Friday, September 19, 2008

On the ambiguity of the English language

As a native speaker of Spanish, I find certain subtle distinctions missing in English. Take, for instance, the verb to know; it may mean "to know a fact" or "to know someone." Spanish differentiates between both meanings, the words used being saber and conocer, respectively. Similarly, the verb to ask may mean "to ask a question" (Spanish: preguntar) or "to ask for something" (Spanish: pedir), and the verb to cry may mean "to cry out loud" (Spanish: gritar) or "to cry with tears" (Spanish: llorar). The native speaker of English may not even understand the need for separate words to cover the different meanings, but to someone who comes from another language the absence of these distinctions is startling.

In this post, I would like to discuss yet another English word that has separate and not necessarily related meanings: antisemite.

Before I continue I must say I don't dispute I'm an antisemite under the current definition of the word. Of all the peoples in the world, I want to deny the Jews, and only the Jews, the right to self-determination in their ancestral land. To that effect, I have singled out Israel for demonization (again: under the current definition of this word), and I have never written a single word about the plight of the Tibetans in China.

Of course, I could argue (wicked people always argue things) that I would deny other peoples self-determination under similar circumstances. I would oppose, for instance, the Gypsies returning to the place in Northern India they're supposed to come from and creating a country after displacing 700,000 Sikhs (or whatever). To give a real, not hypothetical, example, I opposed the Afrikaners' right to self-determination in South Africa after they grabbed the best lands for themselves and dumped the blacks into the bantustans of Venda, Ciskei, Transkei and Bophuthatswana. But these are moot points. Apartheid South Africa doesn't exist anymore, no member of the British nobility has ever promised the Gypsies a national homeland and the Brits have ceased to control India in any event. So that in practice my only problem is with the Jews' self-determination (as is currently exercised) and I'm an antisemite under the definition of several international bodies. There's no disputing that.

However, the word antisemite had an earlier meaning which continues to be in use. Many people, especially the younger generations, will be surprised to learn about it, but it's actually still being used. An antisemite used to be someone who hated the Jews as a whole. Those people would oppose having a Jewish neighbor, or their children marrying Jews. They would try to avoid working with Jews, they would never lend them money (allthough they might take loans from them), and they would support different forms of social and economic discrimination against Jews. Under the proper circumstances (war, invasions, crises, etc.), they would torch synagogues, loot Jewish property and actually kill Jews, or help those who undertook the killings.

These paleo-antisemites (let's neologize a bit) have by no means ceased to exist. Curiously, many of them don't oppose Jewish self-determination in Israel. In fact, I know quite a few Argentinian antisemites who would be very happy to see all Jews emigrating to Israel after having their citizenship revoked and their property confiscated.

Well, and here's my proposal: English needs separate words to describe these two different groups of people. It might be antisemite and contrasemite, for instance. Or antisemite and antihebrew. Or (gasp!) antisemite and anti-Zionist. With regard to the latter proposal, I don't oppose the word antisemite being used to describe me, and anti-Zionist to describe someone who beats a Jew because he's a Jew. (That is, I don't want to deprive anyone of the pleasure of calling me an antisemite; I don't mean to deny the Jewish people this right as well.)

But one thing is certain: the same word can't be used to describe both us, the ones who want to deny the Jews, and only the Jews, the right to self-determination, and them, the ones who only want to burn down synagogues, stab Jews and drive them out of their countries. It's simply not fair to them.

26 comments:

Yitzchak Goodman said...

I would oppose, for instance, the Gypsies returning to the place in Northern India they're supposed to come from and creating a country after displacing 700,000 Sikhs (or whatever).

You would want to deny them self-determination if the displacement happened 60 years ago and if there were now 5 or 6 million of the Gypsies, mostly born there, about half of them coming from other parts of what used to be India before Pakistan and Bangladesh were created? And if the displaced Sikhs (actually their descendants for the most part) were living in Sikhistan and Sikhania and Sikhland anyway? (Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Tibet changed their names after the great Sikh conquest--also known as the "Fatherland Liberation War.")
In such a case you would advocate--what actually? Putting the Gypsies on boats? Creating a Sikh state with a Gypsie minority?

Yitzchak Goodman said...

