I’m a Jewish linguist, and unlike some in Congress, I think ‘Ashkenormativity’ is a perfectly fine word


(JTA) — As a linguist who studies Jewish language, I was disturbed by a recent public debate initiated by a non-Jewish member of Congress about a Jewish word.

During the April 17 House Education and Workforce hearing on Columbia University’s response to antisemitism, Rep. Jim Banks grilled Columbia President Minouche Shafik and two Columbia trustees about the term “Ashkenormativity.”

Banks, a Republican from Indiana, was referring to a glossary distributed by Columbia’s School of Social Work, which defined “Ashkenormativity” as “a system of oppression that favors white Jewish folx, based on the assumption that all Jewish folx are Ashkenazi, or from Western Europe.”

Banks claimed that “Ashkenormativity” is “not found in the Webster’s dictionary or anywhere else” and that the word “fosters an environment of antisemitism.” Shafik and the trustees replied with similarly negative evaluations.

I understand why the question might have come as a surprise — the word is relatively new and not centrally related to the topic of the hearing. But I disagree with their take. In fact, the word — when defined and deployed appropriately — is useful in Jewish communal discourse and can actually help to counter antisemitism.

When I attended Columbia University in the 1990s, my involvement as a Jewish leader revolved around my ancestral Ashkenazi culture, rooted in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe. I started a klezmer band, researched the Yiddish-influenced English of (the mostly Ashkenazi) Orthodox Jews on campus, and even got the quirky university marching band to perform the Columbia fight song in Yiddish for a Yiddish cabaret I produced.

While much of my subsequent academic and public-facing work has focused on Yiddish and Ashkenazi Jewish English, I have expanded to other Jewish languages in scholarship and through the initiative I founded, the HUC-JIR Jewish Language Project. Why? To counter what I came to understand as Ashkenormativity — the assumption that Ashkenazi culture is the American Jewish default.

Jews of Spanish/Portuguese ancestry dominated early American Jewish communities, but after the great waves of immigration of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ashkenazim from Central and later Eastern Europe far outnumbered them. That’s still the case, but in the past few decades, the balance has shifted a bit. Jews with ancestry in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, India and Ethiopia have immigrated to U.S. cities, often via Israel and Latin America, adding to the populations that had arrived from Syria and the Balkans in the 20th century.

While growing percentages of Jews in synagogues, Jewish schools and other organizations have ancestry in Iran, Iraq, Morocco and Turkey, most of those institutions still highlight Ashkenazi history, liturgy and culture. This is what Jewish commentators call Ashkenormativity.

The term arose in Jewish discourse around 2014. It has since been used by North American Jews of Moroccan, Bukharian, Turkish, Ashkenazi, Ethiopian, Persian, Black, Japanese-American and other backgrounds to critique and debate the orientations of various educational, cultural and communal institutions and products. Mainstream Jewish institutions and even a university president use the term. It has been helpful for academic analysis of genetic testing, Mizrahi Jews in diasporist movements, Sephardic students in predominantly Ashkenazi schools and Ashkenazi Jews’ racist treatment of Levantine Jewish immigrants, just to give a few examples. 

The Sephardi/Mizrahi advocacy organization JIMENA (an important partner of the Jewish Language Project) has created a toolkit to help day schools improve how they teach about Sephardi and Mizrahi culture. “The schools were built and the curriculum was created at a time when Jewish life was ‘Ashkenormative’ — Ashkenazi Jews catering to Ashkenazi Jews,” JIMENA’s executive director explained. “And there’s a need for the schools to meet the current needs of their student populations.” 

Jews discuss Ashkenormativity not to perpetuate the power imbalance, but to counter it.

In contrast, Banks and the School of Social Work stretched the meaning of the word to score separate, opposite political points. 

In Banks’ case, he weaponized the term for partisan political theater. He purported to be fighting antisemitism, but his primary antagonist was the broader discourse of wokeness.

The Social Work glossary, meanwhile, plays into his critique by calling Ashkenormativity a “system of oppression” rather than how I would define it: “Assuming Ashkenazi Jews and Jewishness as the default; excluding Sephardi, Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and other Jewish practices and histories from Jewish communal life.” The Social Work glossary also equates Ashkenazim with “white Jewish folx” (and, strangely, from “Western Europe”). This framing contradicts research findings that 42% of Jews of Color identify as Ashkenazi and that many Sephardi/Mizrahi Jews do not identify as Jews of Color. 

While the Social Work school’s definition appropriately disturbs some Jews, the term is not antisemitic. In fact, discussing Ashkenormativity in non-Jewish contexts, such as a Social Work glossary, helps to prevent comments like “Go back to Poland.” If we want to counter antisemitic essentialism and clarify that not all Jews are white or European, Ashkenormativity is a useful concept.

Banks is correct that the word does not appear in Webster’s Dictionary, but he is wrong that it does not appear anywhere. It has been listed in the Jewish English Lexicon, a dictionary I run, for about a decade, and it was included in The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia in 2019. The word may end up in English dictionaries soon. This is the general trajectory of Jewish language: Many words are used only for in-group conversation, but some eventually spread to broader social networks. Ashkenormativity is a prime candidate for such diffusion because its meaning is clear to those familiar with the category “Ashkenazi” and the other portmanteau this word is based on, “heteronormativity.” 

The word’s inclusion in the Columbia Social Work glossary shows that it’s already starting to spread. And by highlighting it in the hearing, Banks expedited that process.

The hearing might have another effect on this word. Many (but not all) recent Sephardi/Mizrahi immigrants lean to the right, and Banks’ questioning increased the word’s left-wing valence. I would not be surprised if some Jews started to distance themselves from the word. I think that would be a shame. I’ve found the notion of Ashkenormativity useful in my work to explore and raise awareness about the diversity of our people, as have many other Jews of diverse backgrounds. I hope we won’t let a non-Jewish congressman take that away from us.

is Vice Provost, Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies and Linguistics and Director of the Jewish Language Project at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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