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Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Cancel Culture and Cancelling Culture

You might not have ever thought of this, but the term “Cancel Culture” has two separate meanings. The common understanding is a cultural approach to canceling specific things that strike us as offensive, whether politically, historically, or sociologically. Recently, however, we have begun to see a new meaning: the attempt to cancel an entire culture, what I call “Cancelling Culture”. It’s happening in the Ukraine – but with Israeli resonance as well.

A few days ago the New York Times reported that Ukrainians have started erasing street signs and other public areas (subway stops!) that have Russian names, including such luminaries as Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/07/world/europe/ukraine-russia-rename-streets.html), replacing them with names of Ukrainian national heroes: military, political or cultural. They view this as “decolonization” – a reaction to Vladimir Putin’s viewing the Ukraine as an offshoot (and cultural part) of Greater Russia. Indeed, even in Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine, many locals have started studying Ukrainian at their local “ulpan” as a cultural-linguistic expression of disgust at the Russian invasion.

One might think that changing names is a superficial act. The Bible understood otherwise. In Genesis chapter 2, verses 19-20, God brings all the animals that He created to Adam to name them. In the ancient world, naming something lent mastery over it. For us moderns, it isn’t a matter of “mastery” but rather of “identity.” Eliminating Russian names and other symbols (“Cancelling Culture”) and replacing them with Ukrainian names is a powerful psychological statement: the dominant culture with our names will define who we are i.e., culture writ large – not merely a matter of canceling this or that previous event or personage (“Cancel Culture”).

Since 1948, Israel has been in a similar situation. The question arose, after the dust settled, what to do with the Arab towns and villages abandoned (voluntarily or not) during Israel’s War of Independence. Given the Arab countries’ unprovoked, massive attack on the nascent State, it was not too hard a choice to rename all those formerly Arab places with Hebrew appellations.

(Parenthetically, it must be noted that not all former Arab place erasures occurred post-1948. For example, the lands of the earlier Arab village called Mulabbis were sold to Jewish entrepreneurs in the 19th century, renamed Petach Tikva by its new Jewish residents. Mulabbis Arabs then dispersed to nearby towns such as Jaljulia – still a thriving Arab-Israeli town today.)

Having said all that, both the Ukraine and Israel have to deal with further “cultural” complexities. In Israel’s case, Hebraicizing many Arab town names is not really “cultural cancellation” for the simple reason that the names of those Arab places are themselves derived from from the Hebrew Bible! Some examples: Jenin was yesteryear’s Ein Ganim, Selum used to be Shilo (one of the first capitals of ancient Israel), Anata was Anatot (Jeremiah’s hometown), Batir was BeitarBeitin was Beit El, and Tequa was originally (and is once again today) Tekoa, the hometown of the prophet Amos. In other cases, the Arab city names originated from Greek e.g., Nablus (in Hebrew: Shechem), derives from the Greek, Neopolis.

Similarly, Ukrainian cultural cancellation has to deal with some conundrums e.g., Tchaikovsky’s family came from an area that is modern-day Ukraine; indeed, some musicologists argue that his compositions were inspired by Ukrainian folk music! Odessa is debating whether to remove a statue of Catherine the Great – the great Russian empress to be sure, but also the founder of Odessa in 1794! And, of course, the greatest irony of all: many centuries ago the country we today call Russia got its start in the city of Kyiv – today’s Ukrainian capital!

What’s in a name? Almost everything, it seems. In today’s Information Age, overwhelmed by propaganda and beset by fake news, language is the cornerstone of national identity. The hot war in Ukraine and the cold war in Israel are being fought not only on the military and security fronts but no less so on the linguistic battlefield as well. Cultural cancelling is a central part of the national struggle to preserve and reinforce one’s national distinctiveness.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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