Language matters


Asaf Romirowsky | Special to the JT


Language, culture and politics are the ingredients of society; how they are mixed determines the kind of society we create. In his succinct essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote: “The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there is no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning.”

In today’s political and cultural divide, we are observing a much more fractured union on both sides of the political aisle. The nature of democracy, as Orwell states, is vague at best. But although both the right and the left attempt to monopolize the term, Marxism continues to seep into American life through identity politics. This has explicitly challenged the American constitutional and value system, so far unsuccessfully, given that the United States is still grounded in nationalist anchors that have disappeared in Europe.

Western political parties have been down this path before. As usual, the treatment of Israel by political parties is a canary in the coalmine. The fate of the British Labour Party under its former leader Jeremy Corbyn is instructive. Labour had long been the traditional supporter of the Zionist cause and then of Israel, and as the working-class party, it was the natural home for British Jews. But by the 21st century, Communist and Socialist streams within Labour had transformed the party. Corbyn brought avowed Israel-haters to the forefront until scandals over antisemitic harassment of Jews and their allies could no longer be covered up.

Orwell was also correct when he noted that “in our time, it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line.’ Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless imitative style.”
The value of free speech has become dramatically censored speech thanks to the parameters dictated of hypersensitive political correctness.

The modern notions of free speech and academic freedom flow from John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty,” which argued that free speech originates in society’s desire to discover the truth. By vetoing a correct opinion, society loses the opportunity to exchange an error for truth. But banning a false opinion, maintained Mill, means losing something almost as precious — a clearer perception of truth that is produced by its clash with error. If no foes are available to put one’s ideas to the test, Mill urged inventing arguments against one’s own beliefs. But the political discourse of today has dispensed with tests of its own beliefs.

As statues and monuments are being destroyed in an attempt to rewrite history and create new narratives, it is critical to understand the importance of history and the ways in which it is written. The late historian Yosef Yerushalmi, in his seminal study “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory” (the main part of the title being literary Hebrew for “to remember”) wrote,

The historian does not simply come in to replenish the gaps of memory; he constantly challenges even those memories that have survived intact. Moreover, in common with historians in all fields of inquiry, he seeks ultimately to recover a total past — in this case, the entire Jewish past — even if he is directly concerned with only a segment of it. No subject is potentially unworthy of his interest, no document or artifact beneath his attention.

The dramatic turn against Israel by par of one political party, and the effort to erase and rewrite history, bodes particularly badly for American Jews. Huge increases in street violence against American Jews can only be attributed to the atmosphere created by American politicians and educational institutions. The danger is that info-tainment — by definition, propaganda — will completely rewrite both reality and history. Even more dangerously, social media has allowed “history” to be boiled down to a tweet or an Instagram post, leaving room for false assumptions and misinformation to spread like wildfire.

Unfortunately, Jews have always had the trouble of being the scapegoat for social and political changes on both the left and right. They do not get a pass in today’s dogmatic worldview of identity politics, which more times than not is limited to minorities or at least those who claim to be minorities — something Jews have a difficult time arguing for, despite the demographics.

As the younger generation is swayed by emojis and memes, there is clearly a growing need to create historical anchors and an understanding of the language we use to express and convey both history and politics.

Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

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