Week in and week out, for 24 years, the person known as Philologos has graced our pages with an erudite, engaging and often surprising column about language. About Yiddish, English and Hebrew, French, Polish, Latin and Greek, Aramaic and Circassian and just about any other tongue humans have spoken.
Ostensibly, Philologos answered readers questions about the use and abuse of a word or phrase. But the columns were about so much more than semantics.
They taught us about how words, written and spoken, reflect cultural values and behaviors; indeed, one can trace human development through the way certain words changed, combined or distinguished themselves from one another over time.
There were political points to be made, as well, and Philologos never shied away from expressing a personal opinion, whether about ISIS or Israeli policy, slyly wrapped in linguistic analysis.
Forward columnist Philologos recently took the Israeli daily Ha’aretz to task for using the term “apartheid” in its reporting on a poll that showed most Israelis support discrimination against Arab citizens. “Apartheid” and mere discrimination are two very different things, Philologos claimed. He suggested that Ha’aretz should be censured for using such a damning epithet.
Philologos went on to define what he sees the critical difference between “apartheid” and “discrimination.” The former refers to “the systematic segregation of one people, race or group from another,” while the latter means “the systematic favoring of one people, race or group over another, such as exists in numerous countries around the world today.” And while Israel may practice regrettable discrimination against its Arab citizens, he claimed it was a “lie” to suggest that it is in any way an apartheid state.
While Philologos may be a fine linguist, his knowledge of international human rights law is sorely lacking.
Contrary to Philologos’ characterization, the term “apartheid” does not refer simply to segregation, although the term comes from a word in the South African Afrikaans language that means separate-ness or segregation. In legal terms, apartheid applies to a wide range of acts in which a dominant racial regime commits institutionalized oppression against another ethnic group.
In his latest column, Philologos correctly parses the linguistic problems with Yitzhak Santis and Gerald M. Steinberg’s invented term, “Jew-washing.” His political analysis, alas, fails miserably.
Philologos has it completely wrong when he speaks of the “anti-Semitism in boycotts of Israel.” To begin with, Santis and Steinberg did not use the term “Jew-washing” in reference to a boycott of Israel as a whole, but rather to a resolution recently brought to the Pittsburgh General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that called for divestment of their pension funds from three specific companies that profit from Israel’s brutal and illegal occupation of the West Bank.
Regardless, it is highly disingenuous for Philologos to accuse the Presbyterian Church of anti-Semitism. Our Christian friends’ response to the Palestinian civil society call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), reflects their deeply held commitment to justice in a land their tradition also considers holy.
When Neshama Carlebach recently recorded for us a slightly different, more inclusive version of Hatikvah (one first suggested by our language columnist, Philologos), the reaction from some was predictably pretty negative. As one commenter succinctly put it, “Israel is not a binational state. It is the national homeland of the Jewish people. I’d rather Israel be a Jewish state than a democratic one, if a choice must be made. Leave Hatikvah alone. Leave the Israeli flag alone.”
We never intended the recording to be an endorsement of a change in the national anthem. It was meant as a challenge of sorts, an intellectual exercise that might provide an entry point for a conversation about how representative the Hatikvah actually is or should be. Setting this alteration of the anthem to music seemed fitting also because, as a song, Hatikvah has been fairly mutable, with lyrics shifting and changing at various points in history (and I’ll offer a few examples after the jump).
Carlebach herself found herself attacked for having made the recording and she has now issued a statement explaining her decision to participate in this exercise: