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An aerial photograph depicting destroyed buildings and streets following the Israeli military’s ground operation at Jabalia Refugee Camp.

An aerial view of Jabalia Refugee Camp in Gaza, on June 7.

Dawoud Abo Alkas/Anadolu via Getty Images

Israel’s current war on Gaza, in response to Hamas’s horrific attack of Oct. 7, resulting in some 1,200 Israelis killed and some 240 abducted, has been marked not only by some of recent history’s most destructive bombing of civilians (more than 35,000 Gazans have been killed to date), but also by disturbing distortions of language that assault the truth and the foundations of our educational system. Politicians and the media have distorted the meanings of many words. Headline examples include the word “intifada” from Arabic, where it means “resistance,” which can include both peaceful resistance (as in much of the “Arab Spring” and the early part of the first Palestinian intifada in the late 1980s) or violent resistance (as in the case of the second Palestinian intifada in the 2000s). Even the nonviolent #BlackLivesMatter movement has been viewed by some as an “American Intifada.” Yet U.S. representative Elise Stefanik has erroneously declared that its meaning categorically includes a call for “the genocide of the Jews.” In a related vein, Congress keeps conflating “Zionism” with “Jewishness,” and “anti-Zionism” with “antisemitism.”

Language can be used as a powerful weapon, and it is incumbent upon social scientists to recognize this and to explain it to the public at large. It is with this responsibility in mind that I recently resigned from the executive council of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) after the council declined to put forward a statement I had proposed calling on linguists to use their expertise to “deconstruct this weaponization of words and constructively contribute to efforts aimed at peace and mutual understanding among Israelis, Palestinians and their allies across the globe.”

The Grammar and Lexicon of Orwellian Double-Speak

Subtle and not-so-subtle linguistic choices can have a profound subliminal impact on the listener—shaping perception and revealing or masking the truth in substantial ways. We see it in how the passive voice is used in reporting.

Last October, for example, Reuters reported that its video journalist “was killed and six other journalists injured in southern Lebanon … when missiles fired from the direction of Israel struck them.” Here we see no less than three passive verbs in one sentence, hiding the agent of all three verbs, leaving no explicit mention of the perpetrators who fired the missiles. Similarly, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in President Sally Kornbluth’s May 10 message about her calling the police to dismantle the anti-genocide students’ encampment on campus, she talks of “the brutal terror attack of October 7,” yet refers to “people with friends and family currently in mortal danger in Rafah.” Contrast the active “brutal terror attack” on Israel, implying a human aggressor, versus the stative “mortal danger” in Rafah, where the cause of the danger is not necessarily human (one can be in “mortal danger” in the path of a hurricane, for example).

We also see the power of language in the use of dehumanizing metaphors. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Palestinians “children of darkness.” As we can learn from Arundhati Roy’s essay “Come September" written in 2002, Israel’s heads of state, long before Oct. 7, have used racist, animalistic metaphors to deny the humanity of Palestinians. The latter have been called “beasts walking on two legs” by Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1982, “grasshoppers” by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in 1988, “crocodiles” or “mosquitoes” by Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000, and “wild beasts” by Netanyahu. And we must also remember the myth-inducing slogan at the core of settler-colonial Zionism at the beginning of the twentieth century, calling, in effect, for the total erasure of Palestinians in order to occupy “a land without a people for a people without a land,” a myth that then led Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1969 to speak of Palestinians as people who “do not exist.”

Meanwhile, on university campuses, “safety” is redefined to include protection from intellectual or ideological discomfort—for example, discomfort that’s experienced when one’s worldview or beliefs are challenged by, say, anti-genocide protests. This redefinition has been used to silence these protests and curtail academic freedom, especially when it comes to reclaiming the humanity and safety of Palestinians as equal to that of Israelis.

Of course, students, on a par with staff and faculty and anyone else in their workplace, should never have to fear for their psychological or physical safety. But universities should not be places where ideas that students might have adopted from socialization without critical thinking are pampered and reinforced (some of this socialization is elucidated in Nurit Peled-Elhanan’s work on “Holocaust education and the semiotics of othering”). In other words, the sort of discomfort that arises from intellectual or political disagreements or from exploring novel or diverging perspectives should be welcomed and nurtured, by students, staff and faculty alike, as paths for intellectual growth.

