Is Gentile “Genteel”? (Or, What Should We Call People Who Aren’t Jewish?)

The other day, we had an extended discussion around the office about the proper term to use to refer to people who aren’t Jewish.

gentile

While it might not be water cooler conversation fodder at most offices, this linguistic issue comes up regularly in our writing of community histories for the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. On several occasions across the South, members of the larger community supported Jewish communities and causes, from contributing synagogue building funds to fundraising campaigns for Jewish charities.

This support is noteworthy and historically significant, but I always wrestle with the appropriate language. Some of my co-workers feel the traditional word “gentile” carries a negative connotation and should be avoided. I usually respond that the word was used by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. himself in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, when he declared “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”  Of course, the word “negro” is no longer generally accepted, so perhaps the cultural meanings we associate with the word “gentile” have changed as well.

The term “gentile” comes from the Latin word “gentilis” which means belonging to a tribe or clan. In the King James Bible, the term “gentile” is used as the translation for the Hebrew word “goy,” which refers to people of non-Hebrew nations. Since the 17th century, the word has been used to refer to non-Jews. Later, Mormons used the word to refer to non-LDS church members, although it has fallen into disuse in recent years, as it has taken on a pejorative connotation – bolstering some of my coworkers’ claims of negativity around that word.

Others think “non-Jew,” the most obvious substitute, is inherently negative in construction and that we should use a more positive term. Rabbi Marshal Klaven suggested “people of other faiths,” which works nicely for an interfaith prayer or presentation, but is a bit too clunky for our encyclopedia histories. Also, what about those who don’t have a faith?