Imagine – as John Lennon once began (and, in my opinion, the best part of the song, although I’m probably in a minority) – a world without words. It must have existed once, when homo sapiens was still thinking about communication. Would it have been any more peaceful? The obvious answer is no; people would still have bashed each other over the head. But, as the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible puts it (chapter 15), “a gentle answer turns away wrath”. Can talking really make a difference? Can it be a substitute for war? After all, Proverbs 15 goes on to say “but a harsh word stirs up anger.” And, boy is that true.
This week, the Israeli media has been creating a great many words on the subject of war with Iran. Is it inevitable? Is Tehran about to launch a nuclear attack on Israel? Should Israel strike first – without any US support? It’s difficult to see whether politicians are responding to the media hype or the media is reflecting the genuine political debate. Defence Minister Ehud Barak has even been giving interviews incognito (although the disguises seem to be somewhat thin). The war hype goes on, despite Yedioth Aharonoth’s revelation that absolutely no general or security chief supports an attack. Words, words, words – all making people focus on the possibility of war.
Like everything else in most democratic countries with a free press, you pick your newspaper to read the approach that you expect – or prefer – to see. Unfortunately, that’s also how rumours get spread. Recently there have been a collection of varied libels, such as the claim that the Temple is about to be rebuilt on the Haram/Temple Mount (and most Israelis are supposed to support this according to some poll or other), or that leading Palestinians are in cahouts with Assad and Ahmadinejad, and are being supplied with military hardware (by carrier pigeon?). This last rumour seems to ignore the fact that the Holy Land is tiny; a nuclear attack on Tel Aviv wouldn’t do much for Ramallah.
The point is that words are weapons. Subtle, barbed, direct hits to the heart. They can frustrate us like mad; why won’t people listen to us?! We have whole arsenals of them. And – to save us time – there are ready made collections of word-weapons that we can just pick off the shelf, like the libels currently doing the rounds. Such arguments are artillery fire; they allow no reasonable defence. Unfortunately, they are also really, really effective. They often connect with things we half believe. Or they conjure up our deepest fears.
Fortunately, protection from such libels is available. No one likes to be thought of as a sucker. By believing things that aren’t true, that’s just what we are. But how can we tell what is or isn’t true? I have 3 steps:
1. How quick are you to say to yourself, ‘well, this just bears out what I thought about those people?’ If it takes you less than a week, go on to step 2.
2. Ask yourself whether you’ve heard this before? Has this, or something very similar, been reported before but never actually happened to your knowledge? Or is it part of a wider narrative? Ask this together with the question in step 3.
3. Do you want it to be true, in your heart of hearts? Would it justify your own position? Honestly.
There is a way to help us recognise libels – and it’s the most important: meeting and getting to know as many Palestinians and Israelis whose views differ from our own. Go on a study tour. Take trips that expose you to views with which you feel uncomfortable. And be open. Meet them as people, try to like them. Then you can check your libel radar again. In the meantime, by all means share those things which people really do need to know – real knowledge is power – but look out for the word-weapons. They don’t help.