As it turns out, some of these experiences of “feeling unsafe” in the context of diverging opinions—without any actual physical threat—seem attributable to linguistic distortions, as in the case of slogans such as “Globalize the intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” The transformation of the experience of intellectual or ideological discomfort into one of danger or lack of safety results, partly, from opposing parties attributing self-serving meanings to certain words and phrases. That’s why it’s so important to clear up the intended meanings of these slogans that have been tendentiously interpreted to entail existential threats that are not intended by those using the slogans in question. For example, a majority of Jewish college students (66 percent) surveyed by University of Chicago researchers interpret the “From the river to the sea …” slogan as entailing the elimination of Jews from Israel, while only a minority of Muslims (14 percent) interpret it as such. It seems as if the interpretation of this slogan is loaded (or overloaded) with opposite meanings on either side—elimination of Israel on the Zionist side versus freedom and justice for all on the Palestinian side.

Definitions do matter. What is at issue here is the social and psychological impact of attributing certain meanings to certain words and phrases. The harm that these assigned meanings do should be recognized, and the question of when, where and how the corresponding interpretations have propagated should be studied.

Finally, conflating critiques of Zionism, including critiques of the government of Israel, with evidence of antisemitism might well be the most insidious manipulation of words and concepts, if we consider their history and usage. The conflation of “Zionism” with “Judaism”—a linguistic manipulation that allows for any criticism of occupation and apartheid by Israel to be labeled “antisemitic”—ignores the historical fact that many Jews, from early on until today, have opposed the Zionist project because it is at odds with their Jewish faith or their moral values. Also worrisome is the fact that this conflation poses a threat to peace activists who are Jewish and makes it harder to fight against real antisemitism, especially when those who equate “Zionism” with “Jewishness” collaborate with real antisemitic white supremacists. As Palestinian political scientist Murad Idris helped me understand when he visited MIT in April, this conflation hinges on an extreme form of anti-Palestinian racism leading to the erasure of Palestinian suffering: In this logic, Palestinians become automatically guilty of “antisemitism” when, as expected given human nature, they resist Israel’s settler-colonial Zionism so they can exist as a free and sovereign people. In turn, conflating Zionism with Jewishness might actually increase antisemitism when Zionists claim that their war against Palestinians is in the name of all Jewish folks—this creates a self-reinforcing cycle of mutual hatred from all sides.

The Responsibility of Intellectuals

This trend to distort language has a dire impact on college campuses, as a weapon targeting academic freedom, freedom of speech and even freedom of inquiry about the unfolding genocide of Palestinians in Gaza and the concomitant health and human-rights risks. These well-orchestrated and well-funded attacks against academic freedom, which also double as a campaign against diversity, equity and inclusion, are spreading on university campuses from coast to coast—from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University to Vanderbilt University to Indiana University to University of California, Santa Barbara.

And, much to my disappointment, it now seems to me that the leadership of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), the world’s preeminent association of linguists, has become complicit in this playbook by not calling out these disturbing linguistic trends. LSA’s deafening silence is yet another Palestine exception, especially in light of LSA’s mission—“the advancement of [linguistic] knowledge and the betterment of society”—and its recent statements on state-level laws or bills regulating the use of gender pronouns, on racial justice, and on the war in Ukraine. The latter statement bears on LSA’s global mission, including geo-political matters of a sensitive nature, as we keep in mind LSA’s international membership.

