Don’t ever try to Jew down an atheist.

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Have you arrived to read this post because you don’t like the sound of the title? Does it piss you off? Good.

A repost from last election season.

Listen. When I was a child, in Catholic School, I was told (by the nuns, older kids in school, and some other adults) not to trust the Jews. It was literally true that the Catholic rhetoric in this small but significant city in an an Eastern US state was that “The Jews killed our God.”

I was told to not go near the Jewish Temple, especially on Friday or Saturday, because it would be too easy to stumble on a ceremony. In second grade, I was told that if I saw a Jewish Ceremony, as a baptized catholic, I would turn to a skeleton. I am not making this up.


div id=”more”>None of these overtly racist antisemitic conversations happened inside my family. Nor did the conversations I heard on the street about African Americans or gays. But these were assertions made on a regular basis in school, on the street, and in a variety of settings involving a variety of people with authority. The role models were training me to be anti-semitic and racially discriminatory.

Here, I mostly want to stick with the antisemitism. This is because even though overt and explicit antisemitic rhetoric did not come from my family, even there I heard the indirect insidious form of it. The phrase to “jew someone” (or “jew someone down”) was commonly used by my parents and other adults who otherwise spoke out against discrimination. “The Jews” had a special place in the local culture and economy, and with it a special reputation. All young Jews wanted to become lawyers or doctors, but it was known that all Jewish Mothers thought their son to be the Messiah. And these jokes seemed to be accepted as normal even among our Jewish friends. Looking back I do not believe this was really accepted, and certainly it was not acceptable.

I remember an incident when I was about 22. My best friend owned a bookstore. One day she was a bit upset about something, and related this story: A mutual friend of ours, who was ethnically Christian/Italian, had been in the store earlier that day and in reference to some transaction impending in her life (buying something from someone) she used the term “I’ll try to jew him down.” This upset my friend (who was Jewish, but who would have been upset anyway) as well as my wife (who was Jewish but would have been upset anyway). More upset than anyone were my friend’s Goyim husband and me. We all knew our mutual friend was not particularly antisemitic, but needed to find a way to tell her that she had to unlearn this knee-jerk phrase. We worked it out, eventually. I tell this story only because it is an example of the length of time over which anti-semitic phrases clung to culture, even in a counter-cultural liberal/Democratic philosophically aware (‘PC’) community.

Today, the same thing happens with the term “atheist” at least to some extent. The North Carolina Senate race has reinvigorated a more public conversation about anti-atheism and faith-biased thinking that many of us are always involved in or seeing the effects of. You know, today, my daughter is taking a huge risk in school. The assignment in social studies: Find a current news story that involves discrimination and write a page and a half on it. She picked the Dole/Hagan comments regarding atheism and “godless money.” When I think of how her rather snarky (but I think pretty good) social studies teacher is going to handle this, I laugh. Ha!

Is there anything about the following that diverges significantly from the viewpoint of 90% of American Christians today?

This is basically a Christian Nation. But we ‘tolerate’ Jews and occasionally allow them in, or even welcome them to, important positions of responsibility especially having to do with money. We do gripe occasionally about the Jewish Conspiracy and all, but since it seems mainly to be a conspiracy to a) make lots of cool Hollywood movies and b) support Israel which is the enemy of our enemies, the Jews are OK most of the time. Muslims, we tolerate to a degree, but we would really like it if the passive Muslims would do more to acknowledge that the Koran is a book of violence and that all their fellow Muslims are walking around with bombs strapped to them. The Hindus and Buddhists are colorful and cute and as long as they obey the laws about soliciting donations on the streets and airports, they don’t seem to be doing much harm.

But at least all these people have faith, even if it is the wrong faith. The faithless … the godless … that is an entirely different story….

I think not.

I think this has to end.

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26 thoughts on “Don’t ever try to Jew down an atheist.

  1. Very well written. Your daughter’s story reminded me of my times in a small christian school. We had an assignment to pick one idea that could have a large effect on the face of US politics, and I picked religious fundamentalism.

    It also reminds me of the famous “least trusted minority” study:

  2. Christians pretend that all Christians are fundamentally the same (except Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Christian cults), even though Protestants don’t accept Catholic teachings, and vice versa, and so on and so on. Mainstream Protestants detect Baptists and especially the evangelicals, and more especially the fundamentalists. None of the Protestants denominations accepts the validity of any other denomination.

    They all pretend to happily coexist under one Big Tent. And they pretend their Jesus, Mary, and Joseph weren’t Jews.

    You don’t have to be psychotic to be religious, but it helps.

