‘Red Sea pedestrian’: meaning and origin

The colloquial phrase Red Sea pedestrian is humorously applied to a Jewish person.

This phrase refers to the Crossing of the Red Sea, as recounted in the Book of Exodus, 14. Moses was guiding the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. When they reached the Red Sea, Moses stretched out his hand and the waters divided, allowing his followers safe passage.

Coined on various occasions by different persons, independently from each other, this phrase is not in itself offensive, but the contexts in which it occurs are sometimes anti-Semitic.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase Red Sea pedestrian that I have found is from Napoleons of Finance, by ‘Pitcher’, published in The Sporting Times (London, England) of Saturday 17th February 1912:

There was a certain paunch-bellied impostor, posing as a littérateur, a poet and a man of the world, who haunted the Strand a quarter of a century ago, who had a stronger hereditary right to blossom into a Napoleon of Finance than any mere Fleet Streeter. His circumcisional moniker was Moses—by himself pronounced Marsden. He mixed with our little mob till everybody (bar the cashier) believed him to be on the staff of the paper, and as he modestly never denied the authorship of anything that was admired, he got along famously. Knocking about at that same time was a young gentleman named Hocheimer, also descended from the Red Sea pedestrians. He was just as free with his cash as the other fellow was close: he had run through three fortunes, but was kept well supplied by a too-indulgent mother, and it was pretty widely known that as soon as he felt like settling down he would be afforded every pecuniary encouragement to do so.

The phrase Red Sea pedestrian occurs in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), a British comedy film starring and written by the British comedy group Monty Python—as reported, for example, by Kathy Maniaci in Monty Python chisels ‘Brian’ into slapstick, published in The News-Leader (Springfield, Missouri, USA) of Saturday 6th October 1979:

Don’t let anyone tell you “Life of Brian” is about Jesus Christ.
He only has a bit part in this one.
It’s about Brian, illegitimate son of a Jewish mother and a Roman centurion named “Nauticus Maximus.” Brian denies his Roman heritage and prides himself with being “a kike, a big nose, a Red Sea pedestrian.” In his hatred of the Romans, the 33-year-old Brian joins the revolutionary Peoples’ Front of Judea which hopes to overthrow—as empires go—“The Big One.”

In Edna 1 (or is it Barry?) in a style change, published in The Sun-Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia) of Sunday 26th April 1981, Harry Robinson reported that the Australian comedian Barry Humphries (born 1934) used the phrase Red Sea pedestrian in a stage show:

He’s worth everybody’s money for the superficial gags and insults alone. A few of the more printable:
To the audience—“Don’t be in awe of me just because I’m a mega-star and you’re a non-entity.” And—“I know this is the year of the disabled, but did you all have to come on the same night? He, he . . . You know, possums, I can say that in a nice way . . . it’s a gift I have.”
Of the Governor General—“Good old Zel 2, a Red Sea pedestrian.”
Of Senator Bjelke-Petersen—“Flo in Canberra with a Glomesh briefcase.”
As TV critic—“I never did like the Muppets. What’s funny about a man with his hand up a frog’s frock?”

1 Barry Humphries created and interpreted Dame Edna Everage, a fictional character satirising the average Australian housewife.
2 Zelman Cowen (1919-2011) was the 19th Governor-General of Australia from 1977 to 1982.

According to Dennis Pryor in Farewell to the Godfather, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) of Saturday 31st October 1981, the phrase Red Sea pedestrian was used to denote an Arab in the British television drama series Fox, produced by Euston Films and Thames Television for ITV in 1980:

‘Fox’ (Channel 2, Mondays 8.55 pm) has just finished its first eight episodes. All fox-hunters will be anxious to see if the matriarchy of Connie (wonderfully played by Elizabeth Spriggs 3) will be as exciting as Billy’s patriarchy.
These first episodes were strongly constructed, beginning with Billy’s birthday and ending with his funeral. Even the jazz at the funeral was no sudden trick to build up the scene. Billy’s interest in jazz had been established in the episode titled ‘Shin-Me-Sha Wabble’.
At Euston Films they know how to use color, exploiting the browns and blues of south London. I saw one episode in black and white, which revealed tonal gradations seldom seen since cameramen have strained to blind us with colors.
The dialogue enlivened the pacing of the film. There were many unhurried scenes designed to set up the rhythms of the episodes and sustained by sharp, often comic, writing.
Much of it reflected the vigorous speech patterns of Cockney. There were the boxers “been knocked down so often they got cauliflower arses”, the “Red Sea pedestrian with a pussy shop” (Arab brothel owner), the Londoner’s contempt for provincial cities like Leicester’s “drop the H-bomb on it, it’d only do five quids’ [sic] worth of damage.”

3 Elizabeth Spriggs (1929-2008) was a British actress.

In the Sunday Telegraph (London, England) of Sunday 20th November 1983, T. S. Ferguson seemed to indicate that the phrase Red Sea Pedestrians was used to denote the Israelis in Chessgame, a British television series produced by Granada Television for ITV in 1983:

9 (ITV): Chessgame. Serial in six parts, the first one as deliberately paced as you’d expect from the title. Terence Stamp 4, a former Oxford don, is a political analyst for the Defence Intelligence Service, but his views on the Middle East are regarded as being too coloured by the “Red Sea Pedestrians.” He becomes a field agent investigating the mystery of a plane which crashed in a lake 27 years before. Of course he immediately contacts the Israelis in London for help. A bit naïve with women compared with most fictional agents, especially as Carmen du Santoy [sic] 5 (the dead pilot’s daughter) seems dead keen.

4 Terence Stamp (born 1938) is a British actor.
5 Carmen Du Sautoy (born 1950) is a British actress.

Ron Chait used the phrase Red Sea pedestrian in its literal sense—and played on the phonetic resemblance between the name Moses and the verb mosey—in the following from Classics exploring the dark side of the mind, published in The Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Massachusetts, USA) of Saturday 13th April 1985:

Thou shalt not miss Charlton Heston 6 moseying to Mount Sinai and becoming a Red Sea pedestrian in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956), Wednesday at the Harvard Film Archive (phone, 495-4700), Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, 24 Quincy St., Cambridge.

6 The U.S. actor Charlton Heston (1923-2008) interpreted Moses in The Ten Commandments (1956), a biblical epic produced and directed by Cecil Blount DeMille (1881-1959).

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