Moves to censor the dictionary may not help fight anti-Semitism
One of the definitions for 'Jew' in the Oxford English Dictionary is 'person who drives a hard bargain'.
Many of you have probably received recently an email urging you to sign a petition to the Google super-search engine calling for the removal from its listings of the anti-Semitic website jewwatch.com. Haaretz's Tom Segev wrote about the campaign in this weekend's magazine.
The petitioners claim that if enough sign, (they mention the number of half a million) the site will be struck off, but a special explanation written by Google insists that while the company in no way agrees with the content of such websites, they have no plans to remove it or others. Google they claim, simply reflects what is up there on the web, without issuing judgment.
The debate over Google's morals and business practices is growing, and there are much more knowledgeable writers on the subject. But this new campaign reminded me of another, long-forgotten battle; that of Manchester businessman Marcus Shloimovitz against the Oxford English Dictionary.
Shloimovitz spent long years and a substantial fortune fighting a legal battle against the most respected dictionary in the English-speaking world trying to make it drop two of the definitions for the word "Jew."
The first was the noun - "Person who drives hard bargains, usurer" and the second the verb "to Jew" - "cheat, bargain with (person) to lower his price."
After of four-year long case, the high court judge turned him down on a technicality, effectively accepting the Oxford University Press's position that the dictionary was there simply to record the use of words and their history, not to act as a guardian by keeping language clean.
Despite winning the case and keeping the offensive definitions in subsequent editions, the OED did make an interesting change.
In 1976, the sixth edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary came out and in it for the first time the tag - (derog.,colloq) was added to the two definitions, denoting that while the word might have been used in these ways in the past, and still is to this day, it isn't the formal meaning and is also used in a negative sense towards Jews and therefore derogatory.
That same year, the second volume of the 6,000 page-long OED Supplement was published, on the letters H-N. In the lengthy entry on "Jew" it chronicled a long history of the word being used in less than positive references but adds the stern warning "These uses are now considered to be offensive."
Interestingly, just as some Jews were unsatisfied by this outcome, there were linguists at the time who also criticized the OED's chief editor Robert Burchfield for going that far.
When I was eleven, I read Rudyard Kipling's brilliant teen novel "Stalky & Co." for the first time and was perplexed by this passage: "Pay me my interest, or I'll charge you interest on interest. Remember I've got your note-of-hand!' shouted Beetle. "You're a cold-blooded Jew," Stalky groaned."
What did these English public school boys know of Jews?
I know that Kipling, like a number of other famous late-Victorian writers, was more than a little anti-Semitic, but that doesn't stop me from enjoying his writing, or that of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and even the sainted George Orwell, who all displayed similar tendencies at one stage or another of their careers.
We will gain nothing by posthumously sanitizing their works, just as trying to censor dictionaries and search engines won't help us to understand and confront mankind's most ancient hatred.