Language and the use of words can be more powerful than any weapon of mass destruction.
“Wordsmithing” in the wrong hands can bring on a plague of violence and destruction biblical in proportions. And this brings us to the current widest widely use of the word “anti-Semitism.”
Donald Trump, a master of obfuscation and prevarication, in order to gin up his evangelical support, signed an executive order on Dec. 11 titled “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism.” Despite its humanistic title, this order does not combat anti-Semitism. It is merely meant to throttle free speech concerning human rights issues in Israel and many individuals, including Jews, have concerns about it.
In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, Kenneth Stern, the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, wrote, “[Anti-Semitism] was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order accomplished this week. This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.”
Fifteen years prior to writing his piece in The Guardian, Stern – considered an expert on the topic – drafted a working definition of anti-Semitism for the American Jewish Committee.
It is usually a “third rail” in domestic political discourse for non-Jews to analyze the use of the word “anti-Semitism” in America. But the intentional division of the many and varied identities in this country is now reaching a critical point and the weaponizing of language by demagogues like Donald Trump is throwing fuel on the fire.
Language is generally considered to be a convention, where those who communicate understand a word or phrase to have a commonly understood meaning. And in this sense, anti-Semitism is generally understood in America to mean hostility to or prejudice against Jews.
However, most dictionaries tell us that Semites are not solely Jews, but any of “a number of peoples of ancient southwestern Asia including the Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews and Arabs.” This has been a working definition since 1848.
Donald Trump is not so concerned with the protection of Jews as he claimed when signing this order. He is more concerned with the division of Americans into “us” and “them.” It is convenient for him to weaponize the term “anti-Semitism” in order to demonize the supporters of other Semitic people, such as Palestinians, who criticize the actions of the government of Israel. This is a distortion of cultural identity in order to curb the freedom of political speech, the aim of which is to homogenize America into a white Christian nation.
Joining the ranks of those who want to divide this nation in order homogenize it are bigoted religious leaders like Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, and the Rev. John C. Hagee, founder of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, who is known for his end-times preaching. Despite their histories of religious intolerance, both of these vendors of religious hate were guests at the White House’s Hanukkah party, which took place after the signing ceremony for the executive order. Jeffress is known for postulating that Jews and other non-Christians are destined for hell while Hagee has called Hitler a “half-breed Jew” who was a “hunter” fulfilling God’s will. Can we really believe that Trump is concerned with hate speech when he pals around with people like Jeffress and Hagee? Can we believe he wants to stamp out hate speech when he has said there were “very fine people” protesting in Charlottesville, Va., by torchlight shouting “Jews shall not replace us”?
America, in a sense, is a small village where we all drink from a common well of democracy that springs from mutual respect and the common good. Trump and his minions are poisoning that well with the toxic wordsmithing of hate speech. He schemes to turn this country into a white Christian monolith, while falsely accusing the intended victims of his bigotry of being the perpetrators of villainy.
If we, as Americans, are concerned about injustices towards Semitic people, we should approach it in terms of all Semitic people, including the descendants of the Akkadians, Phoenicians, Hebrews and Arabs. These times are telling as to who the American people are and what they stand for. And while actions speak louder than words, the words we use have a lot to say about us as well. We should not allow legitimate criticism to be muted by those falsely claiming to muzzle hate speech.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps combat pilot and human rights activist who practices law in Virginia.