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Acts of Language

Yasmine Seale

Yasmine Seale: Names of the Sea, 2020

Yasmine Seale

Yasmine Seale: Names of the Sea, 2020

Since the protests began on campuses throughout the United States, I have been struck by the verbal contortions many writers have gone through to avoid engaging with the gravity of Israel’s assault on Gaza—one of the most brutal, punitive military campaigns in modern history—and with the clarity of the students’ moral outrage. If you are in this country, and you have successfully ignored the images of children, dead and living, being pulled out from rubble in Gaza, of people being operated on without anaesthetic, of bodies torn limb from limb, of babies removed from incubators and left to die, of embryos destroyed in fertility clinics, of bodies hanging from buildings, of mothers and fathers carrying pieces of their children in plastic bags, of friends walking together struck and killed with precision missiles, you might get the impression from much of what you read that a woke mob has been flinging words like “colonialist” around indiscriminately, aggressing American Jewish students, and intimidating all those who oppose their views into silence.

It has been startling to me to read so many writers lamenting the speech of pro-Palestine protesters in the US compared with this actual violence—tantamount, according to numerous experts, to the crime of genocide. Such essays frequently describe speech as being either threatening (from the Palestinian side) or under threat (on the anti-Palestinian side).

On May 27, for instance, writing in The New York Times, James Kirchick decried the “bullying” quality of protests in the literary world against Israel’s offensive and “the cynical weaponization of the word ‘genocide’” as part of a “campaign of intimidation.” Earlier that month, the Atlantic contributing writer Judith Shulevitz stressed the hostile nature of pro-Palestine slogans on campus: “A voice breaking the calm of a neoclassical quad with harsh cries of ‘Intifada, Intifada’ is not a harbinger of harmonious coexistence.” In the same magazine, Michael Powell charged the students with “merciless rhetoric” and “an air of presumption—an implication that one cannot challenge, much less debate, the protesters’ writ.” In Dissent, the Indiana University political scientist Jeffrey C. Isaac, even while defending his students’ right to protest, dedicated most of his essay to expressing concern about the “defensive aggression” in their rhetoric, including the slogan “free Palestine,” which he deemed at best of “questionable practicality.” Many of these essays described the students’ rhetoric in terms similar to those that Columbia President Minouche Shafik, in her initial letter to the university community about her decision to ask the NYPD to clear the encampment just a day after it began, used about the protest as a whole: that it created “a harassing and intimidating environment for many of our students.”

They were building on several months of debate about the language used to oppose Israel’s actions. Writing this February in Time, Noah Feldman argued that, while “it is not inherently antisemitic to criticize Israel,” nevertheless those who treat it “as a settler-colonial oppressor on par with or worse than the U.S., Canada, and Australia…run the risk of perpetuating antisemitism by condemning the Jewish state despite its basic differences from these other global examples.” Those who accuse Israel of committing genocidal acts, meanwhile, are “especially prone to veering into antisemitism,” because doing so “can function, intentionally or otherwise, as a way of erasing the memory of the Holocaust and transforming Jews from victims into oppressors.” Right-wing politicians have been less cautious in their allegations. At the recent House hearings targeting university presidents, Republican congresspeople relied heavily on a mistranslation of the word “intifada”—Arabic for “uprising,” derived from the word “nafada,” which means “to shake off”—as a call for “the genocide of Jews.”

Then there is the slogan “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” which has been similarly condemned as genocidal, with little regard for its context—which is central to its meaning. It seems rather difficult to find student protesters on US campuses who say that they believe that Jews should be removed from the river to the sea; when asked, they frequently say that they mean that freedom and equality should be the law of the land between those two bodies of water, the entire geographic area in which Palestinian rights are denied. There is a longstanding Palestinian intellectual tradition of understanding Palestine as one territorial unit from the river to the sea, as encapsulated in the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s 1970 document “Towards a Democratic State in Palestine for Muslims, Christians and Jews,” which was foundational to the Palestine National Council’s 1971 call for a one-state solution. It is premised on an opposition to the political ideology that promotes an exclusivist, supremacist Jewish state, and it includes Jews as an integral part of the future polity. On the other hand, the Likud party’s original 1977 platform states that “between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty,” and the 2018 Nation-State Law explicitly enshrines Jewish supremacy across this geography: “The right to exercise national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.” Israeli officials now openly discuss the mass transfer of Palestinians from Gaza.

