Michal Cotler-Wunsh

When Words Have No Meaning

When words have no meaning, it does not matter what values parents inculcate into their children from the day that they are born;

When words have no meaning, it does not matter what school books teach;

When words have no meaning, it does not matter what religious leaders preach;

When words have no meaning, it does not matter that a soccer stadium in a sovereign, democratic State is named for a capitol city of a terror sponsoring, enemy State;

When words have no meaning, it does not matter that elected political leaders condemn terror attacks by day, and send condolence letters and rewards to the families of the perpetrators by night;

When words have no meaning, an internationally acclaimed news agency reports the brutal murder and injuring of innocent civilians in the ‘safety’ of a house of worship, as an event where ‘4 Israelis and 2 Palestinians died’;

When words have no meaning, heinous acts of terror find justification in false allegations that a bus driver found dead was killed, when in fact, when words have no meaning, it does not matter that a Palestinian coroner concluded in his report that the cause of death was suicide;

When words have no meaning, nobody can be held accountable for what they said, or for what they did not say.

Growing up, I was taught that ‘the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, it began with words’. That powerful message resonates poignantly at a time of ‘moral ambiguity’ in which words seem to have no meaning. At a time that the very institutions founded to protect the world from what began with words, utilize the terms developed to safeguard us all irresponsibly – systematically ignoring human rights violations of terror sponsoring member states, thereby exposing the vulnerability of these institutions and allowing them to be manipulated by the very forces that they were established to protect from.

Growing up, I was also armed with the understanding that ‘bad things happen when too many good people do nothing’.

As time passes, understanding the profound significance of words, coupled with the tremendous responsibility of not standing idly by when words are unaccountably expressed, it seems that knowledge is a necessary tool and very possibly the only way to address these challenges.

It is unquestionable that knowledge is power to the individual possessing it. This view places the onus on the individual to seek knowledge and empower themselves, that is certain. But beyond that power, there is another layer of responsibility. In order to fulfill the obligation of acting and not standing idly by, we must influence our surroundings – whatever they might be – in order to further the impact, by disseminating the knowledge that we have acquired.

It is thus the role of each of us to gather the facts, process them and draw our own independent conclusions. At a time that words have no meaning, the burden becomes even greater and the responsibility even more substantial. It is up to each and every one of US, in our personal, professional and extended circles, to ensure that the knowledge we gather is disseminated in accurate and transparent ways. From time immemorial we have witnessed and endured the horrific results of attributing no meaning to words and no responsibility to those that utter them. The overwhelming power of words and the reverberating influence that they have must be acknowledged. This supposition implicates each and every one of us.

A final, personal thought. My teacher, the individual responsible for shaping my understanding that if we are to heal a broken world, words MUST have meaning and that those who utter them MUST be held to account, is Prof. Irwin Cotler, my father. Having dedicated his entire life to that notion, committed to the awesome responsibility of upholding the values of justice and the law, he has been heralded time and again for his many achievements. Most recently, he was awarded the honor of Maclean’s 2014 Canadian Parliamentarian of the Year on the very day of the heinous act of terror in Jerusalem. In a valiant attempt to protect all that he believes in and has been recognized for, my role model filled me with optimism and hope on a dark and sad day.

Seizing the opportunity and exercising the responsibility to speak in Canadian Parliament, he challenged us all to re-attribute meaning to words – ALL words – including those of incitement to hatred and violence. He challenged us all to hold individuals – ALL individuals – accountable for uttering words of incitement, glorification of terror, justification of killing and celebration of murder. The abysmal prospect that words have no meaning and that there is no accountability of those who utter them, has had horrific results, world-over. From an unthinkable attack on the very same Canadian Parliament just weeks ago, to a brutal terror attack on the very same day in which a 3 month old baby was murdered in Jerusalem, to filmed beheadings of innocents by terrorists committed to destroying all that represents freedom and democracy.

The Canadian parliament rose to a unanimous standing ovation in response to the call to action, demanding we ensure that words have meaning and that those that utter them be held accountable. It is time that we all rise to the challenge. It is time that we attribute meaning back to words. It is time that we hold those that utter words of incitement to hate and glorification of terror, day or night, to account. It is time that we each empower ourselves with the necessary facts, circulate them and speak up clearly. It is time that we affirm that there is NO excuse for terror and there is NO way to avert responsibility by those that incite, promote and encourage it, whether by speaking for it or by not speaking up against it, in a loud and clear voice that leaves NO room for moral ambiguity. It is time to assert that words DO in fact have meaning and that those that utter them ARE accountable.

About the Author
The writer is a lawyer, research fellow, and policy and strategy advisor. She served as an MK in Israel’s 23rd Knesset, co-founding the International Bi-Partisan Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism.