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What powers do words carry, and when? I am speaking about an e-mail, which may or may not have been sent by the Palestinian group of students that met recently to urge University divestment from funds tied up with the State of Israel. That e-mail (which may well have been a fraud) now has been the object of powerful responses by the University's president and provost, and by the distinguished moral philosopher David Velleman.
At the risk of overkill, I want to specifically reconsider Velleman's response to that e-mail, because I think fundamental questions of the terrifying power of language have been lost in it. Velleman argued bravely in the pages of this paper (Oct. 7) that the e-mail, however vivid and indeed hurtful, was not beyond the bounds of genuine free speech and political debate. His argument was subtle. He agreed that such language (which, among other things identified Israel with Nazi Germany) may violate norms of ordinary civility, but argued that most agents would (should?) prefer social rules that allow, in extreme circumstances, uncivil languagelanguage many of us might find repulsive. Extreme moments require the hard currency of extreme remarks, even if later, those who speak will have also to bear the consequences of what they have said.
Velleman's position is serious and worthy of respect, but, I think, misguided in its application to the language of the e-mail of Sept. 25. What I want to try to show is that its language is not simply uncivil; it is anti-Semitic and (in a more tenuous way) connected to a terrorizing position in politics. How to show this? By looking below the surfaces of words into their inner heartbeats, their underlying rhetoric. It is a well-known fact that racism speaks indirectly, through the glance, the innuendo, the whiff of suggestion within a community of speakers.
After the 1991 Proposition stating Israel's right to exist was accepted by the United Nations, it became necessary for anti-Zionist rhetoric to formulate itself in other terms than the flat statement that Israel should be driven into the sea. And so the phrase, "Zionism is racism," came into existence. In one respect that language is part of political discourse that must solicit rational argument. Revisionist histories have demonstrated that the history of Palestine/Israellike all settler historiesexhibits multiple injustices. These demand reparation. The wound to and all the many rights of vulnerable citizens, of course, and he did, indeed, fight for these effectively as a leader of the American Civil Liberties Union. But also as an ordinary citizen, and as a citizen of our University, and as a thoughtful friend, fairness was his constant pursuit.
Palestinian peoples forced to leave their lands endures, just as the wound to Jews forced into the camps was fundamental to the United Nations' establishment of the state of Israel; without the camps there would have been no state, and Europe is therefore deeply implicated in the current conflagration. When, under attack in 1967 by surrounding peoples, Israel claimed territory, there were but a small number of public figures who stated thatalthough they fully understood the security needs of the tiny, vulnerable nationwere Israel to retain land it would inevitably become a colonizer. Among the oppositional voices in 1967 was that of the first head of state of Israel. Such oppositional voices have, I think, been proven correct, which means that there is a genuine kernel of moral and political sense in the anti-Zionist position, which assumes (wrongly, but with a kernel of reason) that the position of colonizer is always racist.
To grasp the threat of these words, however, one needs to understand how political language works, how it here encodes fury, incendiary force, internal combustions of violence, hatred of the Jew per se. I recently have returned to the United States from seven years in Durban, South Africa. During my stay abroad I was involved in the World Conference Against Racism (Durban, 2001). This conference ended just three days before Sept. 11. The code word of incivility at that conference was "Zionism is Racism." And this was because although the remark was chanted in a cantus firmus of hate, there was, along with it, the absolute refusal on the part of those groups doing the chanting to engage in political debate about Israel/Palestine. In fact the chanting of the words was the replacement of genuine politics by group fury, and indeed a prelude to the violence that happened three days later in New York. I say that because it was later proven that at least 16 of the groups doing the chanting were funded by Osama bin Laden, and these have since had their funds cut by the South African State. Crucial to their chanting was the simultaneous presentation of old Nazi posters of Jews (with the big noses, the thick lips, the crafty, duplicitous eyes), which made the implicit connection between 1) Zionism and 2) Nazi stereotypes of Jews.
Now this has everything to do with what looks to be a simple use of language, that of the e-mail's reference to "Israeli S.S. agents." Now let it be said that Ariel Sharon unequivocally committed violations of human rights in the Sabra and Shatilla camps, and that he and his supporters continue the occupation. However, what that e-mail carries more than the (exasperated, enraged, uncivil but tolerable) claim that Sharon is doing to the Palestinians something of what Hitler did to the Jews. It carries the underlying force of the Nazi stereotype, displayed in the fury of impending apocalypse at the World Conference, and here, present in the form of reversal.
There are two current forms by which world
discourses carry anti-Semitism. There is firstly
the "European form": Holocaust denial. When
David Irving claims that all the facts are wrong, that
Hitler never knew, that six million are too many, he
is speaking far beyond fact denial. He is speaking
in the name of the European right, which requires
the erasure of that enormous event to legitimate itself.
Furthermore, the European right uses Holocaust de
By turning Jews into Nazis, their past history evaporates, namely the fact that they were the Nazi victims, and that this has everything to do with the formation of the state of Israel. This is not simply a political strategy; it is a way of robbing a people of their identity, a violence perpetrated on their formation. Therefore, it is directed to the people, and not simply to state policy. Therefore, it is a way of denoting an historical people as of a certain type. It is this subtle shift from state to people that is crucial to the anti-Semitism in the remark. The people, not simply the state, are the Nazis. Meaning: Jews are Nazis, butchers, pigs. Through the reversal of destinies according to which Jews become their killers, Jews can be called a people of killers. Now if there ever were a racist slur, it is this.
This is the language of the e-mail, a language that has been circulated from group to group, country to country, Web site to Web site over the past decade. Many Jews will instinctively feel the threat of this language, for it identifies them with their historical killers, raising the issue of genocide. Of course feeling a threat and being under threat are not the same, and it has to be said that there is no formula for ascertaining the currencies of power in this or any language. One can be wrong. One relies on an ear for history, knowledge of politics, a sense of context. But if it is thought that my analysis is here over the top, beyond the pale, one is obliged to answer this question: Given the way this language has circulated, given its sources, what would make it free of anti-Semitism in this particular instance of its use?
The e-mail also carries the weight of the "Zionism is Racism" position. Although the specific political implications of that are less clear, the language is certainly a rallying point around which group fury is communalized. Phrases like "Zionist aggressor" and "Israeli S.S. agents" go far beyond any political position about divestment to strike at the heart of the Jewish people. I am not arguing that free speech should be denied to groups using this language; that is a complex issue about legal rights, which would depend on a clearer analysis of their various alliances, tactics and political positions. About terrorism a group is innocent until proven guilty. What I am arguing is that whatever the politics, such language must not be rehabilitated as within the pale of acceptable speech from any moral point of view. It circulates racism and quite possibly stimulates terror. If the e-mail was not genuine, then those who sent it were in effect terrorizing the group in question. If it was genuine then it was nearly suicidal for the group. Since we will never know, we should charitably treat the group as innocent. Either scenario shows how degenerate the language of politics has become.