Ghent university under fire for 'racist' sign language gestures for word 'Jew'

Ghent university under fire for 'racist' sign language gestures for word 'Jew'
Videos of the Flemish Sign Language dictionary use hooked nose gestures for the word "Jew." Credit: RedactieJoodsactueel/Youtube

Ghent University is under fire after old videos were dug out from an online sign language dictionary hosted on their website in which a series of "stereotypical" and "racist" gestures are used to depict the word "Jew."

Several videos on the Flemish Sign Language dictionary's entry for the word "Jew" show different options for the term, including a sidelocks gesture, a bearded chin gesture and a hooked nose gesture.

The videos were found by a Jewish resident in Antwerp, who stumbled across them when researching Flemish sign language courses.

"When I saw it I was shocked because it was a very stereotypical somewhat racist way of portraying a Jewish person," the resident told The Brussels Times.

The European Jewish Association (EJA) condemned the dictionary's videos in a Facebook statement, calling them "stereotypical" and "racist," and addressed a letter to the university requesting the videos be taken down.

Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of the association, said that, by focusing on sidelocks and choosing to gesticulate a hooked nose, the videos had managed to depict Jews in "the most stereotypical and racist way imaginable."

The dictionary was developed by a team of language and linguistics academics in the late 90s and has been managed by the non-profit Flemish Sign Language Centre since 2012, according to the dictionary's website.

The Flemish Sign Language Centre did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Replying to the backlash, which saw reports of the videos published in Israeli media, Lisa Rombouts of the sign language centre told De Morgen that the videos had been online for 15 years and that they chose to keep the videos online because they depict the situation at the time.

"The gesture in question is probably the oldest variant of that gesture in the dictionary," Rombouts said. "We don't want to delete it, because a dictionary describes the current situation."

In American and British sign language, the words "Jew" and "Jewish" are portrayed by gesturing a long beard.

"Of course they should remove it," the Antwerp resident said, noting how the depiction was reminiscent of World War II propaganda and that the website's administrators should know that this is not a correct way of depicting the past.

Following the backlash, captions reading "negative connotation" were added to the videos of the sidelocks and hooked nose gestures, the Antwerp resident added.

Rombouts said that the sign language centre was "fully engaged" in the creation of a new edition of the dictionary, but that the project has been dragging on due to lack of subsidised funding.

Gabriela Galindo

The Brussels Times

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