Use of phrase ‘Jewish descent’ upset readers
Ryan Summerlin June 24, 2009
Some of our readers were very offended by an article in Wednesday’s paper in which a suspect in house break-ins in Edwards was described as “of Jewish or Eastern European descent.”
According to a press release from the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, the witness also told investigators the suspect had “dark hair, large nose, pierced ears, narrow face and eyes that were close together.”
The “large nose,” unfortunately, is an old and reviled Jewish stereotype which readers felt we have perpetuated. While some found the article misguided and insensitive, others found it downright appalling and anti-Semitic, comparing it to something the Nazis might have produced. And we are sorry for opening old and deep wounds.
As a Jewish American and one of the editors of the press release, I apologize to those who were offended. We will not argue with your outrage, we can only explain how the phrase “of Jewish descent” got in the paper with the consent of at least two editors.
Similar articles have routinely included suspects described as Hispanic or white, with no expressions of outrage from readers. Similar articles have included suspects described as Hispanic or white. Elsewhere in this country, news organizations have been criticized when someone is described as Arab, Middle Eastern, black or African American in a crime story.
The descriptions are used by police and printed by newspapers in the effort to apprehened someone who has committed a crime and sometimes those phrases describe the right suspect, and leads to arrest. Other times it also reinfornces stereotypes none of us wish to keep alive.
Our readers point out that while mentioning ethnicity is always a slippery slope, using “Jewish descent” is a bit different because Judaism is, first of all, a religion. They argue we probably wouldn’t describe a suspect in a suspect as Christian or Muslim. They’re probably right.
On the other hand, many Jews – some of whom observe and some of whom don’t observe the religion – consider Judaism to be their ethnicity and their culture. Eastern European Jews often don’t feel connected to any one country. That’s because their families originated in territories that either changed hands between governments or their families had to flee their villages under threat of massacre and death. Many of these Jews, therefore, think of their Jewishness in the same way their neighbors identify themselves as Irish, Mexican, Swedish or Japanese.
Because of that – and in the press of deadline – we found it appropriate that someone could be described as looking Jewish. Still, many readers criticized us for suggesting via this release that there is a “Jewish” look.
Again, we felt there was a difference between saying that all Jewish people look a certain way and that one alleged burglar in Edwards, Colorado looked Jewish. The former is truly reprehensible, the latter still offensive, but a result of sloppy editing rather than any individual or institutional bigotry.
In the future, we must be more sensitive when it comes to including ethnicity in descriptions of people, whether they are criminal suspects or otherwise. This story clearly caused offense, and it is our responsibility going forward not to perpetuate any of gross stereotypes that have caused people of all cultures, religions and ethnicities so much pain in the past.
Managing Editor Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 970-748-2926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.