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Is Zionism the New N-word?

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Message Doug Rogers

I was leaving a comment on an OpEd News article the other day and an odd message came up when I tried to submit it.  The message asked me to think twice about my use of the word Zionism.  In very friendly terms it informed me that the use of the word Zionism can be hurtful, offensive and hateful and asked me to please consider using another word.

            I write this article because I think that this nuanced language policy should have the widest possible review.  Among the many evils in the world high on the list should rank the way that words are manipulated and controlled.  I don’t want to suggest that I definitively know which words should be used and how, but I certainly have a strong reaction when I am asked to curtail the use of what until now has been a perfectly acceptable word.

            Zionism has a simple and straightforward dictionary definition:  n.  movement establishing and developing Jewish state: a worldwide movement, originating in the 19th century, that sought to establish and develop a Jewish nation in Palestine. Since 1948 its function has been to support the state of Israel.

Encarta ® World English Dictionary © & (P) 1998-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

            Does this definition leave it open to being used as a smear or epithet?  Something like “liberal” became a nasty name to pin on anyone who wasn’t a Republican?  I don’t doubt that many people are using it with venom these days.  But the list of innocuous words that could conceivably be hurled as insults is endless.  Think of “macaca”.  Are we really prepared to put little warning labels, like the ones that remind you not to put your hand in the car door when it’s closing, on every possibly offending missive?

            The obvious precedent is the one referred to in my title.  I don’t like to offend people, so I don’t use the n-word.  I could rebel at this absolutism if I wanted.  But that word has no other meaning but as a hurtful derogatory phrase. 

            And what makes it hurtful in our culture?  Surely the fact that African-Americans have been an oppressed minority in this country.  It’s just not funny or appropriate to sling insults at the beseiged underdog.  The word “honkey” never became the h-word precisely because white people are the oppressive majority.  Whether or not it’s funny and appropriate to insult them, honkey has certainly never been terribly hurtful.

            Jews have also been an oppressed minority in the world community.  But as the current mideast situation demonstrates they also have it in their power to be the oppressors.  Are the underdog Palestinians protected from possibly hurtful phrases?  I couldn’t find one that elicited the automatic message system.  Terrorist, Palestinian terrorist, Arab militant, towelhead, camel jockey, macaca, donkey all passed through unexamined.

            Perhaps no one is insulting Palestinians on OpEd’s pages.  Certainly in the wider media they are.  Even “anti-semite” passes the hurtful test and I know that that one has been liberally thrown about.

            OpEd has to be applauded for trying to maintain a civil discourse on their pages.  That’s really one of the things that set it apart from many other sites.  But the word Zionism has a very specific uncontroversial meaning.  One that is descriptive and not derogatory.  In fact its use facilitates highlighting the difference between opposing the actions of the state of Israel and opposing Jewish people.  The first position is well justified and the second is not.

            Understanding the meaning of words is important to all discourse.  But flagging a correctly used word just because it could possibly be used incorrectly seems unjustified to me.  Even though the automated message allows me to ignore it and post my comment as I see fit, the imposition of an editorial stigma reeks of language manipulation and subtle intimidation.  The editors must protect the freedom of speech on this site but so must its readers and writers.


For the sake of full disclosure, my comment that elicited the automatic message:  I also put myself in the shoes of European Jews who after centuries of persecution and no safe haven felt their only hope for their people was in Zionism.”

The full article and exchange:

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Doug Rogers is a composer and playwright and for many years designed ladies' sweaters. He is now a student again at Empire State College in Buffalo NY.
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