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‘Jew-Washing’ Is Bad Practice and Phrase

Slippery Business: Jewish activists have been used by non-Jewish Israel critics to lend greater legitimacy to their claims and to help them avoid accusations of anti-Semitism. Image by getty images

In the July 24 issue of the New York Jewish Week, you’ll find an article by Yitzhak Santis and Gerald M. Steinberg that begins:

“At the Pittsburgh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) earlier this month, a motion to adopt a boycott of three companies for doing business with Israel was hotly debated and narrowly defeated. At this Christian gathering, a group of ‘young Jewish activists’ provided important ‘testimony’ supporting the motion to isolate and demonize Israel. These were the ‘Jew-washers’ — very visible actors in many such political attacks on Israel, particularly in Christian frameworks.”

Santis and Steinberg state clearly what, for them, a “Jew-washer” is, but where in the world does this odd term come from? What does it have to do with being an anti-Israel Jewish activist in a Christian framework? And just what are you washing when you “Jew-wash,” anyway?

“Jew-washing” is not an accepted usage — at least not yet. In fact, it appears to be an original coinage, since a quick Internet search reveals that the few sites it appears on refer back to Santis and Steinberg’s article. But to what do Santis and Steinberg refer?

In the end, I figured it out. Since I have a feeling that “Jew-washing” is going to spread and that you’ll soon be encountering it elsewhere, you may want to share my findings.

It all started with the term “pinkwashing” as used by an organization called Breast Cancer Action in its “Think Before You Pink” campaign, launched in 2002. More accurately, it started with the fact that pink, because of its association with femininity, was the color chosen in 1991 for the ribbons handed out to participants in a New York marathon race for breast cancer survivors. This led, a year later, to the “pink ribbon” being adopted as the official symbol of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Subsequently, this symbol was widely used by various companies, which put it on their products as a sign that they were contributing to the fight against breast cancer by means of financial contributions or in other ways. Playing on the verb “to whitewash,” the “Think Before You Pink” campaign used “pinkwashing” to describe companies that displayed the pink ribbon despite donating no money to breast cancer prevention or treatment or even selling products with carcinogenic components.

Cut to November 11, 2011. In that day’s New York Times appeared an op-ed entitled “Israel and ‘Pinkwashing,’” written by one Sarah Schulman, a professor of humanities at the College of Staten Island. “Pinkwashing,” as used by Shulman, had nothing to do with breast cancer or the pink ribbon. Rather, because the color pink has also been associated with the gay rights movement, she was borrowing the term to protest a reported campaign to promote tourism to Israel by touting it as a “gay-friendly” country — a campaign, she claimed, that was “a deliberate attempt to conceal the continuing violations of the Palestinians’ human rights behind an image of modernity signified by Israeli gay life.”

And why has the color pink been associated with the gay life? Now we have to go all the way back to the 1930s. In Nazi concentrations camps, different categories of prisoners were marked by downward-pointed triangles sewn onto their jackets and trousers: red triangles for political prisoners, green ones for criminals, blue ones for foreign forced laborers, brown ones for Gypsies, purple ones for Jehovah’s Witnesses, black ones for asocials, yellow ones (but pointed upward and often doubled to form a Star of David) for Jews and pink ones for homosexuals. In the course of the 1970s, the pink triangle, now pointed upward, too, was widely adopted as a gay symbol and became the official logo of various gay organizations and sites, such as the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power; the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial, located in Sydney, Australia, and San Francisco’s Pink Triangle Park. Hence, Schulman’s op-ed.

Hence, too, Santis and Steinberg’s “Jew-washing.” It is not, I must say, a felicitous turn of phrase. “Pinkwashing” is a successful play on words. “Jew-washing” isn’t, and its apparent analogy with “pinkwashing” is not analogous. The “pink” in “pinkwashing,” like the “white” in “whitewashing,” functions adverbially; it means “to cover or conceal something with a pink wash.” One is not washing what is pink, whereas “Jew-washing” definitely sounds as if one were washing Jews, just as “car-washing” means washing cars.

Still, it’s a term that is likely, as I said, to catch on, for the simple reason that it refers to something real — the use of Jews to conceal the anti-Semitism in boycotts of Israel (Have the Presbyterians considered boycotting China because of Tibet? India because of Kashmir? Russia because of Chechnya?) — that has no other short, handy way of describing it. Perhaps, indeed, “washing” is on its way to developing a new meaning, so that alongside “Jew-washing,” we will be seeing such expressions as “Muslim-washing” (using Muslims to criticize Islam), “poor-washing” (using poor people to attack the raising of taxes on the rich), “whiplash-washing” (using victims of car accidents to oppose lowering speed limits), etc. I sincerely hope not, though.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]


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