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Surviving the words

The PM's racially tainted slogan is meant to break down social cohesion, to create a wedge between us and them

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me.”

Jewish history and tradition teach us otherwise. The Bible begins with the lesson of the power of words. Words can create a world and words can devastate it. Our temple was destroyed, and our people were exiled, because of words of hate. Words harm, and Jewish law demands that we regulate our speech – from prohibiting the speaking of evil, to outlawing deceit through words. Lashon Hara means tongues can speak evil and do evil.

The most dangerous of words are those which construct a barrier within a society – between us and them. As Jews we have experienced these words. We know all too well the price to be paid from being marginalized by them. “Christ-killers,” Shylocks, money-grubbers, treacherous ones, and race polluters are some of the verbal ammunition used by the anti-Semite to “other” us. We have become so sensitive to the words that others use, for we know the potential evil inherent in them.

We have also learned to respond immediately, at times even to over-respond, at the mere hint of evil words that might allude to us. We know that, as Robert Frost wrote, “way leads on to way,” and talk about our “dual loyalty” or use of the term “Benjamins” is but a first stage in our being othered. Verbal othering can lead to cultural othering, legal othering, and ultimately persecution. “Way leads on to way.”

Political campaigns are about words. Words describing what one has done, words promising what one will do, and words denouncing one’s opponents for who they are.

Negative campaigns have become an inherent part of Western democratic cultures. We have learned to simultaneously and selectively listen to and ignore the flurry of words released into our social space. The challenge of every society is to reconstruct our social fabric after the campaign of words that has torn it apart. We are mistaken if we assume that we can heal any and all words. Words can be evil and do irreparable harm.

It is not merely inconsistent, but incoherent, that we are so sensitive to the words used by others and at the same time so callous to the words we use toward others.

The new Likud slogan, “Bibi or Tibi,” is not just a clever play on words, but words of hate, words that position one person as our protector against “them,” our fellow Israeli-Arab citizens. It is not a slogan meant to construct a policy, but rather a slogan meant to deconstruct our society, to create a wedge between us and them.

We have let that slogan pollute our social consciousness, and as is inevitable, “way leads on to way.”

In a tweet this week, our Prime Minister felt called to debate an Israeli celebrity who dared to demand that we stop our hateful words directed toward  Israeli-Arabs. She argued, “There are also Arab citizens in this country…. Israel is a state of all its citizens.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu, forever the protector of our country against dangers near and far, corrected her, with a reminder to her and all Israeli society, that “Israel is not a nation-state of all its citizens,” but rather, “the nation-state of the Jewish people.”

With one seemingly innocuous tweet, the Prime Minister drafted a core principle of Zionism and corrupted it into words of hate, othering 20 percent of Israeli society.

“Bibi or Tibi” has now explicitly become, “Jew vs. Arab,” “Us vs. Them.”

The Zionist belief in Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people and the recently passed Nation-State Law, affirm that within the nation-state of Israel, national sovereignty will be afforded to the Jewish people alone.

Other national groups, such as Palestinian-Arabs, who yearn for national self-determination, will have to do so in the context of a different nation-state – Palestine. Nowhere, however, does Zionism or the Nation-State Law undermine the status of Israeli-Arabs as individuals, as a collective, or even as a distinct ethnic-national identity within Israel. Nowhere was it meant to foster discrimination and hate.

By law, Israel is meant to be both the nation-state of the Jewish people and the state of all its citizens. This is what is demanded in the proclamation of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in Israel’s Basic Law of Human Freedom and Dignity.

The Zionist movement was fueled by the understanding that the legal emancipation of Jews would not overcome our status of otherness if it was not accompanied by a cultural enlightenment, wherein Jews would be equal citizens at home in our various countries. As this was deemed unachievable in Christian Europe, we decided to form our own home.

The danger of the Prime Minister’s words, and the context in which they were tweeted, lies in the fact that it tolerates and fosters cultural discrimination, and because “way leads on to way,” legal discrimination as well.

When Jews allow evil words to disseminate in our midst, we turn our backs on the essential lessons of our tradition and our history. When we engage in the othering of others and embrace within Israel a culture of Us vs. Them, we do not merely undermine the democratic fiber of our society, but our Jewish identity as well.

Words can harm. Words, however, also can heal. We need our politicians to choose their words carefully. Politics does not merely demand that one wins reelection, but rather that one ensures that the polity serves the well-being and rights of all its citizens. That is the meaning of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an M.A in political philosophy from New York University, an M.A. in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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