I didn’t need to have been a non-resident of my native land of the United States for the past half-century in order to draw a blank when faced with Anti-Defamation League head Jonathan Greenblatt’s statement, made in response to recent remarks about American Jews by the former president Donald Trump, that these constituted “Jewsplaining.” An absence of a dozen years would have done just as well. The “splaining” part of “Jewsplaining,” I discovered upon looking into the word, entered the American language in the vicinity of 2010, when the term “mansplain,” a compound of “man” and “explain,” was coined by an unknown neologist to denote someone of the male sex who, as defined by Wikipedia, “comments on or explains something to a woman in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner.” A mansplainer thinks that men always know best, no matter how dumb he is or how smart is the women he is conversing with.
The word caught on and soon spawned imitations: womansplaining, whitesplaining, blacksplaining, straightsplaining, gaysplaining, etc. All are part of a limited but linguistically productive trend that has affected English in recent years and in which the second half of a compound word, such as Watergate or whitewash, is decoupled from its first half and rejoined to a new partner. We have thus witnessed the appearance of words for scandals like Contragate, Iraqgate, Housegate, and Doublebillingsgate, and of such words as pinkwashing, sportswashing, and sharewashing for the concealment of a social or political injustice behind a screen of alleged fairness in some other area.
Jewsplaining, which has been around since at least 2013, belongs to this trend. Yet it continues to be confusing even when understood, because whereas it is clear that in mansplaining one is talking about male behavior toward women, Jewsplaining is used equally to refer to Jewish behavior toward non-Jews and non-Jewish behavior toward Jews. Consider the following examples:
- Jonathan Greenblatt: “We don’t need the former president . . . to lecture us about the U.S.-Israel relationship. . . . This Jewsplaining is insulting and disgusting.”
- The American Jewish journalist and New York Times cultural reporter Marc Tracy, writing in the New Republic: “Let me Jewsplain. Jews speak differently to each other, sometimes, than they do to non-Jews, or in the presence of non-Jews.”
- The progressive American Jewish author and journalist Liz Dye in an article titled “Meghan McCain Wants to Jewsplain to (((Us?))) REALLY?” writes: “So Meghan McCain can spare (((us)))) the crocodile tears about the anti-Semitic left endangering the poor Hebrews.”
- Rabbi Amy Bardack in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle: “Over the past few weeks, I’ve received lots of advice about whom to support in the recent Democratic primaries. An acquaintance in the Orthodox community told me: ‘Rabbi, I don’t mean to “Jew-splain” this to you, but Steve Irwin [a contender in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district] is pro-Israel and Summer Lee [who is running against him] is not.’”
- The Anglo-Jewish journalist Jenni Frazer in Britain’s Jewish News: “Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn simply does not get all the furor about anti-Semitism. . . . In response [to accusations of anti-Semitism made against him], Corbyn perfectly illustrated this conclusion by issuing a long, whining, and self-justifying Jewsplanation.”
- The anti-Semite Andreas Johansson on his blog “The Age of Treason”: “To Jewsplain their virulent collective behavior, Jews pretend it’s more complicated than it actually is.”
You’ll notice that in Examples 1,3, and 5 “Jewsplaining” signifies objectionable (as perceived by Jews) Gentile attempts to lecture Jews about Jewishness, while in Examples 2, 4, and 6 it signifies objectionable (as perceived by non-Jews) attempts by Jews to lecture Gentiles. And indeed, the Internet’s Urban Dictionary defines the term both ways, first as “Non-Jews telling Jews what they should think or feel about themselves (and other Jews), their faith, their community, and their role in society,” and then as “Jews telling non-Jews what they should think or feel about themselves (and other Gentiles), their faith, their community, and their role [vis-à-vis Jews] in society.”
To disambiguate the term, some writers have referred to the first of these two phenomena as goysplaining and have reserved Jewsplaining for the second. Frankly, now that I have made their acquaintance, I find both words idiotic.
Why do I say this? Because both express an interlocking complex of ideas that no thoughtful person could possibly subscribe to. Among them is the notion that there is such a thing as a distinctively Jewish or non-Jewish way of thinking and talking about Jews or about anything else; that there is something inherently wrong with non-Jews expressing themselves on the subject of Jews or, on the contrary, with Jews telling non-Jews when they do this that they are mistaken; and above all, that a person’s views should be related not on their own merit but on the basis of the group—racial, ethnic, religious, social, political, or sexual—to which he or she belongs.
All this, of course, is a consequence of the Culture and Politics of Identity that have (and I say this as a citizen of Israel, which suffers badly from these things, too) poisoned American public life and caused much of American public discourse to become increasingly ugly and foolish. A society that can recognize individuals only as extensions of the collectivities to which they are assigned—men and women, black people and white people, persons “of color” and not of color, Jews and Gentiles, straights and LGBTs—is a society that has lost all sense of human worth and human accomplishment.
Of human empathy and imagination, too; for if we start from the assumption that only a Jew can understand another Jew, and only a woman can understand another woman, and only a black person can understand another black person (which also means that no Jew can understand a non-Jew, and no woman can understand a man, and no black person can understand a white person), we have, each of us, retreated into a shell that isolates us from the rest of humanity. It’s not a matter of fighting cheap slogans about group identity with other cheap slogans about human brotherhood. Not everyone in the world is our brother or sister. But everyone is as human as we are and has potential access to what it is like to be us, just as we have to what it is like to be them, and that’s something to build on, not tear down.