“The genocide at Auschwitz began with Words” -Abraham Joshua Heschel
The Modern Language Association, whose purpose is to promote the study of words, stories and narratives has a special responsibility to lead the way in examining the effects of exposure to cradle-to-grave incitement: ie the abuse of words, which is pandemic in the Mideast. Such incitement (which I break down to the 6 D’s: dehumanization, demonization, delegitimization, disinformation, double standards, and denial of past genocides) perpetuates the motifs of hate, revenge, death and destruction.
Ever since the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide, there is strong circumstantial evidence for the cause-effect relationships between constant exposure to words of incitement and hate in the public sphere, school texts, the printed media, radio, television, and places of worship and the numbers of persons killed, maimed and injured in acts of terror. Those who monitor what I call Word Pollution report that Jihadist genocidal anti-semitism and the recycling of centuries old motifs of hate, and the motifs of Mein Kampf, are increasing in the Palestinian Authority. It is noteworthy that such incitement has increased since the release of Palestinian terrorists, and the resumption of negotiations under the auspices of Secretary of State John Kerry. Those who are familiar with the history of such incitement know that incitement predates the establishment of the State of Israel, and bears no relationship whatsoever to Israeli presence in the Administered Territories. And, in all fairness, it is not confined to the Palestinians, it is worse in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Egypt, and even Jordan.
And yet, The Modern Language Association, foolishly has decided to imitate the Association for American Studies and call for an academic boycott of Israel. The MLA should follow the recent example of the 200 member Executive Council of the American Public Health Association which, in November decisively rejected (by a crushing 3 to 1 margin) a resolution calling for disinvestment in Israel. I was at the APHA convention, and saw how the members of this Council, who one year earlier, voted 50-50 on an earlier BDS resolution, changed their minds when a few of us hit back hard with extensive documentation addressing the falsehoods, lies and disinformation of the resolution’s sponsors.
Both the APHA draft resolution and the MLA draft resolution recommended censure of Israel contain fundamental errors of commission and omission. Both are selective, biased and discriminatory. And both ignore the substantial impact of constant exposure to hate language and incitement in promoting a culture of revenge, hate, and violence and its effects on habituating those who use these motifs to create a culture of revenge, hate and violence, as we now see in Syria.
The MLA resolution ignores:
(1) the public health impacts of war and refugees worldwide as well as the spillover from the chaos, violence, brutality and mass atrocities in Syria and migrations from Sudan and Eritrea into Israel via Sinai
(2) the fact that all the universities in the West Bank and many in Gaza were established with the encouragement and support of the Israeli government after the Six Day War of 1967
(3) the long history of formal and informal collaboration between many Israeli and Palestinian researchers and their students in service, training and research
(4) the pressures, threats and intimidation from the PA itself as directed against such cooperation
(5) the substantial Israeli-Palestinian collaborations and Israeli contributions to progress in public health, preventive medicine, water and sanitation, nutrition, agricultural irrigation, immunization (most notably polio, detection and prevention of lead poisoning) and the existing medical care, education and training of Palestinians in Israeli institutions,
(6) the scope and consequences of the negative effects of a decade of missile attacks, numbered at over 13,000 since 2000 that are intentionally directed at Israeli civilians, both Jews and Arabs alike.
(7) most notably, the MLA draft resolution ignores the adverse intergenerational effects of Word Pollution, incitement to violence on mental health and development, notably among children, who are more vulnerable than adults.
MLA‘s interest is in promotion of scholarship and research on modern languages, its proud history of recognizing the right of all individuals to celebrate their cultures through the study and dissemination of their languages and literatures. However, it has been silent on the use of words to incite hatred. In short, MLA’s disgraceful silence on such incitement makes it a complicit bystander to such evil.
The MLA has a special responsibility to promote the use of words, stories and narratives to celebrate respect for life and the human dignity of the other, and should advocate a policy of zero tolerance for incitement and should promote initiatives to translate this policy into practice. So far it has neglected to do so. All efforts to promote regional cooperation must be based on respect for life and human dignity of all individuals and peoples without regard to race, religion, national affiliation, or ethnic identity. The proposed MLA Resolution, if it is adopted, will not only destroy its credibility, but will undermine these values.
Elihu D Richter MD MPH Associate Professor (Emeritus) Hebrew University-Hadassah School of Public Health and Community Medicine