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Why I Won’t Stop Using The Term ‘Goy’

There’s been a lot of talk about the term “Goy” in the news with its crass use by HuffPo following the sinister appropriation of the Hebrew term by anti-Semitic groups.

Some have suggested that we stop using it either because it’s offensive or because its use will “empower white supremacists.”

Well both of those arguments are absurd and I’m not stopping using a perfectly good word.

The Hebrew word “goy” literally means “nation.” So the “Goyim” are the “nations.” And, in the Jewish vernacular, a “Goy” is someone from “the nations” i.e. not Jewish.

White supremacists, for their twisted part, use the term to refer to non-Jews who, according to the racist world view, are tools of some imagined Jewish conspiracy.

So should we stop using a term because a group who are sworn ideological opponents have offensively appropriated it? No way.

To those who argue that the term is offensive, I’d actually agree that you have a point. It can be used as an insult. But it’s not an offensive word.

Linguistically, the world is divided into Jews and Goyim, just as, linguistically, the world is divided into Americans and foreigners. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but let’s say that these are exclusive and complementary categories. They don’t overlap and there are no other humans.

So, just as Americans can use the word “foreigner” dismissively (or Japanese the term “gaijin”), Jews — insiders — can use the term deprecatingly. But no one is suggesting that we stop using the term foreigners. It’s not loaded like the tiny slivers of foreigners that are labeled illegals or undocumenteds. It’s an exclusive term that is used accurately by Americans who love foreigners.

The alternatives we have are “gentile” or the inelegant “non-Jew.” We could use “non-Jew,” it’s ok. My objection to it is its scientific flatness and reduction of goyishness to lack of Jewishness.

The former is a Latin word “gentilis” meaning “of the same family.” But it can’t be the Jewish word because it’s doubly alien. Linguistically it’s Latin. And in usage it’s an internal word. Originally used by the Romans to mean Roman and not Christian, it came to mean not Jewish as Latin speakers considered themselves part of the Christian family. It’s a word designed for use by insiders of the goyish world.

There are offensive terms that our community should stop using, immediately. The two that spring to mind are shiksa and shvartze. The latter is a term for black people anywhere (i.e. not just African Americans) that, though it just means black, is inextricably caught up in global racial discourse and is now always at least a little racist.

“Shiksa” (or the masculine shaygets) is also used to refer to a non-Jew. Most often these days seen in the phrase “Shiksa goddess” to denote a very attractive non-Jewish woman, usually with blond hair. The word, however, as Christine Benvenuto pointed out clearly in her book “Shiksa: The Gentile Woman In The Jewish World” comes from the Biblical Hebrew word meaning “abomination.” It is, at heart, offensive.

But “goy” is neither at heart offensive nor has it become offensive through usage. For those Jews who believe that being the Chosen people makes us better than others, it’s easy to see how the term could easily slip to insult. But we should fight that tendency toward ethnic suprematism wherever we find it, and in the particular, offensive usage of the term, not its blanket use.

I’m a proud Jew, but I embrace that identity as a badge of distinction, not of superiority. The world is a wonderfully diverse place, and there’s room for an infinite variety of Yidden, and of Goyim.

Dan Friedman is the executive editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter at @danfriedmanme

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