I have never written a single word about the plight of the Tibetans in China

You did once in the comments section of my blog.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

In such a case you would advocate--what actually? Putting the Gypsies on boats? Creating a Sikh state with a Gypsie minority?

In that case I would advocate allowing the Sikhs to return and giving them equal rights as the Gypsies. If they happen to be outnumbered by the Gypsies, good. If they happen to outnumber the Gypsies, also good. Why not give democracy a try? You might be in for a pleasant surprise.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

You did once in the comments section of my blog.

I did? I may be less antisemitic than I thought.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

Why not give democracy a try?

Don't pretend you're asking me to give democracy a try. You're asking me to risk losing democracy for the sake of nativist notions about what Israel's demographics should be. At least be an honest anti-hasbarist.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

My anti-Hasbara point in this post was that Zionists use the term antisemite to describe people who don't harbor the intense hate of Jews traditionally associated with the word.

That said, I do believe Israeli Jews are very much scared that if they gave full rights to the people they oppress in the West Bank they would eventually be wiped out.

But I sincerely believe that democracy would work and Israeli Jews would not be killed or expelled. I also believe the Israeli economy would be incredibly boosted by such an arrangement.

It's not a "nativist notion;" is simple and pure common sense. No one really believes in a two-state solution, and a prime example is the Israeli government itself, which continues to build like crazy in the territories while pretending to negotiate the creation of the Palestinian State.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

But I sincerely believe that democracy would work

You are proposing moving people of Palestinian descent from Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon into Israel as if that is democracy. Democracy is a form of government; it isn't a one-sided attempt to reverse the effects of the 1948 war. The Hasbarists are the ones keeping their eyes on the democracy ball. Most anti-Hasbaraists don't even blink when it is pointed out that the PA and Hamas are both despotic and that the surrounding Arab states are as well. Democratic wholes are not built out of non-democratic and in some cases anti-democratic parts. Force an anti-Hasbarist to confront this and after a great deal of evasion of the whole issue you'll get accused of arguing that Arabs or Muslims are incapable of Democracy or some such.

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

You are proposing moving people of Palestinian descent from Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon into Israel as if that is democracy.

A few years ago a Peruvian tribe converted en masse to Judaism and immigrated to Israel. Surely a person of Palestinian descent from Syria is more entitled to the land of Israel than Quechua-speaking people whose ancestors never lived there?

Democratic wholes are not built out of non-democratic and in some cases anti-democratic parts.

Democracy means every person should have a vote. Israel's behavior indicates quite clearly that it wants to retain the West Bank. Outposts are constantly being set up, as you perfectly know, with the Israeli military turning a blind eye on them and the civilian administration providing them with all the services, as you also perfectly know. Only a token fraction are dismantled once in a while, only to be replaced by four times as many in the ensuing months -- as you perfectly know as well.

Only last month a new settlement was authorized in the Jordan Valley.

Therefore, you know perfectly that Israel wants to retain the West Bank. In Judaism, it's actions that count, not intentions professed, and Israeli actions are that it's constantly building and setting up outposts in the West Bank.

Since Israel wants to retain the West Bank, it must give the vote to all people there. That's called democracy. Instead, it's gerrymandering the land to create Jewish-only zones and giving the vote only to those Jews. That's called Apartheid.

Maybe you're trying to convince me that Israel is not undemocratic or antidemocratic because it hasn't annexed the West Bank, and therefore it hasn't the obligation to offer citizenship to all people there. But the current situation is one of de facto annexation.

David L said...

Clearly for Yitzchak, Palestinians aren't people, they are 'anti-democratic parts'. Problems that need to be gotten rid of.

I suppose the 'anti-democratic parts' in the West Bank can be cleansed too if they get in the way of the democratic state - just as the Palestinians inside the path of the apartheid wall are being cleansed. After all, in the demographic war that Israel is waging, it's bulldozed facts on the ground that count.

And to talk of reversing this slow ethnic cleansing, or the ethnic cleansing of the past - well that's de facto anti-democratic.

Probably anti-semitic too.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

Democracy means every person should have a vote

It means a lot more than that. It means freedom of the press and freedom of speech. It means leaders who have to worry about facing the next election, not presidents-for-life who are reelected after the latest glorious election with a 100 percent turnout of all voters. You can't or won't talk seriously about what sort of state is going to result from some scheme to combine Israelis with a group that might consist largely of Hamas supporters.

