Words count. They create perceptions and can even shape reality. Descriptive words, when used in a specific context, are like brands. They conjure up situations, emotions, facts, and falsehoods well beyond their dictionary definitions and, when used carelessly, can have a devastating impact.
Such is the case with the word “apartheid,” which is being used matter-of-factly in discussing the relationship between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, even by many in the pro-Israel community.
It is time to remove apartheid — the “A-word” — from our pro-Israel lexicon.
The Rutgers Hillel Center for Israel Engagement (RHCIE) took the initiative this past year to engage Israel advocacy organizations in a joint effort to delete the “A-word” from our spoken and written materials. This is not an insignificant issue. Communication professionals discovered long ago how to manufacture impressions through association with incendiary words. Until now, many in the pro-Israel community swallowed the anti-Israel “A-word” bait. They countered accusations and activities incorporating the “A-word” — as in the annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” — by repeating this slanderous word, with all its negative connotations, and thereby, unintentionally, became a party to the libel against the State of Israel.
We at RHCIE do not use the “A-word”; we don’t use it at Hillel staff meetings and our students do not use it in their hasbara efforts. We have adopted positive messages rather than responsive themes for our pro-Israel advocacy and our efforts are catching on across the country. By labeling “Apartheid Week” as “Hate Week” we successfully changed the conversation at Rutgers University. Groups that organized anti-Israel activities were relabeled as promoters of hate. RHCIE took the lead in asking other groups to employ the phrase “Hate Week,” emphasizing the notion that we can only overcome the “A-libel” when we act with one voice. Any responses we had to these programs we branded under the banner “Defeating Hate Week.”
We not only changed the language and the conversation on our campus, we made a determined effort to share our approach and our success with the entire pro-Israel community. And it is working.
This past December the Israel Campus Beat — an on-line publication promoting student pro-Israel activities — published an article titled “Call it Hate Week,” in which I suggested that Israel advocates make every effort to recognize the power of certain words and phrases — both positive and negative — in our pro-Israel advocacy. In early March, the New Jersey Jewish News published an op-ed piece by Raffi Mark, Rutgers Hillel student Israel chair, titled “Rutgers students say ‘yes’ to peace, ‘no’ to hate.” Two weeks later, Mitchell Bard published an article titled “Time to banish the A-word.” In May, two additional articles were published labeling the week of anti-Israel programs as “Hate Week” — Marsha Sutton’s “Some call it ‘Israel Hate Week’ on college campuses” and Jeff Dawson’s “Israel hate fests: all bark and no bite?” Even my mother-in-law has stopped using the “A-word” in her weekly e-mails to friends.
This call to choose our words carefully rather than adopting the language of Israel’s opponents is essential if we are to present to the campus, and the world, the truth about Israel. It is important that we recognize the long-lasting impact of words. Only then —only together — will we defeat Hate Weeks.