Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review / Dec. 22, 1998 / 3 Teves, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin

Calling Things by
Their Right Names

LINGUISTICS ARE IN. In a year in which the most contentious political debate in this country centered on the meaning of the word "is" and how one defines "sex," and "perjury," you would think dictionary sales would be going through the roof. But as the president learned, words can you get you in -- and out -- of a lot of trouble.

From my frame of reference, the problem is that it seems as if no one is willing to call things -- or people -- by their right names.

Words have meanings. And the specific words that become general usage when referring to a topic or a person often control the way we think about them. If you can win the war of the words, you are halfway to winning the political battle. The following are some other examples of how distorted meanings distort our perceptions of issues and people.

My favorite buzz word that illustrates this principle is "racism." This was illustrated in the recent controversy over the anti-Jewish attitudes of Marvin A. Smith, the now-deposed president of the Home and School Association of Philadelphia's George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science illustrates how the meaning of words can be distorted and turned inside out.

Smith was the author of a diatribe against the role of Jewish teachers at the city's science magnet high school which earned front page ink in the city's leading dailies.

Taken in the context of the community as a whole, the rantings of Smith against Jewish teachers are insignificant. The emergence of a solid coalition of African-Americans to denounce Smith is the good news that got buried in many accounts.

But though the only racist involved with the school appears to be Smith himself, the attempt of one man and his small band of fellow travelers to label five Jewish teachers at the high school is still troubling.

Were Smith alleging that only white people were qualified to teach whites (instead of saying that only blacks can teach blacks), no responsible newspaper would give his point of view a hearing. Yet his views have been given space on the opinion page of Philadelphia's leading daily. What's going on?

There are some who have argued that no African-American can be termed a "racist" because the term implies the power to impose one's will on the objects of hatred. I think this is sophistry worthy of a White House defense lawyer, but you'd be amazed at the intelligent people who endorse this definition.

Witness the fact that the Philadelphia Tribune reported that Ella Travis, Carver High principal, labeled as "racist" the unnamed parties who brought Smith's letter to the attention of the public and district education authorities.

In our upside down world, is it "racist" to expose anti-Semitism? Maybe.

Long before the friends and enemies of the president jousted over the dictionary, the Arab-Israeli conflict was a classic example of this phenomenon. For three decades, Israelis and friends of Israel struggled with how to describe the territories won in the Six-Day War. Were they "Judea and Samaria" or the "occupied West Bank"?

I would argue that the former had more basis in history, law and custom, but it was the latter that won out on the pages of newspapers and in the broadcast media. The war of the words helped lead to the fact that much of that territory will wind up in the soon-to-be-declared state of Palestine instead of in Israel.

My favorite current distorted Middle East definition centers on aid to the Palestinian Authority. The Wye agreement will bring the P.A. nearly $1 billion in additional aid from the United States. This is part of a package of additional security assistance to Israel and Jordan. The Clinton administration is counting on American Jews to help push this allocation through Congress next year.

This promise flies in the face of both the P.A.'s failure to live up to their word in the past and the widespread knowledge that most of the money given to the Palestinians has wound up in the pockets of P.A. chairman Yasser Arafat's cronies.

Legislation has tried to prevent this in the past, as well as to force the Palestinians to live up to their word. But the safeguards fail because the State Department invariably fibs when asked to assess compliance. Clinton admitted as much when he spoke last spring about similar legislation that would restrict trade with China due to human-rights violations there.

As with most of the aid America has poured into the Third World, our aid to the P.A. has done little for the Palestinians, but it has made their leaders rich. The aid money is nothing less than a bribe to the Palestinian leadership to keep the peace. As such, it is similar to the billions in baksheesh the United States has poured into Egypt over the past 20 years.

My plea here would be not be so much for a change in policy as a call for a change in terminology to reflect the truth. If our government feels it is in our interest to bribe the Palestinians to abide by Oslo, then so be it. But a bribe isn't aid.

The last entry in the category of distorted meanings goes back to Bill Clinton and the way the Bible has sometimes been interpreted to defend him. There has never been a shortage of differing views of text and character in the Bible. Whatever one's feelings about impeachment -- and the rhetorical excesses exist on both sides -- politics can lead us to some strange analogies.

Witness the spate of comparisons between King David and President Clinton that were put forward this year as Washington sank deeper and deeper into the Monica morass. Comparing Clinton to David was an injustice to both. In addition to not having the stature of the great king, Clinton is neither poet nor military hero.

The latest example is Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Page Editor Jane Eisner's implicit comparison between Clinton's sins and those of Time magazine cover boy Moses in a recent column. Give us a break. Eisner's point was that the punishment should fit the crime. Fair enough. But to compare Clinton's peccadillos to Moshe Rabeinu striking the rock is a little too weird for me.

As with a lot of other creative definitions we've heard lately, the difference between prophet and president is more than a few letters.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin