BUCHAREST – A prominent Jewish group urged the Romanian Academy on Monday to change its dictionary definition of an anti-Semitic slur to make it clear it is pejorative.
Maximilian Katz, director of the Center for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism, told The Associated Press in an interview Monday that the commonly used Romanian word is offensive, but that is not explained in the official DEX dictionary.
He says the word was "heard by the Jews when they were put on the trains of death," referring to the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews in World War II.
"The Romanian Academy have taken a deeply anti-Semitic expression and transformed it into a legitimate word," he told the AP. The dictionary explains it is used in a "familiar" sense but omits that it is anti-Semitic.
The two-page letter said that the slur "is racist, it shows hatred toward the Jewish race, hatred toward the Jewish religion, it defames Jews on ethnic grounds and incites violence against them."
It says that usage of the word is illegal in Romania because it falls under a law banning symbols with a fascist, racist or xenophobic character. Breaking the law is punishable by fines and prison
Katz said that the group had seen an increase in anti-Semitism in Romanian online publications.
"We are seeing a drastic increase of attempts to blame the economic crisis on the Jews online," he said.
The word is the most offensive that exists in the Romanian language for a Jew, but it is also mainly used colloquially by elderly Romanians who would not consider themselves anti-Semitic.
"Holocaust survivors are aghast at the casual reference to this vulgar term without any indication as to its ugly and offensive usage," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants in a statement to the AP.
"More than others, those who endured the Holocaust in Romania are painfully aware of this vile slur and the obscene manner in which it was hurled at the innocent victims being transported to the death camps. The effort to gloss over the word's pejorative content is an offense to the memory of the victims."
Romania has less than 6,000 Jews, many of them elderly, and most Romanians do not come into contact with Jews, Katz said.
In recent weeks, Gypsy or Roma rights groups accused the Romanian Academy of racism for its definition of the word "Gypsy" as "people with bad habits."
The academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
However, Csaba Ferenc Asztalos, the director of Parliament's National Council for Combating Discrimination who also received a copy of the letter, said he agreed with the Jewish group.
"Their request is justified," he said in a phone interview. "The word must show the real sense, that it is pejorative, that it is racist for both Jews and Gypsies."
Some 280,000 Jews and 11,000 Roma were killed during the Second World War regime of dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu.