My latest in Haaretz. A look at the importance of language and metaphors in the recent anti-immigrant rhetoric in Israel. Sometimes (if I may paraphrase Nietzsche), one needs to opine with a hammer.
On the day that the first, and highly publicized “repatriation” of South Sudanese migrants begins, we need to look again at the rhetoric employed by Israeli politicians and broadcasters towards those seeking refuge and a better life in Israel.
The incitements that lead to the anti-immigrant riot of March 23 by Israeli politicians Miri Regev, Danny Danon, and Michael Ben-Ari have rightly shocked people of good conscience. Many have asked how, after all, can politicians representing the state of Israel call people living in its midst a “cancer in our body” and a “national plague”? However, a poll taken shortly after the incident (by the Israel Democracy Institute) has shown that 53 percent of Israelis identify with those statements and 33 percent of Jews (along with 23 percent of Arabs) supported the acts of violence against African immigrants.
More recently, media personality and Army Radio talk-show host Avri Gilad said the migrants who enter Israel are a threat by virtue of being Muslims; which according to him is “the most terrible disease raging around the world.” He further explained that even though many of them are moderate, they carry a “virus” that can “explode” at any moment.
To understand the seriousness of Regev, Danon and Gilad’s statements we only have to mine history for the way in which Jews and others have been on the wrong end of similar pronouncements. Almost every genocide in recorded history has been preceded by the instrumental use of language to dehumanize and demonize a particular population – not least the Holocaust, but also Rwanda and Cambodia at the time of the Khmer Rouge. In other words, language – particularly the use of metaphors – matters.
A fascinating study by psychologists Mark Landau, Daniel Sullivan and Jeff Greenberg illustrates this point. Subjects read a short essay about airborne bacteria. In one group, the bacteria were described as threatening and in another as harmless. After, the subjects read an article about a domestic US issue. Some of the articles subtly employed a country as body metaphor, e.g. “After the Civil War, the U.S. experienced an unprecedented growth spurt”, while others didn’t, e.g. “After the Civil War, the U.S. experienced an unprecedented period of innovation”. Finally, the subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire assessing their attitudes on immigration.
Conclusion: Those who read about bacterial contamination along with an article that employed the country as body metaphor were more likely to hold negative attitudes regarding immigration.
Of course Regev, Danon and Gilad were not exactly subtle in their exercise of metaphors. To depict someone or something as an illness, particularly a terminal disease, is to render them non-human, loathsome and dangerous: something that mutates and feeds off of us. Most importantly, to depict someone as a terminal disease is to call for extreme corollary measures.
In 1977, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer, author Susan Sontag penned her well-known essay, “Illness as Metaphor”. On the use of cancer in political discourse, she had the following to say:
“To describe a phenomenon as a cancer is an incitement to violence. The use of cancer in political discourse encourages fatalism and justifies “severe” measures-as well as strongly reinforcing the widespread notion that the disease is necessarily fatal. While disease metaphors are never innocent, it could be argued that the cancer metaphor is a worst case: implicitly genocidal.”
Regev’s words were not only disturbing because of what she said about migrants, but also for what she said about Jews. Regev called Israel, or the Jewish people, “a body.” This is problematic not only because of the implicit and terrifying suggestion that she (Regev), as a representative of the government, is the “head” of the body, but also the dire implication for democratic values that the metaphor represents, in this context.
The idea of the “body politic”, an idea that dates back to Plato and Aristotle, has had particular attraction for fascist thinkers (though not only). The reason for this is that just as in the body every part has a function to play, politically the individual is charged with maintaining and submitting themselves to the greater whole. Harmony, interdependence and obedience rule the day. The individual does not exist apart from the nation anymore than cells exist apart from the body. To speak of a people as a body is therefore to (potentially) justify repression: repression against those who pose a danger of polluting or infecting the body.
“My movement encompasses every aspect of the entire Volk”, Adolf Hitler himself said in 1934, “It conceives of Germany as a corporate body, as a single organism. There is no such thing as non-responsibility in this organic being, not a single cell which is not responsible, by its very existence, for the welfare and well-being of the whole.”
In the end, the rhetoric of disease/body speaks of something rotting from within. Deep in our hearts we know that something is amiss. Except instead of dealing with it responsibly, addressing its root causes, we project our fears onto vulnerable and alien members of our society. It’s an old trick: at once – but falsely – ‘cleansing’ and ‘energizing’. Yet as anyone who is familiar with the history of political violence knows, and how such violence grows and festers, we ignore such ‘maladies’ at our own peril.
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