October 24, 2023

LIVSHITS | Language as Violence. President Pollack: Acknowledge Both Sides.

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The Israel-Hamas war has been raging for two weeks. For many, including myself, time has stopped. 

It is still early morning on Saturday, Oct. 7. The celebration of Sukkot extends through the night and into sunrise at the Nova music festival. Families in Israel set the table for Shemini Atzeret, the High Sabbath after Sukkot. In Palestine, many begin their Fajr prayer, their first prayer of the day. Children rush their breakfasts so that they can play with their friends. 

3,478 Palestinians have not yet been killed and 12,065 others have not yet been wounded. Across the divide, 1,400 Israelis have not yet been killed and 3,800 have not yet been injured. 

In reality, though, time does not stop. 

Hamas terrorists from Gaza rampage through border towns in a surprise attack, killing men, women and children at home, strolling on the street, waiting for the bus or dancing at an outdoor festival. They take more than 150 hostages. Prime Minister (and almost dictator) Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, in response, declares war: “Citizens of Israel, we are at war. Not an operation, not a round [of fighting,] at war! This morning Hamas initiated a murderous surprise attack against the state of Israel and its citizens.” 6,000 bombs are dropped across the Gaza Strip, many on civilian targets, with the forced evacuation of northern Gaza. 1 million Palestinians are displaced and stripped of running water or electricity.

Across campus, the same feelings ring: shock, anger, grief. Both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine protests are organized on Ho Plaza.

I follow the news as I walk to class, over dinner, during study breaks. I call my mother to ask about my aunt, who lives in Israel. 

Numbness settles in. I inhabit a liminal space where time is both paused and unpaused. I notice other students in a similarly detached form. Reality remains untouched.

As Americans, we don’t understand the gravity of war. The last large-scale war the United States fought on its own soil — to the understanding of the average American — is the American Civil War (1861-1865). This ensures a domestic disconnect from modern warfare despite the constant wars that the United States is engaged in. The United States hides its involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Libya and a number of other countries, influencing foreign politics (and largely destabilizing governments) without paying for the bloodshed it causes in those states. Locals fight, and die, so Americans do not have to. Americans gain the privilege of blissful ignorance.

In an interview with Responsible Statecraft, Mary Dudziak, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law, explains this phenomenon: “For most American civilians, war is an abstraction. It doesn’t touch them directly. Paying attention is optional. It is a story in the newspaper or an issue in a political debate.” U.S. civilians don’t experience it as a matter of life and death. Even as Americans gain global awareness, they are disconnected from the carnage of warfare. There is no “‘republic of suffering’ — a polity shaped by the shared experience of war’s carnage.” 

The abstraction of war joins hands with the growing desensitization to mass death. Human understanding shuts down.

This disconnect, almost apathy, becomes apparent in President Martha Pollack’s email, “Response to World Events,” on Oct. 10. The deadliest day for Jewish people since the Holocaust, a product of rape, beheadings, bodies burned alive and unequivocal mass slaughter, is attributed to Hamas militants, rather than terrorists (as they are designated by the U.S. State Department). President Pollack’s desire to distance herself from political overtones inadvertently defends the murder of civilians with a euphemism. She declassifies a pogrom as an act of terrorism.

As Prof. Daniel R. Schwarz, Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and The Sun’s visiting columnist, voices in his column, “The Significance of the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas Atrocities,” “Equating Hamas’ behavior to natural disasters or unrelated events in Armenia, as she [does] in her statement, is demeaning what occurred in Israel on Oct. 7. Even her use of the word ‘atrocities’ [is] confined to events that had nothing to do with what occurred in Israel.” She dissipates the gravity of death.

Across social media platforms, jokes about President Pollack using ChatGPT for her statement arise. