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January 29, 2024 Challenging Antisemitism

Careless language can cause unintentional harm

“Words are never just words,” panelist Lewis R. Gordon said at the “Challenging Antisemitism through Dialogue” program, sponsored by the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. Certain phrases, including those related to Israel and to the Jewish people, unintentionally can cause harm and lead to violence.

A recent ABA webinar addressed hate speech and violence that followed the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and subsequent response.

A recent ABA webinar addressed hate speech and violence that followed the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and subsequent response.

Getty Images / Matt Winkelmeyer

The webinar, held in response to a rise in incidents involving hate speech and violence across the country following the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel, was co-sponsored by the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice and is part of the ABA Activate Diversity-Unity in Diversity series.

Panelists explained the historical context of the creation of Israel and Palestine and defined some of the most frequently co-opted and mischaracterized language related to Jews, Israel, Zionism and the war.

The “flood gates opened” on hate speech after Oct. 7 “with permission given to use hateful language and symbols,” said Scott Levin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for the Mountain States region. He said calls to his office about incidences of hate speech and violence increased 361% in the three months following the attacks.

Zionism is one term that has been misused, Levin said.

“Zionism has taken on a meaning that, I think, is beyond what Zionism was created and used for,” he said. “Zionism is really merely that the Jewish people have a right to a land of self-determination and that they have that in their ancestral homeland in the land of Israel.”

Levin compared the mischaracterization of Zionism with critical race theory. (Both have) “been used by many people wrongly and in a negative way. Zionism today has been taken on by people who oppose settlements, who oppose the Netanyahu government.”

“You have to understand the logic of slurs,” added Gordon, who is Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor and Global Affairs and department head at the University of Connecticut. “You can take any positive concept and turn it into a slur. Today, Zionism is used as a slur.”

Gordon, an Afro-Jewish philosopher, contrasted the elimination of apartheid in South Africa with calls today to eliminate the Jewish state. He said South Africa’s mandate was based on policies to get rid of a discriminatory system “but to coexist with the people. The problem now is we’re dealing with language that’s talking about the existence of a people and that kind of language is the language that ultimately comes down to a commitment against coexistence.”

The word “genocide” also has been co-opted, Levin said, referring to accusations against Israel about attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. It’s defined in the United Nation’s charter as “a crime committed with the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

“It’s important to recognize that words have meaning and have legal definitions that should be employed,” Levin said. “What’s been hard at this time is that words matter. There’s been a bit of a breakdown about what words actually mean.”

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