  3. I’ll never get my 86 yo mother to stop saying that but I don’t & neither do my kids.

    There may be some hope yet.

  4. Thankfully “Jewess” has dropped out of american language.

    Greg do you think the Christians recognize Buddhists and Hindus as equals or is there an appeal to predatory conversion?

  5. I do see and hear this stuff on occasion even around here. It used to be more prevalent.

    It still makes my blood boil, no matter which group is the target.

    And here I was about to go out to the local atheist group meeting in a (formerly) good mood. Now I want to vent.

  6. I have never heard this phrase. Can you tell me precisely what it means, please? I’m guessing it means something like “drive a hard bargain”, but most of my knowledge of how-to-insult-a-Jew comes from `Life of Brian’.

  7. @Keith
    That’s pretty much what it means. More commonly these days, it’s just to “Jew” or to “Jew someone out of something”.

    Luckily I grew up without these terms being used in my household or community at large. It was helpful growing up in a secular household – I never attended church (except once for a girlfriend, she wanted to ‘save’ me), I never knew what my parents beliefs were. Just never discussed it, and I love my parents for that. I think one time ‘spirituality’ came up between my mother and myself. I guess she’s more of a deist, as she hates organized religion. Dad on the other hand, went to Catholic school in Indiana and still fears nuns to this day (seriously).

  8. It took me entirely too long to realize that ‘gyp’ was a slur against gypsies; at least ‘jew’ was not used as a verb in my household and I don’t remember any antisemitism in my five years of Catholic school in the Chicago suburbs in the early 70s. It may have been there but I was distracted by being bored, thinking religion was a crock because there was no observable evidence of what they were telling me, and hating that damned uniform. To this day I can’t stand yellow polo shirts and brown pants. Seriously – who the hell thought those were appropriate colors, ever?

  9. This may be tangental, but in our Catholic Secondary School in Northern Ireland we had the dubious honour of having an American textbook for our Religious Education class.

    It wasn’t broad-based at all – just concerned with Catholic morals. As this was the mid-80s I guess that was understandable. However, the racism in one ‘moral story’ was downright shocking:

    “A wagon train has been ambushed by Indians. The men are dead and the Indians are looking for the women and children to kill them.

    Hiding under one wagon is a white woman with her child and a black woman with her child*. The Black woman’s child starts crying and so she smothers him**. The white woman’s child starts crying and she doesn’t smother him. The Indians hear the crying child and kill them all.

    Which woman made the right moral choice?”

    Our teacher, an old Brother, didn’t blink at this at all. On the other hand most of us students were thinking “what the hell is this tripe?!”

    * Really, this was the set-up!

    ** Just smothers the kid – no attempt at masking the cries. Talk about lack of gradiated response.

  10. “This is basically a Christian Nation… etc”
    Excellent, not only true, but LOL funny and really well put!

  11. I can’t remember when it was ingrained in me, but all racism in general and anti semitism in particular have always meant chaos to me.
    It has been and continues to be way more more difficult to watch my inherent gender bias, but what I would ideally like to see is a room made in our secular system of general meaning and perception that removes the burden of proof of the possible existences of God and the afterlife and places it squarely in the context secular probable likelihood at around %60 to %80 probable occurrence.

    I’d like to see this kind of logical argument formally unify all knowledge secular and non secular under one interdependent and natural system of knowledge.

    Kind of a lofty goal? I maintain not only is this kind of unification of general knowledge necessary, it can be done in our lifetime and under the current Presidential Administration.

    We could give it to the President for his next Birthday.

    Just a Thought

    Tom K.

  12. Imagine growing up and going through your initial 12 years of education in Catholic schools.

    Meanwhile from about 3rd grade on up you knew the religion was all bullshit. It failed the test of logic. But you parroted the line anyhow.

    That was me. It came to a head in two ways. The first was during my sophomore year of confirmation classes. I told the priest running it that I really wasn’t sure I should do this since I didn’t believe any of it. They just passed me right on through and confirmed me anyhow.

    Then junior year they came around to recruit for the Christian Brotherhood de La Salle. One of the brothers asked if I was interested in joining the order. I told him I didn’t believe in any of the religious dogma or doctrine, and that I couldn’t commit myself to a life of celibacy.

    The brother was cool about it though. He let on that there are a number of non-theists that are Brothers. Sort of how there are a number of Jesuits who are for all intents and purposes atheists too. But the celibacy thing was the deal breaker for me.

    However we were never taught any anti-semitism in those Catholic schools. I was even relating the other day that the sex ed classes actually had a reasonable discussion segment on homosexuality. In a Catholic school no less.

