- Word Crimes:Reclaiming The Language of The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Of all the changes that can be documented in the seventy years since the founding of Israel, none is as dramatic and surprising as the country's status as a topic of intellectual inquiry. Once a trope for self-sacrifice and solidarity, a testament to the redemption of a bruised and battered people, the Jewish state, today, stands accused of practicing apartheid, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and of sustaining itself as a remnant of an outdated and thoroughly delegitimized colonial order. The Jewish state has not simply been re-branded; it has essentially been re-named. Once thought distinctive, Israel's singularity is now presented as an example of horrific bigotry if not savagery.
How the change took hold in academia is best understood by focusing on the vocabulary that purports to show why the establishment of a Jewish State was an international crime that can only be undone by taking command of the language deployed to study Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. The articles in this issue of Israel Studies explore this lexical transformation and describe how and why it acquired its totemic standing in the academy.1
Do words matter? Plato certainly believed they do, arguing that rhetoric in democracies blurred fact and fiction and undermined the capacity to see or understand truth.2 Hannah Arendt folds into her massive study of totalitarianism the corruption of language.3 George Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984, is structured around its ruler's power to control language by colonizing the meaning of words and denying people the capacity for independent judgment and critical thinking.4 But while "fake news", "alternate facts", and "truth decay" have been incorporated into our daily news cycle, they are typically hurled at the views or rhetoric of opponents [End Page 1] rather than as terms provoking self-examination and a willingness to examine the accuracy of one's own convictions.5 Denunciations of this distressing relationship to truth and evidence, issued constantly on campuses and in the mainstream media, have rarely been addressed to the ways in which a new vocabulary has acquired canonical status for describing the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.
Before turning to explore this linguistic alchemy, we must spend some time asking why engage in such an inquiry? Why not simply dismiss these words as irrelevant without examining how and why they were changed? Because the radical alteration of the way in which Israel is now described has come to exert such a strong hold on students and scholars and has so substantially degraded the study of Israel—and no less wildly misrepresents what can be said and written about Palestinians—polite denial is neither an adequate nor an intellectually respectable response. Let us not minimize the scope of this degradation.
Students learning only this language graduate with a vocabulary that identifies Israel not simply as a force hostile to Palestinian interests but also as a major source of evil for the world. Earning cultural capital for their anti-Israel words and deeds, university professors, in increasing numbers, venture far outside their disciplinary training to propose boycotts against Israeli educational institutions in order to deny their students stipends and research opportunities. Not only are these activist faculty gatekeepers, they are also advancing their careers with their polemics published by highly ranked journals and by university presses whose peer review systems bend in service of political advocacy for an anti-Israel cause even as it cannot help but bestow an academic cachet on the work. Norms, once taken for granted by scholars, are either ignored or overridden if they transgress a line now drawn very clearly against finding anything positive to say about Israel. Two recent examples come to mind—a long article by Saree Makdisi in the prestigious literary journal Critical Inquiry, and Puar Jasbir's book The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability, the first distorting the Israeli political system while the second hurls bizarre claims against the Jewish state for practicing a policy intended to destroy Palestinians by undermining their health and well-being. It does not take a legal specialist to provide a corrective...