What Do You Mean By That?

Two imagined, yet realistic, dialogues between two Diaspora Jews:

  1. “Did you say ‘ceasefire’”?

“No, I just said ‘End the war, stop the fighting, bring the hostages home, and provide significant humanitarian aid to the millions of Palestinians in dire straits.’”

“Oh, thank God. For some reason, I thought you said ‘cease-fire,’ which I am against. If you had said ‘ceasefire’ then I couldn’t associate with you anymore.”

“No, no, God forbid. I would never call for a ‘ceasefire’ at this juncture, only for an end of hostilities and for Israel to stop bombing and for Hamas to release the hostages.”

End scene.

  1. “My friends just got back from Israel, but I don’t think I can talk to them anymore?”

“Oh? Why not???”

“Because now they walk around wearing ‘Bring Them Home’ dog tags, and a yellow ribbon, and I don’t want to be associated with that.”

“With what?”

“You know, with the ‘right-wingers’ who glorify war and support Israel’s government.”

“You mean those who think that Hamas should return hostages?”

“Well…  Doesn’t wearing those symbols mean that they don’t care about Palestinian rights or the Palestinian people?”

“No. It means that they care about the hostages who were brutally taken from their homes. I think one can care about both at the same time.  Why don’t you ask your friends for their take before deciding whether or not you can still be friends?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that….”

End scene.

In today’s discourse, there seems to be a penchant for looking for buzzwords and symbols that tell our story, represent us, and/or align us with political/ideological camps that express our fixed black or white positions.

Amos Oz and historian Fania Oz-Salzberger opened their 2012 book “Jews and Words” with a simple, yet profound statement: “Ours is not a bloodline, but a text line.” We are a people of words. For two thousand years we were not a people of war or territory. We were a people who lived and died by the word. Today, while the Jewish State is embroiled in the longest and most drawn-out war in its history, the rest of the world is fighting a war of words.

Beyond the battleground above and below Gaza and the intensifying atmosphere on Israel’s Northern border, for many Diaspora Jews, ours is a battle of terminology, lexicon, and labels. Its symbols divide and unite, give the external appearance of an alliance or the opposition, and draw the lines of affiliation and identity based on the terms used. One can be in favor of a “ceasefire” without joining the so-called “ceasefire camp.” One can be a staunch advocate to return the hostages while empathizing with the humanitarian disaster in which more than a million Gazans find themselves (see last week’s column).

To call for complexity and nuance is, sadly, no longer particularly helpful, as those two words have made their way into buzzword territory. But, as a people of words, we need to go deeper and choose our words carefully. It’s one thing to raise symbols for their outward power to galvanize and it’s quite another thing to let those symbols become barriers to understanding and curiosity.

Three examples that took place this week wherein words were transformed into buzzwords and, thus, proved to stifle helpful conversation are as follows:

  1. In a heated war-cabinet discussion on Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant emphasized that the problem of humanitarian aid was not in its procurement, but rather its distribution. What is needed, he explained, is a credible source to distribute it, and that needs to be not an outside European force but a member of Fatah or the Palestinian Authority (PA). PM Netanyahu shot back in staunch rebuke, telling Gallant “not to ever mention the PA” in his presence. Just the mere mention of “PA” has become a hot-button buzzword that elicited a strong rebuke from Netanyahu. Netanyahu has been accused of allowing, over a long period, payments made to Hamas from Qatar and maintaining Hamas’ rule in Gaza to weaken the Palestinian Authority, prevent the unity of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and thereby prevent an eventual Palestinian State. This “concept” as it has been known, has been proven to be frightfully faulty and is connected to the colossal failure of Israel’s government and military establishment to prevent Hamas’ attack on October 7th.
  2. The Oscar speech heard around the world by filmmaker Jonathan Glazer was riddled with buzzwords that skew reality and set a dangerous precedent. In his prepared remarks he said: “Right now we stand here as men who refute their Jewishness and the Holocaust being hijacked by an occupation which has led to conflict for so many innocent people, whether the victims of October the 7th in Israel or the ongoing attack on Gaza.” That brief statement was met with applause and cheers.

Times of Israel editor David Horovitz responded the way so many of us did when we heard Glazer’s remarks:

“As ’Free Palestine’ protesters outside demanded an end to US aid for Israel, Glazer had a brief opportunity on a world stage to say something constructive during a particularly nightmarish period for humane, life-affirming people on both sides of the conflict. Instead, in a few brief words, he misidentified the root cause of the October 7 slaughter and the war and brought succor to Hamas and those many others for whom Israel and its people have no right to exist in any borders.”

Glazer demonstrated how the cavalier use of buzzwords can cause grave damage.

  1. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer gave a formidable speech from the Senate floor on Thursday in which he debunked some buzzwords and popular theories, like one-statism and colonialism, and articulated 4 obstacles to peace. One of those obstacles was a repudiation of the leadership of PM Netanyahu, which included advice to the Israeli voter from the highest-ranking Jewish Member of Congress:

“The Netanyahu coalition no longer fits the needs of Israel after Oct. 7. The world has changed — radically — since then, and the Israeli people are being stifled right now by a governing vision that is stuck in the past.”

As liberal Zionists, we spoke out against PM Netanyahu’s snub of President Obama in 2015 when Bibi appeared to be working with then-Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. One could rightly charge the PM with meddling in another nation’s elections.  The United States has been Israel’s longest and closest ally. The importance of that relationship to Israel’s well-being over the past 75 years cannot be overstated.  At the same time, even while the Netanyahu government has sought to weaken the American-Israel relationship, Israeli democracy is robust. As Senator Schumer surely appreciates, Israelis can, must, and will shape their destiny.  Whether we agree or not with Senator Schumer’s criticism of the Israeli PM, it isn’t up to America’s political leadership to determine or influence Israel’s leadership. That is up to Israelis who still live in a vital democracy.

In general, we tend to find the story we want to be told and then use buzzwords, terms of the debate, and symbols to support our preferred narrative. While doing this is natural, common everywhere, and unlikely to change, it would do us all a great deal of good to step back, take a deep breath, and ask when others use those buzzwords “What do you mean by that?”

More on that next week…