  13. a room made in our secular system of general meaning and perception that removes the burden of proof of the possible existences of God and the afterlife and places it squarely in the context secular probable likelihood at around %60 to %80 probable occurrence.

    Uh, what?

    I’m sorry, could you say that in some other way? I have no idea what you just said, and I’m not sure anyone else does either.

  14. But at least all these people have faith, even if it is the wrong faith. The faithless … the godless … that is an entirely different story…. I think not. I think this has to end.

    Try to end us, you smug ethnic Christian! Just because we are faithless doesn’t mean we should not be accepted into positions of authority. Did they not teach the constitution at Yale?

  15. For what it’s worth, I went to Catholic school once a week in the late 70s and 80s in an east coast suburb and never once heard anything even remotely anti-semitic. In fact, I don’t remember anything being mentioned about Jews at all.

    “Jew someone down”–I don’t use it and wouldn’t want to, but in some interpretation it isn’t *that* bad. If we believe that certain sub-groups in the populous share certain cultural traits, like about the role of bargaining/haggling in merchant transactions, then it is just using one group as an exemplar case of this innocuous–even wise–activity. Haggling is a big part of many cultures, like in Arabic markets, etc. If there had been more Arabs around in the 1940s, maybe we would be saying “Arab someone down”. I agree it is unseemly to use a generalization of a group of people as a figure of speech, and reinforces “person = group member” thinking (which I detest), so it is something to be dispatched, but I don’t think the content should be necessarily seen as anti-Semitic, unless one believes it necessarily means that Jews are *greedy* and not just effective hagglers. But these are not the same; a Jew could drive a hard bargain and later that day make a big donation to a children’s hospital.

  16. “…Buddhists are colorful and cute…But at least all these people have faith, even if it is the wrong faith. The faithless … the godless … that is an entirely different story….”

    lol@ the total misunderstanding. I’m Buddhist. I’m a godless atheist. I’m not a noisy version of either, to be sure, but generally when people discover they can pin the “buddhist” label on me they accept it much more readily than one of those gawdless jerks. I think they assume I believe in some primitive spirit god thing that’s really their christian god and that I just haven’t “heard the good news about jesus” yet.

    Which would explain why they like to preach to me. It’s funny to me, but they tend to get offended when I explain the silliness.

    So JefFlyingV: from my experience, no, they do not consider us equals. They consider us ignorant, but friendly potential converts.

    They also seem to be shocked that I’m not 60+ years old, bald, and wearing a saffron robe. The misunderstandings run deep.

  17. cm: I believe the implication is not that they are good bargainers, but that they are being cheap. Which is quite offenseive.

    Even so, you’ll find most people of asian decent (or who even look asian) are quite offended at the implication that they are good at math. This might seem like a positive trait, but it also puts expectations that may not be realistic, especially on an individual basis.

    Down here in the south it’s still sadly common to hear “n*- rigged,” and when avoiding that it almost always defaults to “jerry rigged” (not to be confused with jury rigged, which is a sailing term, and has nothing to do with the supposed improvisational mechanical skills of my ancestry during WWII). Not that I get offended, I’m not sure you can actually offend a person of german decent with the standard slanders. They’re just too silly.

  18. Spiv:

    pedant mode on/

    Jury-rigged means built for emergency use, high quality is implied (it IS for the USN, y’see).

    Jerry-built means poorly built or of cheap materials. “Jerry” being derived from “jack” not German. If that’s what you meant, …
    pedant mode off/

    Can you tell I’m surfing the web instead of tending to other, more useful but less fun things? 🙂

  19. I see your pedantry and raise you one:

    My understanding is that “jerry” in “jerry-built” is of uncertain origin. Given the timing on the scene it does predate the “Jerry” or “Gerry” for “German” but it could actually derive from Jury-rig.

  20. It goes beyond the idea that Jews are cheap. Jews have been scapegoated for countries’ economic problems based on a stereotype of being usurious. It usually happens shortly before the pogroms start.

  21. To my understanding “jerry rigged” was adopted by british soldiers during ww2 as an intentional bastardization of ‘jury’ (which is a makeshift mast repair). Jerry is also british, apparently, for chamber pot (from ww1, when they first started calling the “krouts” jerries.). Gerry is for Gerald, which we don’t use anymore because no one is named Gerald.

    At least that’s what I’ve been told. All hearsay, take as you will. hooray for pedantry. Hopefully I’ll learn something newly useless today when some scholar of pejoratry (does that have an ‘ology/oligist term for it?) comes in and schools us.

    And yes, I have been called a ‘krout’ before. With intent of meanness. Some people are pretty lost. Hard not to giggle back at them though.

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