Words still matter

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

It was an otherwise usual morning in philosophy class when I became distracted by my classmate’s laptop computer. “Startup Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” flashed across the screen, and I was immediately reminded of the events from Oct. 7. It turns out that Startup Nation is a book selling on Amazon for around $10. But why was my classmate interested in it all of the sudden, and why, of all details, might one be curious about the “entrepreneurial” culture in such a politically-troubled and conflict-rife region?

I was reminded of a visit to an East Jerusalem settlement I took with my classmates in March of 2023. Our hosts sported an impressive domicile and were very welcoming. But I did wonder: Why would an Israeli wife brag of her husband’s “nine patents” to a group of students visiting to learn about Shabbat dinner, culinary traditions, and broader Israeli culture? Sure, it is healthy to be proud of one’s accomplishments. Nowhere else along the trip, however, did our hosts comment as heavily about being “surrounded by enemies,” while also being entrepreneurially ambitious.

Contrast this characterization of Israelis to language used in describing Palestinians. I recently had the fortune of listening to conservative commentator Ben Shapiro. He analyzed the historical narrative and asked viewers to consider why the Israeli State, in the past, would execute military incursions into the Gaza Strip:
“They were just raiding Gaza. For fun. They just raid Gaza. To do what, exactly? To steal
their nothing? ... Can you explain? Like, what are the great valuable jewels being held
in Gaza the Israelis desperately need to get their hands on?”
-- Shapiro, “Ben Debunks Pro-Hamas TikToks,” 10:13

Shapiro summarizes the matter with eloquence. His statements are a prime example of dehumanizing Palestinians by suggesting they are so backward as to have “nothing.” Ironically, the Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza is responsible for reducing its economy to humanitarian dependence, but Shapiro’s statements refer to historical Gaza, pre-blockade.

Both the comments section on Shapiro’s video and the user review section for Startup Nation are blunt in their racism and Islamophobia. But perhaps Shapiro and readers of "Startup Nation" are mere products of extremity. Suppose we undertake the following controversial task: We analyze media terminology describing the State of Israel, the organization of Hamas, and their respective actions.

One immediately notices that barbarism and savagery are consistently used to describe Hamas. Politicians, journalists, op-eds, and celebrities use this language. Rishi Sunak, the Washington Times, and a group of Hollywood actors have made statements, published articles, and signed letters condemning “barbaric” acts. House Speaker Mike Johnson condemned “barbaric attacks” in one speech and “unspeakable acts of evil” in another, while denouncing calls for ceasefire. Even the Associated Press, an outlet reputed for objectivity, used language of “savagery” in one of its articles to describe Hamas’ attack.

Hamas’ terrorism is reprehensible. News outlets and public personas are justified to condemn Hamas — barbarism and savagery are valid descriptors. Nevertheless, these words deserved to be applied appropriately, and by emphasizing the barbarity of Hamas, media outlets and speakers contribute to the dehumanization of Palestinians. Hamas is not Palestine, but that does not prevent an uninformed audience from consuming these stereotypes.

Research suggests that Americans view some groups with less humanity than others, especially Arabs and Muslims. Dehumanized groups are seen as more primitive, more aggressive, and less worthy of empathy. Hence, Mike Johnson suggests Gazans are “evil,” while the violence escalates in Gaza, Israel, and the West Bank. Words matter: A barbarian today is a target tomorrow. And the cycle of violence continues.

Racialized justifications for violence are abhorrent and morally disgusting. The stereotype of Semitic ingenuity harms Palestinians under occupation as well as Jews in any context (think of the “model minority” trope). It is wholly incorrect to ascribe social or intellectual achievements to genealogical differences — while a greater irony is that Arabs are also a Semitic people. The press has a responsibility to use language which does not demean or dehumanize. So do you.