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In a recent essay in The New Yorker on the student protests, Zadie Smith, too, gives priority to questions of language. She expresses her admiration for the protesting students: “They are putting their own bodies into the machine. They deserve our support and praise.” Her central claim, though, is that they, like their opponents, are relying on “a series of shibboleths,” for instance treating “the word ‘Zionist’ as if that word were an unchanged and unchangeable monolith, meaning exactly the same thing in 2024 and 1948 as it meant in 1890 or 1901 or 1920.” All political ideologies, including Zionism, vary over time, but the students are responding principally not to the details of those variations but to the effects this ideology has had and continues to have on Palestinians.

For Smith, however, as for others, “the use of words” seems to have become a violent act in its own right. “In the case of Israel/Palestine,” she writes, “language and rhetoric are and always have been weapons of mass destruction.” She lingers on the possibility that the protests could make some Jewish students feel unsafe: “it may well be that a Jewish student walking past the tents, who finds herself referred to as a Zionist, and then is warned to keep her distance, is, in that moment, the weakest participant in the zone.”

It is true that some Jewish students have expressed feeling ill at ease. Evidence of physical intimidation or violence by student protesters against counterprotesters, however, remains hard to come by. Most of the violence, verbal and physical, at the encampments has been directed by police officers and Zionist activists against the protesting students, many of whom are themselves Jewish. With some exceptions, including Brown, Rutgers, and Northwestern, university administrations have largely chosen to bring in police forces to assault and arrest their students—to stop them from speaking—rather than listen to them and negotiate with them. When writers (and pundits and politicians) opine about free speech rights and violations around Palestine they rarely address the material conditions of such speech, including the fact that some speech is met with violence and some is not, in accordance with the unequal distribution of power.

This was the point that I and a number of writers were making when we withdrew from the PEN World Voices Festival, after PEN America failed to call for a cease-fire in Gaza for five months—unlike PEN International, which released a statement in October—and only then after being pressured to do so by hundreds of writers. Several members of the board responded by emphasizing their commitment to free speech and openness, which they claimed we opposed. But we do not: we made our withdrawal public in a letter outlining PEN America’s abdication of its stated purpose to protect writers and culture. It had, we noted, failed to offer support to Palestinian writers and journalists at risk of being killed in Gaza and the West Bank, by contrast with the group’s robust initiatives in Ukraine and other sites of war, conflict, and oppression; and it had condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in clear violation of its own mandate to protect free speech. Free speech includes the freedom not to speak, or publish, or do public events—as when Sally Rooney chose to decline a book deal with an Israeli publisher funded by the Israeli state. It is, in fact, the boycott’s adherents whose speech most urgently needs protection, as legislators in the US, Germany, and elsewhere pass laws that put state and municipal contractors at risk of losing funding if they boycott companies affiliated with Israeli apartheid.

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This focus on the speech used tο support Palestinian rights does more than obscure the context in which protesters are speaking; it also obscures the reality about which they speak. I believe in the power and importance of language. But what is happening is not primarily about language. Words are not weapons of mass destruction: when we encourage others to use language with care, we should be sure to do the same ourselves. Some metaphors are inappropriate in some contexts. The context here is a quantity of ammunition dropped on Gaza that is equivalent to more than three times that of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima. A high proportion of those bombs were US-made and supplied. Those bombs were not made of language, and they certainly were not metaphors.

Later in her essay, Smith gestures toward the idea that language might, after all, be totally beside the point: “The only thing that has any weight in this particular essay is the dead.” But little of the rest of the essay engages with the dead; it engages above all with language. The effect of training people’s attention on matters of discourse and representation is to avoid addressing what is principally at issue, which are material facts. The material facts in this case are: money, land, weapons, and over 37,000 dead Palestinians.

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This is, fundamentally, what the student protests are about. We do not have to guess or suppose that this is the case because the students themselves have said so, emphatically, repeatedly, and at considerable risk and sometimes cost to themselves. Their first demand is that their universities disclose their financial investments. Their second is that the universities divest from arms companies associated with the Israeli state and from war profiteering more broadly. Anyone who has watched the videos or visited the campuses will hear these words: “Disclose; Divest; We will not stop; We will not rest.” At some universities, the demands also include reinvestment into Palestinian studies and centers, and scholarships for Palestinian students. At Northwestern, for example, the students negotiated a deal with the administration that includes an initiative to employ two Palestinian faculty members and fund five Palestinian undergraduates to enroll at the school.

