Over the past ten years, I have taught an undergraduate course titled Introduction to Jewish History from Antiquity to the Present. My students are mainly Christians from the Midwest, who have had little to no contact with Jews before coming to campus. Nearly every semester, some students express discomfort with referring to the very people on whom we are focusing: Jews. To be sure, their discomfort invariably stems from good intentions. They just have a gut feeling that writing the word "Jews" is offensive but they aren't sure why. I typically use this opportunity as a moment for critical engagement: Is the problem the word "Jews"? Or is it just using the article "the" before it? I often find the most effective pedagogical examples to be drawn from current events, and for better or worse, the 2016 US presidential election yielded plenty of material to address the issue. Luckily, the students didn't need much convincing to see how Republican candidate Donald Trump's frequent references to "the African-Americans" and "the Latinos" at his rallies were indeed offensive. In class, we discuss how such references lump together members of groups as undifferentiated entities. Students learn that referring to groups in this way serves to distance the speaker from those groups, and thus serves to both marginalize and dehumanize its members. By the time we get to the Holocaust, students can better understand how the Nazis used language as a key facet to persecute their Jewish victims. At the same time, I am always careful to point out that not every reference to "Jews" or even "the Jews" is necessarily offensive. For examples, we look at how authors we read in class use the term, or even how I used it myself on the syllabus or on their exams. From these discussions, I believe they learn important lessons about context. Words matter. Language reflects feelings, and what one says is a reflection of how one acts. As distasteful as it was to have so many examples to draw on from current events this year, I have to admit that I'm thrilled that such a relevant and important lesson about the dangers of essentializing can emerge from my Jewish history class.
Lisa Silverman is associate professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is currently working on a study of Jews in postwar Europe, 1945–1953, in Austria, France, and Germany. She is the author of Becoming Austrians: Jews and Culture between the World Wars (Oxford, 2012).