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Goy: Origin, Usage, and Empowering White Supremacists

Did you happen to catch the HuffPost headline this past Friday, announcing Bannon’s departure from the White House?

“Goy, Bye!” it proclaimed.

A headline meant as a play on a lyric by Beyonce from her most recent album, Lemonade. (A reference, I suspect, many did not get.) Even so, the headline made me extremely uncomfortable.

There is nothing inherently derogatory about the word “goy.”

In its original context, it means “nation.” In fact, the Scriptures teach us that the word “goy,” and its plural “goyim,” can be either positive or neutral. God promises to make Abraham’s descendants a goy gadol (Genesis 12:2) — a great nation. After the Exodus from bondage, God refers to us as a goy kadosh (Exodus 19:6) — a holy nation. And God instructs us that we are to be l’or goyim (Isaiah 49:6) — a light unto the nations.

While the origin of the word is benign, the pejorative overtone of the word goy is not new. Take, for example, the phrase, goyisher kop — a gentile head. Not a term for any non-Jew, goyishe kop refers to an “idiot.” Or the observation that “the goyishe groomsmen were all drunk and bawdy; of course, you’d never see that at a Jewish wedding.” The moral implication could not be clearer.

In other words, to say that the word goy historically has not been a slur is simply incorrect. It has long been used by Jews in a negative sense when talking about non-Jews who cannot be trusted and whose values writ large are lacking.

Many of us have grown up using words like goy, shiksa, sheigetz, and shvartza as part of our Ashkenazic Jewish lexicon. To see these words for what they are, and how they have been used to dismiss entire groups of people, might make us feel as though we are losing part of the language that helps define us. And right now, for many, there is a genuine need to retain anything that defines us.

But do we really want to cling to words that marginalize and alienate other people? Is that how we want to be defined?

Context is, of course, everything. There can be non-pejorative uses of goy such as a goyishe restaurant — one that serves food that does not adhere to the kashrut standards and includes menu items that just don’t “seem Jewish.” Or, one might argue, that we need a word for us to refer to those who are “not-us.”.

However, the negative nature of the word has taken on a life of its own and is no longer used simply to identifying people who aren’t Jewish. If we are to help heal our fractured world, we cannot be immune to how the word is heard by others. For far too long, we have felt the pain of cultural and societal exclusion. “You must love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” commanded the Eternal One. Does this thirty-six-times-given commandment not demand that we choose words of inclusion?

There are some non-Jews who think that all of us use this word to describe them. Sometimes they believe that it’s a quaint honorific. Others, however, are under the impression that all Jews regard them negatively, and this plays out in an unexpected way.

Disturbingly, the white supremacists have co-opted it to refer to themselves in a shocking example of linguistic appropriation. By incorporating it, and other Yiddish terms, into their nationalist lingo, they perpetuate the anti-Semitic myth that we are a cabal with our own secret language and agenda. “The Goyim Know” is a catch-phrase used to mock Jews by using pseudo-Yiddish phrases to impersonate them by “exposing” the Jewish “ conspiracy. “Oy vey, it’s anudda Shoah” and “oy vey, the goyim know, shut it down” are just two examples often found on social media in comments and on memes.

Using the word goy in a news headline simply reinforces the “Jews run the media” and “Jews run the world” tropes. As though getting Bannon fired was all part of our sinister plot for worldwide domination.

Ultimately, however, it is our word. One with a historical use that is neutral, at best, and extremely offensive, at worst. And if we are to be allies with our non-Jewish friends, neighbors, and family members, it is time to eliminate it and other racially and culturally derogatory words from our parlance. Not because, as some have suggested, we want to be “politically-correct,” but because it is how we maintain God’s demand that we be goy kadosh — a holy nation.

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