“You’re a Jew!”

Residents of the German capital Berlin have been bombarded with that message on billboards this week. It’s part of a campaign against anti-Semitism that seeks to destigmatize the word “Jew”, which in Germany and other places today is used as an insult.

The posters feature the screaming caption Du Jude (“You’re a Jew!” or “You Jew!”) alongside an object or animal. The posters have received a lot of criticism. Not because they make the assumption that “You’re a Jew!” is some sort of insult, but because the objects featured in them – apparently doing the talking – are so odd: some feature pictures of cleaning cloths, while others feature leeks and ostriches. At the bottom of each poster is the message: “You’re a Jew. #sowhat.”

This campaign is the seventeenth program run by the Amadeu Antonio Foundation, which works to fight hate and strengthen democracy in Germany. The “You’re a Jew – so what” campaign was co-sponsored by the Anne Frank Center and funded by Germany’s Federal Government.

“Anyone who deals with anti-Semitism is familiar with the problem,” explains Miki Hermer, one of the women behind the “You’re a Jew” posters. Children routinely insult schoolmates by calling them “Jew” in German schools, and the problem is spreading in popular culture, with “Jew” employed as one of the most shocking slurs in the German language.

In 2018, Michal Schwartze, a Jewish teacher in Frankfurt, Germany, recounted her fears of revealing she is Jewish in her school, where being a Jew is considered one of the worst things anyone can imagine. When students use “Jew” as an insult, she explains, “I don’t say hey I am Jewish, but I make it clear that I am personally affected.” A few years ago, she wrote an article for her school’s newspaper urging students to stop employing “Jew” as an insult, but the problem hasn’t gone away: in the face of such casual hatred, she notes that many German Jews simply “hide their identity”.

For years, Europeans and others have routinely used “Jew” to mean something terrible. In 1973, the Oxford English Dictionary was sued by an elderly Jew named Marcus Shloimovitz, who objected to the dictionary’s definition of “Jews” as “a name of opprobrium or reprobation; specifically applied to a grasping or extortionate money lender or userer, or a trader who drives hard bargains or deals craftily”. The Dictionary’s editor, R. W. Burchfield, defended this definition, but did make one concession: in future editions he would include the historical background behind this insulting definition, explaining that generations of rampant Jew-hatred had given rise to the anti-Jewish loathing behind the dictionary’s offensive definition.

Instead of fading away, using “Jew” as an insult is gaining ground. A 2016 report by the Dutch Jewish information center CIDI noted they were “concerned about the degradation of the word ‘Jew’” in the Netherlands recently. “This word has become increasingly ‘normal’” as a way of insulting people, even when no one involved in a dispute is Jewish. “Jew” has emerged as an all-purpose insult used by people from all backgrounds.

A recent report by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights quoted a Danish woman explaining that “‘Jew’ is a widespread cuss word in Copenhagen”. As a result, she now avoids telling people she’s Jewish.

I find people using “Jewish person” to avoid saying “Jew”, as if the word Jew is somehow shameful or embarrassing. Among French-speaking Jews, “Israelite” is a popular substitution to avoid using the word Jew.

From a Jewish point of view, the name “Jew” doesn’t denote something shameful or negative.

In Hebrew, “Jew” is Yehudi; It comes from the name Judah (Yehuda in Hebrew), the son of the Biblical patriarch Jacob and our matriarch Leah. The Italian Rabbi Obadia ben Jacob Sforno (1475-1550) noted this is a particularly beautiful name, containing the letters yud and hey, which also form the Hebrew name for God. Yehudah also derives from the Hebrew root meaning "thankfulness” and “praise,” Sforno observed.

In fact, during the very week that the You’re a Jew! Posters appeared in Berlin’s subway, Jews around the world were reading about Judah in the Torah portion Vayeishev in synagogue.

In Vayeshev, Judah at first behaves less than honorably. He has a hand in selling his younger brother Joseph into slavery, and later slanders his daughter-in-law Tamar. But then, when he’s confronted with the fact that he was wrong about Tamar, Judah finds the courage to publicly admit he was wrong. In a situation where it would have been easier to keep quiet, Judah is willing to risk embarrassment and declare “She is right!” (Genesis 37:26) and that he was wrong.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “This moment is a turning point in history. Judah is the first person in the Torah explicitly to admit he was wrong. We do not realize it yet, but this seems to be the moment at which he acquired the depth of character necessary for him to become the first” person to work to improve his character and draw closer to his God-given potential."

For the rest of his life, Judah displayed true heroism: “The man who proposed selling Joseph as a slave...becomes the man who is willing to spend the rest of his life in slavery so that his brother Benjamin can go free” (Genesis 44:33). Without the courage to admit he was wrong, without the strength and humility to work to improve his character, Judah’s later courageousness could never have happened. As Jews, we’re all the heirs of Judah, who worked his to refine himself and push himself to be a better person. It’s an awesome legacy.

Every time we call ourselves “Jew” we’re acknowledging our rich Jewish history – and recalling our ancestor who was unafraid to admit mistakes, who didn’t shirk from acknowledging when he was wrong, and who set us all a shining example of self-improvement and a life devoted to working on becoming the best person we can possibly be. That is the true meaning of “Jew” – and we don’t need any ad campaign to teach us to be proud of that fact.