Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

The Israeli Backlash against Orwell-Speak

The recent (temporary) victory of the protesters against the government’s Judicial Reform program was accompanied by another sort of success: Israelis no longer are willing to accept most examples of Orwellian “Newspeak” i.e., the twisting of words to mean the opposite of what they really do mean – a sinister method for controlling thought through language.

Leaders of Judicial Reform emphasized two distinct terms to delegitimize opposition to their program. It is worth looking carefully at these Newspeak twists and what they really mean, not just semantically but practically as well.

1) “Sarvanut” – in Hebrew, somehow who refuses to follow orders. This is generally translated into English as “conscientious objection,” but the connotation is wrong. The protesters within the army were all individuals who have been volunteering to continue serving in the reserves (some for decades) – beyond the mandatory time the law prescribes. They announced that they were no longer willing to continue volunteering their army reserve services if and when the Judicial “Reform” goes into effect (some actually stopped this past week). Thus, the only “refusal” here was not against lawful orders from the IDF command but rather their unwillingness to continue their voluntary service.

True, they “conscientiously objected” to the government’s proposed policy, but that term is always applied to someone involved in civil disobedience i.e., breaking the law (even if non-violently) to illustrate the immorality (in the or eyes) of the law or government policy. The only Israelis who remotely could be called “civilly disobedient” were those who blocked highways for a few hours. Which brings us to the second “Newspeak” term…

2) “Anarchistim” – in Hebrew, those who believe and act in anarchic fashion to bring about the demise of government. This term doesn’t really need English translation: anarchists.

It goes without saying that none of the protesters wished to see the end of Israel’s democratic regime (not the present “government”, but rather Israel’s overall system of governance). Indeed, the protesters were demanding retention of the status quo situation, in their eyes a regime of governance that has stood the test of time and doesn’t need any significant restructuring (no one is against minor reform tweaks to the system).

Indeed, one can see this most clearly in the outpouring of support by the protesters, most of whom are not right-wing supporters, for the Likud’s own Defense Minister Gallant. In the protesters’ eyes, the real “anarchist” is a prime minister who fires his defense minister because the latter simply delivered the sober assessment of all the nation’s security service leaders (IDF, Mossad, SHABAK) that the Judicial Reform package was severely damaging our national security! Given that this coming October the country will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War for which it was woefully underprepared precisely because the defense establishment was blind to the external threat, it did not escape the attention of the Israeli public that you don’t “shoot the messenger” but rather try everything to react to the message by lowering the internal flames. Instead, Netanyahu poured extra fuel on the already high blazes – not quite “anarchy,” but definitely taking a step in that direction.

It is worthwhile looking a little deeper into these two terms, and why they failed to strike a chord among Israel’s general public. Are there “sarvanim”/refuseniks in Israel? Absolutely! (I am not referring to the miniscule number of conscientious objectors who refuse to be drafted altogether). In fact, there are approximately half a million; they are called haredim. These are the only groups in Israeli society (“groups” in the plural, because there are some differences in their approach to serving in the IDF), who not only are unwilling to serve, but are actively trying to push through a “draft” law (pun intended) that would institutionalize and legalize their refusal! Clearly, this too had an effect on immunizing the protesters from any “sarvanim” accusation; they were implicitly telling the government: “You’re calling us sarvanim? First look inside your own coalition. That’s where the real army refuseniks are located!”

As for “anarchistim,” why all of a sudden did this abstruse political term come into use by the Right? Mainly because the older “curse” of Leftists has lost its sting, given that Meretz is no longer in the Knesset and Labor is a shadow of its former self. A new denigrating term was necessary, but it palpably did not fit the hundreds of thousands mainstream Israelis who came out to protest, week after week.

The evolving immunization of Israeli society to Newspeak terminology is a very positive development for the country’s democracy and civic debate. But the job still has a way to go. There is one further term that needs to be “cleaned up” i.e., used more precisely and correctly: “Mekhablim” (terrorists). By definition, a terrorist is a person who indiscriminately attacks civilians. Thus, a Palestinian who shoots, knifes, or bombs ordinary civilians is a terrorist – and so is an Israeli Jew who does the same to Palestinian civilians. However, if a Palestinian does the same against an Israeli soldier, that is not – and cannot be – considered “terrorism.” One can call them militants, guerilla fighters, implacable enemy (or most any other epithet) but not “terrorist.”

Such Newspeak regarding Israel’s adversaries (“opponents” or “enemy,” depending on your perspective) is problematic because it whitewashes the situation, as if we are not in a serious, armed conflict with the other side whose political position just might have some legitimacy. By demonizing every attack on our soldiers, all discussion is shut off. This is not at all to suggest that the IDF or any other Israeli security organization should not be doing its utmost to defend Israelis (civilian or military); rather, it is to say that eviscerating the language of the Israeli-Palestinian struggle does no one a service – other than those who wish to ignore the pursuit of a possible resolution to the conflict.

Ironically, Orwell actually wrote his dystopian masterpiece “1984” in 1948 – the year the State of Israel came into being. By no longer willing to be misled by inverted verbiage, Israelis are now showing that they will not accept both “meanings” of 1948, but only the optimistic, visionary one of Zionism’s founding fathers and mothers.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he 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 five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see:
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