There also needs to be a permanent cease-fire and a release of all hostages, including the roughly eighty Israeli hostages thought to still be alive in Gaza and the more than nine thousand Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli prison cells, a number that has almost doubled over the last eight months. A cease-fire, however, is not the primary demand of these students. Their universities are not capable of achieving a cease-fire, so to call for one as the condition for ending their encampments would be unrealistic. Here, as elsewhere, the students’ speech is admirably precise, focusing on the direct economic connections between their universities and what is happening in Gaza, and on what those universities could do to support, rather than harm, Palestinians.

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I happened to be in New York when the encampment at Columbia started. I went to the campus at 116th Street and managed to speak to some undergraduates. Many of them were Palestinian, and many were Jewish. Talking to them filled me with a joy I had not felt in months. There was a check-in system at the edge of the lawn that involved reading the encampment’s rules and guidelines for care, a designated corner of the lawn for members of the press, a long table with snacks and meals, and activities that included dance performances and film screenings, as well as Christian, Muslim and Jewish prayers. It was a collaborative experiment in self-organization.

One student, who had painted a sign saying “Jews for Palestine” and hung it on her tent, said that she and her fellow protesters had just held a seder in the encampment. When I asked her what they would do if the Jewish Israeli business school professor Shai Davidai, who has called some of the students antisemitic slurs like “kapo,” entered the encampment as he had threatened to, she said that the Jewish students planned to make a circle and protect the others. With all this talk of Jewish safety, where was the concern for these Jewish students, who were putting their lives and futures at risk, in beautiful gestures of solidarity with Palestinians?

Instead, much of the denunciation of the student protesters rests on a conflation of Jewishness and Zionism—which is itself a dangerous act of language. To call the student protests against the war on Gaza antisemitic is to disregard anti-Zionist Jewish protesters; to describe the call to free Palestine as genocidal is to ask us to believe that the Jewish students of the organization Jewish Voice for Peace, or the religious leaders in Rabbis for Ceasefire protesting with them, think that the seven million Jewish human beings who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea should simply vanish. If rhetoric can be dangerous, sophistry is even more so.

Language is not merely how we label ourselves or refuse to; it is not just the provenance of certain individual rights. Nor does it somehow rise above political realities: legal definitions, historical records, and the evidentiary basis of the crimes called “genocide,” “ethnic cleansing,” and “apartheid.” According to the Genocide Convention, all individuals and states have a moral and legal duty to attempt to prevent genocide, if there is even a possibility that genocide might be taking place. These are facts which can be learned from reading books and speaking to experts; they are not malleable acts of language. The wrangling in too much of the American press over the language of protest obscures these juridical speech acts. At this very moment, language is being criminalized: the Senate is currently considering a bill that would require the FBI to add student protesters to its no-fly list if they are deemed to have spoken in support of Palestinian militant groups or have been disciplined by their universities for “such conduct.” There is no such thing as language without politics. To claim that there can be is to abet the political violence that continues unrelentingly underneath the pretense of neutrality.

Meanwhile, after a period of intense bombardment, Israel has sealed the border between Gaza and Egypt so that essentially no one can escape and no humanitarian aid can enter. Now the Israeli army has invaded Rafah, a supposed safe zone in which one and a half million Palestinians were sheltering. Over a million of them have fled, with no clear safe place to go. Seven mass graves have been discovered across Gaza’s hospitals, with at least five hundred mutilated bodies recovered, a number which is expected to rise. On May 26, the day before Kirchick’s Times essay was published, Israeli bombardment killed tens of people who were sheltering in tents in Rafah. The photographs and footage show bodies burned, tents on fire, a decapitated child.

The weight of the dead breathes life into the action of the living. Amid this horror, what continues to encourage me is the bravery of writers, artists, and most especially students—people of all kinds dissenting together, standing together, working together, refusing together. The professors of NYU holding hands, using their bodies to protect their students from the police. To protect their speech.


An earlier version of this article misstated which convention gives individuals and states the duty to attempt to prevent genocide.

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