Yitzchak Goodman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

It means a lot more than that. It means freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Do you remember the girl who filmed an Israeli soldier shooting a handcuffed and blindfolded prisoner?

Israeli soldiers are taking revenge. First they arrested her father without reason. Then they shot against the very same window from where she recorded the incident. You can check it out here, where there's a picture of the window with the corresponding hole, courtesy of the State of Israel. You can also read the girl's testimony:

“Since my video was shown, the soldiers shoot at our house all the time,” she said. The shattered and cracked windows at the front of the building confirm her story. “When we leave the windows open, they fire tear gas inside too.”

My question is, how much freedom of speech does this girl enjoy.

So we have that the Palestinians are nondemocratic or antidemocratic, and the Israelis are also nondemocratic or antidemocratic, since they shoot and tear-gas those who want to exercise their freedom of speech.

And, yet, I believe a democracy can be made out of these two nondemocratic or antidemocratic "components."

Yitzchak Goodman said...

And, yet, I believe a democracy can be made out of these two nondemocratic or antidemocratic "components."

Just because? Is there some reasoning that goes with that?

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

Hmmm, let's see: what really matters here is if the binational state would be more or less democratic as compared to the current Zionist entity, not to Finland.

That's where my unanswered argument becomes relevant: today, if a girl wants to film Israeli soldiers committing atrocities, her house will be fired at by the soldiers.

I.e., there's no actual freedom of speech in Israeli-controlled areas, so I don't see why you're bothered by the prospect of a binational state without freedom of speech.

Oh!, I see. You mean freedom of speech for the Jews.

Anonymous said...

the current Zionist entity

Using this antisemitic term tells us where you are coming from.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

there's no actual freedom of speech in Israeli-controlled areas, so I don't see why you're bothered by the prospect of a binational state without freedom of speech.

Oh!, I see. You mean freedom of speech for the Jews.


Is this the closest you are willing to come to discussing democracy in the proposed bi-national state? It's very interesting that you have to be this evasive. The incident with the girl doesn't prove that Israel has not achieved genuine representative government. The West Bank is a low-level war zone.
Freedom of speech for anyone is a rare achievement in the Middle East. Israel has achieved that and other civil liberties for Jews and for the Arab minority inside the green line. Palestinians are largely responsible for lack of freedoms in Hamas-controlled areas. The same can probably be said for the PA. Hamas is allied with Syria, Hizbullah, and Iran. The PLO used to be allied with the Soviets. Why would a bi-national state be likely to achieve democracy in your opinion? Isn't that a claim you make?

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

The incident with the girl doesn't prove that Israel has not achieved genuine representative government. The West Bank is a low-level war zone.

You seem to believe the girl's house was fired at because the West Bank is a low-level war zone.

I have an alternative explanation. The house was fired at because the girl was a Palestinian who dared to shame the Israelis by exposing their criminal behavior. If she had been a Jew there would have been no problem. In a master-slave relationship, the masters may be denounced by other masters, but not by the slaves.

Is this the closest you are willing to come to discussing democracy in the proposed bi-national state?

South Africa is a good mirror Israel can look at itself in. The whites were scared that the country would descend into a dictatorship once the ANC took power. It hasn't happened.

Koppers said...

South Africa is a good mirror Israel can look at itself in. The whites were scared that the country would descend into a dictatorship once the ANC took power. It hasn't happened.

Or you could use the Zimbabwe mirror. :->

I have no problem with the one state solution. However, it has to be on the proviso that BOTH sides want it. That's where it falls down like a pack of cards because neither side wants it.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

You seem to believe the girl's house was fired at because the West Bank is a low-level war zone.

No, I was making the point that incidents on the West Bank are not the last word on whether Israel has a free press, which it obviously does. You make constant use yourself of material from Ha'aretz which is critical of Israel. Find something comparable from Iran or Syria or something coming out of Hamas-controlled Gaza. You are desperate to change the subject.

Yitzchak Goodman said...

The whites were scared that the country would descend into a dictatorship once the ANC took power. It hasn't happened.

