JEFFERSONVILLE — A slur used by a member of the Jeffersonville City Council has caused concern and disappointment among citizens in the area.
The incident occurred when council Vice President Lisa Gill was commenting on the Jeffersonville Fire Department's request for a new service truck at an April 15 meeting.
After the department's vehicle maintenance director concluded his initial remarks on the request, Gill asked "did you mention that you actually called about that truck and actually, what I call Jewed them down?”
The maintenance director then proceeded to explain that he was able to get the truck's list price of $56,000 reduced to $47,500 by telling the dealer that he was purchasing it for a municipality.
"I inadvertently made a statement at a public meeting when referring to negotiations of a maintenance vehicle," Gill said in a statement to the News and Tribune. "My comment in reference to that negotiation was not meant to be insensitive, anti-Semitic or offend anyone. I apologize for my comment, and it will not be used again."
President Ed Zastawny and Councilman Nathan Samuel, neither of whom were present during the meeting, said that they do not believe Gill meant for her comments to be malicious, nor have they known her to intentionally label any group in a negative manner.
"When you speak on the record in a public forum like this, you make mistakes sometimes and you misspeak," Zastawny said. "I’m sure she didn’t mean to demean or hurt anybody’s feelings in any way. I think it’s one of those situations where she just slipped up.”
Councilman Dustin White said that he was caught off guard by the slur, noting that it's important for public officials to always be aware of the implications and derogatory nature of such comments.
"It was unfortunate that a statement like this was made," White said. "There have been some things that have happened around the country that have heightened awareness, like the tragedy in Pittsburgh. I'd like to think that there was no harm in the statement, but we have to be careful to not make statements like that that can disparage people. Whenever we are faced with situations like this, I think it's important to speak out and condemn such phrases as inappropriate."
The use of the slur has been met negatively by many in the area, with condemnations of her words coming in the form of social media messages and letters to News and Tribune editors — one of which was printed on April 24.
For Jewish residents of the area, the comment was particularly concerning, with them acknowledging that it is not uncommon to encounter similar behavior in their communities.
"It's horrible, and it really shows ignorance," Michelle Elisburg said. "I felt sucker punched and really frustrated, but not really surprised. It's hard to define. Those comments were not appreciated for what they were. Anti-semitism, it's racism."
Elisburg has previously had the same slur used in the meeting said to her by a neighbor when discussing how he had gotten lawn care for such a low price. Similarly, Amy Fouts recalled a situation in which she encountered the slur while at an auction with her family.
"A man told my kid that he did a good job of ‘Jewing someone down,'" Fouts said. "I told him that I was Jewish, but regardless that’s a very offensive term. But he said that it’s a compliment, and it's just not. It goes back to all these stereotypes about Jews and money. Being Jewish is who I am. ‘Jewing someone down' is not. It’s just a stereotype, and it’s a negative stereotype. Even though Southern Indiana doesn’t have a thriving Jewish population, she’s still insulting an entire group of people. It’s a religious belief that we have. To make that into something about getting a better price is just incongruous. People have to be more aware and understand that words have power and can be hurtful. That’s a reality even if it’s not their reality."
Anti-semitic behavior isn't limited to adults, as Elisburg noted several experiences her children have had in school.
"Everybody knows my kids are Jewish," Elisburg said. "My daughter was in English class doing a project with a girl, and their word was 'sanctity.' The girl used 'everybody celebrates the sanctity of Jesus' as their example sentence. My daughter said that not everybody does, including her since she's Jewish. The girl then said 'well, I guess we know who's going to hell.'"
In order to move forward, Elisburg said that apologies alone aren't the solution. For true understanding and progress to occur, she said, people must take steps to learn about the different cultures of their neighbors.
"Apologies aren't enough," Elisburg said. "All of these apologies that have happened have meant nothing. They're just words. The perpetrator isn't actually facing the person they hurt. Unless you really personalize it, you won't internalize it. If it's out of ignorance, they need to be educated. I would think that getting involved with some sort of interfaith program would help. Maybe meeting with some rabbis and learning how these things are offensive. I would like to see a more active way to try to understand the meaning of what you're doing."
Ironically, attempts to schedule such events have revealed cultural insensitivity. One of Elisburg's colleagues was recently contacted about an interfaith event. The organizer, however, wanted to schedule it for April 20 — the first sabbath of Passover.
According to White, no intercultural learning events have taken place during his time as a councilman, adding that he is open to the idea.
"In my three and a half years on the council, we have not had any sort of diversity training or listening sessions," White said. "As a proponent of civil rights, that's obviously something I would welcome."
Attempts to reach council members Matt Owen, Scott Hawkins, Scottie Maples and Callie Jahn Payne were unsuccessful.