The Tyranny of Language
Dr. Ronald A. Brauner
There can be no doubt that language is one of humankind's most powerful tools. As we can see in our own lives, words have the power to incite to war, change minds, obscure realities, convey senses of empathy and affection, inflict pain and promote healing. What we are, what we stand for, what we think and what we would like to have happen - all are reflected in the words we use. The Book of Proverbs (18:21) had it just about right: "Death and life are in the power of the tongue."
Contemporary America seems to offer as many examples of our concern here than we might ever want. Books, newspapers, radio, television, movies - all fill our conscious hours with an immeasurable onslaught of language - sometimes well-used and sometimes deceptively and corruptly contrived. A particularly insidious use of langauge accomplishes a political or ideological end by habituating people to speak the very thoughts to which they object. Example: "Pro Life" as the slogan for the groups in America opposing abortion. To take issue with them is,
by definition, an anti- life affirmation. Either pro- life or pro-choice and clearly, if you're for choice, you're in favor of death. See how it works!
Another quite insidious use of language is normalization through repetition. Here the idea is that if you say something frequently enough and succeed in getting growing numbers of people to use the phrase then, as time goes on, more and more people will have been accustomed to the expression and ultimately think of it as correct. Consider the growing use of the phrase "Arab East Jerusalem", a locution favored by CNN, the New York Times and Reuters, and consider how this almost subliminal usage contributes to establishing the
reality of an Arab East Jerusalem. In point of fact, there is no Arab East Jerusalem just as there is no Jewish West Jerusalem; Israelis never used this phrase, Jews throughout the world never used this phrase and, in fact, the only people working to gain currency for this invention are Arab states and the Palestinian Authority. If you say Arab East Jerusalem enough times then surely it will become apparent that Israeli Jews should not be building houses there (even though the Oslo Accords do not prohibit such building) and the Jerusalem Municipality should not be operating there.
More "if-you-say-it-long-enough-it-will-begin-to-sound-right." Certain words just don't go together no matter what. "Partially pregnant", "kosher-style", "new tradition" and "militant Quakers" simply won't fly. Oh sure, you understand the individual words alright, but when you put them together in a phrase, they just don't make sense (oxymorons [same word as
moron- how about that!]). "Jews For Jesus" is another nifty example, and a quite clever one at that. Say it often enough and it begins to sound something like an alternative choice in the spectrum of the Jewish community. Reflect on it for a few moments and you understand that "Jews For Jesus" sounds about as compelling as "Christians for Mohammed" or "Muslims for Oral Roberts". There is no room for Jesus either in Jewish history or in Jewish theology and most Jews seem to know these truths almost intuitively. They also know intuitively that the whole matter is just another ploy for gaining converts to Christianity. As for the phrase "Messianic Jews", it must be obvious even to the casual observer that Judaism itself is messianic. Surely, the various movements sustain diverse interpretations ("messiah" as a person, as an era, as a perfected world, as the end of oppression), but in all instances "messiah" is a key Jewish concept - what is not Jewish is that he was Jesus (or Buddha, or Mohammed or Oral Roberts).
"In the beginning. . .God said. . ." and we've been listening
very carefully ever since!

1998, Foundation for Jewish Studies, Inc.