So? Either the fears were well-founded or they weren't. You aren't claiming that all political movements have equal inclinations towards dictatorship, are you? We are getting to see how Hamas governs in Gaza. How is it doing so far in the democracy department? Or are we not supposed to think about these things?

kei and yuri said...

We in the larger community use "Jew hater" for someone who honestly hates Jews as such;
"classical anti-Semitism" to describe the very consistent historical European model which for example does not include Ancient Roman acts which were generally overwhelmingly philo-Semitic and dealt with Jews at worst as they would deal with any other people;
"anti-Semite" to describe such horrible monsters as ourselves, Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Joseph Heller (the novelist not the scholar), Norman Roth, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, IF Stone and a waiter who takes to long to bring Abe Foxman his steak, and in this we are only following the lead of you people;
and "post-Zionist" to represent opposition to Israeli governmental and organizational imperialism, which we had thought was a standard practice.
Of course, there's always the neo-Nazi group that ran out of phony baloney euphemisms and tried to hide itself as "Libertarian Socialist," a term already in use by True Anarchists, and Chomsky had said that ruined the term for him. These terms have all been in use in this way for years but they do move around.

kei and yuri said...

The complicating factor in all this is the way the deeply and ever manipulative, most powerful subgroup of Jews does not want anything to stop moving around, to stand still and take one label and stick with it. If you try to represent them accurately, a real Zionist in the mold of the Irgun will suddenly change his behavior just to be able to call you a liar. The way these people work in bargaining for a price on a jar of pickles or manipulating the opinion of a nation is to abandon objective reality and allow everything, every little detail, every trend and act, to "just go to show" (that really ought to be one word in American English) that they were right all along. Reliable labels are anathema to this peculiar sort of total victory.
We will never forget seeing a Hebrew-English dictionary -- a dictionary -- perverted to exactly the kind of political language lamented by Orwell: the PLO was there hasbarah'ed as "the so-called PLO." Well of course it's so-called, that's its official name isn't it? It is not the place of any dictionary to write like that. Needless to say the dictionary spoke with purple, flowery praise of the "communities" (ie, illegal settlements in recently conquered land). Next to the dictionary, which is admittedly useful enough so long as you understand what you're reading, is our 501 Hebrew Verbs. It's next to to a 501 German volume full of example sentences that are weak attempts at self-deprecatory humor. The 501 Hebrew has such balanced self-deprecatory example sentences as "More people are arriving in Aliyah every year."

Kris Petersen said...

I think you have it wrong when you claim that the English language lacks distinctive verbs... "to cry" and "to ask" may be ambiguous - but there are dozens and dozens more verbs depending on the degree of specificity or connotation the speaker desires.

"To cry" (in sadness) can be, to weep, to whimper, to sob, to wail, to bawl, to squall, to mewl, to lament, to grieve, to mourn, to blubber... etc.

"To ask" can be to question, to request, to quiz, to interrogate, to inquire, to demand, to petition for, to appeal for, to beg, to pose, to grill... etc.

In fact, many claim that because English is essentially a mixture of many languages, it has the richest vocabulary of any other language.

See http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2006/10/english-has-richest-vocabulary.html

Regarding the term "anti-Semite", I think the dictionary definition is quite explicit: hostility to or prejudice against Jews.

It says nothing whatsoever about Zionism (or Israel).

Of course, demagogues and politically-motivated individuals have co-opted the term for their own purposes to stigmatize criticism of Israel's policies.

But this is just elementary agitprop and does not amount to any real ambiguity with the definition of "anti-Semite" in my opinion. Otherwise, we should also be calling for a review of the word "socialist", since that term has been to (incorrectly) describe Barack Obama for similar political purposes...

Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

Kris, it's a little more complicated than how many words a language has. Vocabulary richness is given not just by the raw number of words in the dictionary, but also by the frequency of their use.

The problem with English is that sometimes it becomes ambiguos because, although it has different words for two concepts, it chooses to use one and the same for both. For instance, "oil" may mean "cooking oil" or "petroleum." "Gas" may mean "natural gas" or "gasoline." I.e., the words that are in the dictionary are not actually used.

Dr. Health said...

But these are moot points. Apartheid South Africa doesn't exist anymore, no member of the British nobility has ever promised the Gypsies a national homeland and the Brits have ceased to control India in any event.

diseno web valencia said...

Very useful material, much thanks for this article.