Yes, being different is a fine thing to be
I received this question to my column, Mixed and Matched:
I’ve heard people say that Jews shouldn’t refer to people who aren’t Jewish as “non-Jews.” Is that really a pejorative term? What should one say? Many of my non-Jewish friends don’t have a religion at all. I’ve seen researchers refer to people who have no religion as “nones,” but that sounds ridiculous.
— Want to Be Appropriate
Dear Want to Be Appropriate: I’m so glad you asked this question! Most of the people who are disturbed by the term “non-Jew” are Jews who have decided to attribute a negative overtone to the word. Frankly, I think it’s a fine word. I work with couples in which the non-Jewish partner is Hindu, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, etc. Some are atheists and would be most upset to have anything having to do with religion attributed to them. What do all these people have in common? They aren’t Jewish! And that’s about it. Some are Chinese Buddhists, some are African American agnostics, some are French Catholics and so on. Their common ground is not being Jewish.
Does adding “non” make a descriptor instantly negative? I say no. I’m rather fond of many such terms; my favorite is nonviolent, though there are plenty more: nonsmoker, nonabrasive, nonpoisonous, nonfattening, nonaddictive. So I can’t accept that something that is “non” is necessarily bad. It may be quite good.
Why do some Jews get bent out of shape by the term? Sadly, many of those people are working out some of their own issues. They want to be seen as “nice, open, welcoming.” It is really about their own sense of self. Am I a good person? Do interfaith couples like me? Am I seen as one of the good guys?
A great way to be the good guy is to have a bad guy to attack. The attackers have written articles and given talks with righteous indignation condemning the use of the term. I’m always suspicious of righteous indignation. Very few people use it for the good of others. If a word is truly pejorative, like shiksa, one should certainly take the speaker aside and ask, “Do you know what that word means?” They should be enlightened, but there is no need to get righteous about it — unless you simply want to aggrandize yourself and humiliate that person.
I note also that people who aren’t Jewish do not react to the word unless they are told to. Giving people a reason to feel that others are disparaging them is a terrible thing to do.
I had a Catholic woman call me and say, “Interfaith! I’m in an interfaith marriage! I finally found out what to call it so I look for resources.” The number of non-Jews married to Jews in America is a tiny portion of the population. Jews make up about 2 percent of American society. Even if half of them are married to non-Jews, that means only 1 percent of Americans make up this “non-Jewish” part of the Jewish community. It’s easy to see why the caller was having trouble finding resources.
I do agree that the most appropriate way to refer to someone is by who they are. So if you know someone is a Methodist, it is proper to call them that. If a person is an atheist or agnostic, you can use those terms. This doesn’t mean that any of us needs to ask the religion of everyone we meet in synagogue. If it comes up, fine, but no layperson has a need-to-know situation over the oneg.
Identifying the role of non-Jews in Jewish environments is very important and I urge every Jewish group or synagogue to be transparent about their policies. In any religious environment, it may be that there are activities performed only by the members of that religious community. It is so much more welcoming for a non-Jewish person to know right from the website just what they are permitted to do. Imagine walking into a Muslim religious service and wondering, “Is it appropriate for me to do what everyone is doing? Or is that insulting?”
The most important thing we all can do is simply use good manners.