caricatures, as antisemitism becomes cultural shorthand for not just racists, but crazy, stupid, ineffective racists. And then, they ignore it, as people ask, in perfect sincerity when one of that old guard starts ranting, “What’s a kike?”
It’s really interesting to read about the prejudices of yesteryear to me, because there’s so much stuff that’s just so foreign to what I experience now. It’s worrying, because it suggests that there is an infinite variety of ways people will divide each other up in order to be dicks to each other. But it’s also hopeful, as a reminder that the struggles we’re fighting for right now might one day become so thoroughly assumed, it becomes hard to imagine that things were ever otherwise.