Some months ago, a friend of mine wrote an op-ed piece for the Columbus Dispatch that was very critical of American policy toward Israel. I knew that some of what he said would likely draw the ire of supporters of Israel. What I didn't expect was how irrational and vitriolic the responses would be. The first response was from a rabbi whose writing was shockingly intemperate. I only have access now to the openings of my friend's piece and the rabbi's letter to the editor but they are enough to give you a taste of what they had to say.
My friend's piece began:
In C.P. Snow's 1958 novel The Conscience of the Rich, set in England between the two World Wars, a wealthy, Jewish man says, "I wish the Jews would stop being news," and is embarrassed by it sounding like a jingle.
The defeat of Adolf Hitler and the end of the Holocaust seemed the right time for the Jews to stop being news. After 2,000 years of persecution by Romans, medieval Christians and Cossacks, the defeat of the Nazis seemed as if it could and should mark the end of all this.
The Rabbi's response began:
To paraphrase a friend of mine, Andrew Oldenquist proves the fact that intelligence and the acquisition of a Ph.D. are not mutually inclusive. What Oldenquist lacks in moral and historical rectitude, he compensates with stereotypic bigotry and whimsical thinking. How can any reader not be offended by one who opines that, "The defeat of Adolf Hitler and the end of the Holocaust seemed the right time for the Jews to stop being news"?I wouldn't have expected a rabbi to write in so irrational and vitriolic a manner. However, I have come to recognize since that such attacks by supporters of Israel are not uncommon. Indeed, shortly after reading the rabbi's response I ran across a full page criticism of my friend's position in The Standard, a local Jewish newspaper. It too was vitriolic in tone.
A few days ago, I received a call by someone who had read my blog Hamas, Hezbollah, Israel, and the Death of Language.and wanted to pick my brain concerning what a linguist might contribute to an effort on his part to explores how one might elevate the level of the discourse concerning Israel and American support of Israel. This provided indirect confirmation that the kind of response Andy got is not untypical for critics of America's policy toward Israel for if such responses weren't commonplace there would be no need for a book of the sort he hoped to write. I'm not sure that a linguist per se has much to contribute to this problem for there are no substantive linguistic issues involved that only a linguist could address. There is, in fact, a simple answer to my caller's question: he should encourage those who wish to criticize or defend Israel or America's policy toward Israel simply to restrict himself or herself to employing rational arguments. That combined with a little civility would take care of the problem.
Personally, I don't think a rational debate on the merits of Israel's actions in any given case or America's policy toward Israel is possible. Being human and being fully rationally at all times are mutually exclusive in my experience. We do have emotions and I, for one, don't believe that how we feel about an issue can ever be fully separated from what we think about it no matter how objective we try to be. To expect an American Jew to forget the Holocaust when he or she thinks about issues involving Israel is unrealistic. I'm not Jewish but I know enough about the Holocaust that what I learned about it will always inform how I react to what Israel does. I suppose this is because I have always seen Israel as providing a last line of defense against anti-Semitism. This doesn't mean I approve of everything Israel does. I don't.
A linguist can contribute a few things that would help elevate the discourse concerning Israel and her neighbors. One is the understanding that there is usually a difference between what we mean to be saying in saying something and how what we say will be interpreted by others. The reason is that what anyone says will have both a conventional meaning and a meaning in context. The problem is that the speaker and the hearer cannot be expected always to assign the same contextual significances to what is said. How we interpret what each other says or writes depends on the beliefs we bring to the enterprise. To expect American Jews and American Muslims to interpret events such as the military confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel in similar ways would be quite unrealistic. And this fact alone makes civil discourse about the confrontation difficult if not impossible. There may be neutral observers capable of such a discourse but they are hard to find.
In addition to recognizing that what is said may be interpreted differently by speaker and hearer in any context, much less emotionally charged ones, I would have one other contribution and that is that participants of an elevated discourse about Israel must avoid "hot button" locutions. Critics of American policy toward Israel often employ the locution "Israeli Lobby" to refer to vocal supporters of Israel. I believe my friend used this phase in his piece. There are two problems with use of this phrase. The first is that the word "lobby" has quite negative connotations in American politics. I've never heard anyone use "Tobacco Lobby" in an approving fashion. "Isreali Lobby" has a similar knee-jerk negative connotation. The second is that those who advocate strong ties between the US and Israel can have very different reasons for taking such a position. One group consists of Jews, of course. But another consists of Evangelical Christians. There are surely people who support Israel because they fear Muslim fundamentalism and see Israel as an ally in our effort to keep extremists from blowing up our buildings and our people. These and other groups of people hardly constitute a single voice, as is suggested by the locution "Israeli Lobby."
The other major hot button expression is the use of "anti-semitic" to tar critics of Israel or the American policy toward Israel. Playing the "race card" is something quite familiar to Americans, for other groups, especially African-Americans have made regular use of it when it suits their political purposes. Calling critics of Israel or American policy toward Israel "anti-semitic" is an especially evil verbal action, one that should not be done lightly. Better yet, it shouldn't be used at all.
One of the reasons I don't think that discourse on issues involving Israel in the United States is likely to be conducted in a civil manner is that it seems that Americans are incapable of civil debate on any serious political question. Andy has written a new futuristic op-ed piece that notes that developments in genetics could lead to parents chosing their children's genetic make up. Perhaps we could find the genes responsible for control of our emotions and engineer versions of these genes that provide us the ability to control our emotions and engage in civil discourse on all issues.