On the "The" in "The Jews": Or, from Grammar to Antisemitism

Article excerpt

The several tongue-twisting "the's" in my title are less difficult to manage than the problem they conceal. For there is a conceptual, cultural, and, finally, moral issue that bears directly on antisemitism in the common linking of the definite article "the" and Jews--that is, in "the Jews." I don't mean to claim that antisemitism would not have occurred or would now disappear if only its initiators and apologists paid more attention to grammar. But when a common and superficially innocent use of the definite article in statements about Jews turns out to be not innocent at all but in effect antisemitic, we need to consider more closely how and why that happens. Whether the linguistic usage originated as a cause or only a symptom of antisemitism hardly matters; it has in time served both functions, and it has thus also, from both directions, extended the reach of ideology to grammar. Since ideology flourishes, furthermore, mainly by concealment, to bring into the open this secret role of the "the," trivial as it seems, may thus also contribute to undermining the many-layered foundation of antisemitism.

The usage under suspicion here is the phrase "the Jews"--and if the particular use of that phrase criticized is not its only one, it is distinctive. As, for example--most famously--in: "The Jews killed Jesus." Or, more currently, "The Jews control Hollywood"--or again, as in the aftermath of the recent controversy about the "neighbors" in the Polish town of Jedwabne: "In 1939, after the Russians entered [Jedwabne], the Jews took over all the offices, including the town hall." (1) The general intent behind these statements might be inferred, but for the moment--since we're talking first about grammar not psychology--I propose to put the questions of motive aside in order to examine the difference between the statements themselves and what they would mean if they appeared without the definite article that each of the statements cited include; that is, the common reference in each of them to "the Jews."

Consider, for contrast, the shortened versions of those same statements with the definite article omitted: "Jews killed Jesus," "Jews control Hollywood," "In 1939, after the Russians entered [Jedwabne], Jews took over all the offices, including the town hall." The difference between the first and the second groups of statements is clear. Both groups of statements assert that certain people "killed Jesus," "control Hollywood," and "took over all the [Jedwabne] offices"--and that those people were or are Jews. The first group of statements, however, goes one step further--implying that not only were or are the people responsible for the acts described Jews, but that they acted collectively or in concert, among themselves and as part of a larger whole. That is, as the Jews. Not just as some Jews, then, but as a corporate body, expressing a common purpose or will. To deny this last implication would make the definite article in the sentence quite misleading--since there would then be nothing definite for the "definite" article to refer to.

Admittedly, anyone making the statements in the first group is unlikely to believe that every Jew alive at the time mentioned played a part in the act or disposition mentioned. But the main point of the statements is that "the Jews" (as a group) are responsible for that action even if it was more immediately the work of only a few of them. A collective will is thus presupposed, and so also, of course, a common responsibility, both of these now ascribed to "the" Jews. Not just "this one Jew" or "those several Jews," but the Jews as a group.

Each of the first set of statements, then, has two parts. The first part is a straightforward claim that those responsible for a certain act are or were Jewish; the second is the implied claim of a collective purpose motivating the act. Neither of these assertions is itself necessarily antisemitic; the test of truth is possible for both--measured by evidence to which the speaker already lays claim. …