During a Sept. 5 executive session of the Trenton City Council, the president of that body used the phrase “Jew her down,” setting off a debate about semantics and stereotypes.
The phrase was used in reference to a Jewish city attorney’s negotiation tactics with a Trenton resident, who had filed a lawsuit against the city after tripping and injuring herself on a city sidewalk. President Kathy McBride believed that the resident deserved more than she had agreed to in her settlement.
“I’m sad for her,” McBride can be heard saying on a recording obtained by The Trentonian. “They were able to wait her out and Jew her down for $22,000 with pins in her knee that can never ever be repaired.”
Condemnation was anything but swift.
City Councilwoman Robin Vaughan initially defended McBride, and denied that the phrase had any anti-Semitic content.
“I believe her comment ‘Jew down’ was more in reference to negotiating, not ‘I hate Jews,’” Vaughn wrote on Facebook, according to The Trentonian. “Inappropriate in today’s PC culture absolutely, but to Jew someone down is a verb and is not-anti-anything or indicative of hating Jewish people.”
Another member of the council, George Muschal, told the New Jersey Globe that it was “just a statement of speech.”
“You know, it’s like a car dealer, they wanted $5,000, you Jew ’em down to $4,000,” Muschal told the Globe. “It’s nothing vicious. The expression has been said millions of times.”
After a few days, McBride, Vaughan and Muschal all apologized, though Muschal told The New York Times that the attorney, Peter Cohen, had told him that he used the phrase all the time, which Cohen disputed. Amid calls to step down, all three have thus far held fast.
Evan Bernstein, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey and New York chapter, responded on Twitter with: “Anti-Semitic tropes about Jews and money are not just ‘statements of speech.’ Instead, they play on deeply painful myths and stereotypes about the Jewish community that have a long and troubling history. This shows an incredible lack of understanding of the historical significance of this language and the painful impact it can have on Jewish constituents.”
There was more contrition in Paterson, New Jersey, after Councilman Michael Jackson used the phrase “Jew us down” at a public meeting about stadium renovation.
“I said, ‘Mr. Developer, I respect you, I appreciate you for valuing our city, for offering the best price possible and not trying to go backwards to Jew us down,’” said Jackson at the meeting, according to The Paterson Times. He was roundly criticized by his colleagues, including a council member of Palestinian heritage, who said, “That stuff should not be in this chamber. I never want to hear it in this chamber.”
“That statement should have never been made,” said Jackson, who claimed the term was once complimentary. “I ask everyone to forgive me for my brief lack of sensitivity. That was meant with no malice. It was a statement indicative of my upbringing.”
The idea that “Jew down” is not anti-Semitic — and even has positive connotations, as Jackson suggested, strains credulity. How could it be that someone could use the phrase — reinforcing the stereotype that Jewish people will always seek to drive hard bargains — without seeing that it makes direct reference to Jews?
“It is common for people not to know the origin of phrases with derogatory histories,” said Sarah Bunin Benor, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College, who is also the co-editor of the Journal of Jewish Languages. Most people who use the similar term “gyp” or “gip,” she said, have no idea that it references “Gypsy,” “a derogatory group name for the Roma people.”
And yet, “Jew down” seems so unambiguous in its target.
“Let’s start with the obvious: Jew down is unequivocally anti-Semitic,” wrote Jeffrey Barg in his “Angry Grammarian” column in the Inquirer, responding to the New Jersey lawmakers. “It amplifies hateful historical tropes of Jews as money-grubbing, self-dealing, unscrupulous cheaters who can’t be trusted.”
The phrase came into existence in the early 19th century and, according to Google n-gram data, peaked in usage in the 1930s. Benor pointed out that this is consistent with the largest waves of Jewish immigration to the United States; however, the stereotype of Jewish tight-fistedness had existed for centuries.
“When people claim that ‘Jew down’ does not refer to Jews,” Benor said, “they are reflecting a common understanding that Jews are not an oppressed group (and therefore it’s OK to use derogatory language about them). And when people use this phrase to refer to actions by a Jewish developer, business person, etc., they are reflecting overt anti-Semitism.”