Let’s Choose Our Words Wisely

runyan_josh_otAccording to the biblical account, creation didn’t take place through fire or a divine wind. The world instead came into being through speech.

As taught and amplified by the Jewish tradition in the thousands of years since that seminal event, words — even when limited to the constricted realm of human speech — have retained the power to create. Have a bright idea that you want to spread to the masses? Then you better put it into words, either spoken or in print. This is a fundamental truth every editor lives by and every child accepts as a given: The most sublime way of engaging with the world around you is through words.

But words, as we’ve been reminded time and again this week, also have the power to destroy.

Observers of events in Israel have laid some of the blame for the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir at the feet of those who called for revenge after the bodies of Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach turned up in a field near Hebron. It’s an argument made by Rabbi Benny Lau, the rabbi of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem who told The Media Line news agency that racist elements in Israeli society were to blame for Abu Khdeir’s killing. He called for a “tikkun,” a spiritual repair, by being careful in the use of language.

Although the reckless use of words likely had something to do with the tragedy, their wholesale abuse by news organizations in the days since has further painted Israel — and the entire Jewish people — as the ones to blame in a conflict that, if we’re going to be completely honest, has its roots in the mismanagement of the British Mandate long before Jews saw a homeland as firmly within their reach.

In its half-hourly reports Sunday from Jerusalem, where Palestinians had taken to the streets and where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was mulling over the details of his country’s response to a near-constant volley of rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza, the local CBS affiliate 99.1 WNEW broadcast news of the six “Jewish suspects” arrested in connection with Abu Khdeir’s murder. The murder, the broadcasts continued, had likely come as a response to the killings of the three “Israeli teenagers.”

And again, in The Washington Post the following morning, “Israel reckoned with rising homegrown extremism … as it arrested six Jewish suspects who are believed to have burned to death an Arab teenager in revenge for the killing of three Israeli teens.”

The implication of such reporting is that when they suffer, Israel’s citizens are “Israeli.” When they commit a crime, they’re “Jewish.” It’s an ironic supposition, considering that the actions of the six suspects would be the least Jewish imaginable.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, that part of the world is quickly descending into chaos. Rockets flew over Tel Aviv on Tuesday; one reportedly struck a house in Jerusalem. Hamas has declared every home in Israel a target.

Let’s be careful with our language: Israelis are not the only ones whose lives are at stake. Suffering in war comes indiscriminately. Jews, Arabs, Israelis, Palestinians, Christians — at the end of the day, we’re all in the crosshairs when hate is fanning the flames.


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