In 2023, when I was still a member of the Executive Committee (EC) of the LSA, the EC unanimously approved a set of “Procedures for Resolutions, Statements, Endorsements,” requiring that two conditions obtain before the leadership of the LSA take public positions—first, consensus within the linguistic literature on the question at hand; second, relevance to the well-being of the discipline. These procedures were meant to provide institutional restraint and help the EC decide when we are in our lane when making statements in the name of the LSA. When it comes to linguistic manipulations in the service of genocide, both conditions obtain, especially when it comes to what the very word “meaning” cannot mean in light of what linguists know about semantics, discourse analysis, historical linguistics, etc. (Recall Representative Stefanik’s tendentious use of the word “meaning” when talking about the meaning of “intifada.”) The LSA not saying anything about such a gross manipulation of a fundamental linguistic concept such as “meaning” does not bode well for the well-being of a field that should be promoting its “broader value to society”—with “society” taken in its global sense to include Israel and Palestine, in addition to Ukraine and Russia.

The LSA’s silence in the face of linguistic subterfuges about the war on Gaza is a striking example of the general failure of too many of our intellectual and political elites to rise up and resist an ongoing genocide whose horrific images bombard us every day. Indeed, linguistics is supposed to uncover the rules, principles and algorithms that help us decode what words and sentences mean. We linguists should not be idle when words are so grievously distorted. And it’s even worse if we linguists engage in weaponizing the “antisemitic” label, as one of my former EC colleagues did in seeking to discredit the statement I had proposed to the leadership of LSA about linguistic distortions in the context of the war on Gaza and associated protests, counterprotests, media reports, congressional hearings, etc. Moreover, the fact that this colleague would cite, as “evidence,” a letter by Congresswoman Virginia Foxx criticizing my alleged “antisemitic, anti-Israel” social media posts was yet another vivid example of the Orwellian use of language, even among linguists, to vilify dissenting voices asking for peace in Israel and Palestine. Why would even linguists conflate “antisemitism” (hatred of Jews) with critiques of settler-colonial Zionism or the Israeli government’s genocide in Palestine?

Another flagrant example of our intellectual elites, including progressive scholars, betraying their mission is the silence of the Science and Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS SHRC), whose mission includes: “to engage scientists, engineers and health professionals in human rights issues, particularly those issues that involve scientists and engineers and the conduct of science.” How can the AAAS still speak of “science and human rights” while remaining silent in light of the well-documented and unprecedented facts that: every single university in Gaza has been destroyed with bombs paid for by our taxpayers’ dollars; too many scientists, including three university presidents, have been killed in Gaza, with science playing a key role in these crimes against humanity; and much of this science and the funding for it are courtesy of the U.S.? In addition to resigning from LSA’s Executive Council, I also have resigned from my position as LSA’s representative on the AAAS SHRC to register my opposition to the coalition’s silence on these matters. In both these resignations, I am registering my dissent against a too widespread and morally repugnant Palestinian exception in time of genocide, one that disregards the importance of science, including that of my own field of linguistics, when it comes to protecting the human rights and humanity of us all, including Palestinians and Israelis.

The silence of the LSA and the AAAS SHRC should cause concerns when we notice that these are not the only cases of major organizations that contradict their missions for a better world for all and that practice lethal Palestinian exceptions. Even the American Medical Association is looking the other way while Israel destroys the healthcare infrastructure in Gaza. And there are too many other scholarly associations and academic institutions that have opted for silence or, worse yet, repression in complicity with genocide—including my own (MIT), sadly.

Words matter; definitions matter. Scholars from all disciplines have a responsibility to rise up and resist these deceptive manipulations of language, and stand together against attacks on fundamental values of academic freedom and inquiry that are the bedrock of our educational system. Instead of this new McCarthyism—a sad echo of the past—we need to promote dialogue and empathy within our academic communities and beyond.

Michel DeGraff is a professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently working on a manuscript on the power of language for education and liberation, to be published by MIT Press in 2025. With Haynes Miller, he directs the MIT-Haiti Initiative for the promotion of active learning and Kreyòl in Haitian education; he is also a founding member of the Haitian Creole Academy, a fellow of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) and a former member of the Executive Committee of the LSA and a former representative of the LSA on the Science and Human Rights Coalition of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In a written statement, the Linguistic Society of America said the association “carefully considers any potential public statement in light of our approved policy” and in March approved a new “initiative on Language, Conflict, and Peace-Making, which will draw on the insights and findings of linguistics to illuminate how language can be used as a tool to provoke conflict and polarization or build bridges for peace-making.”

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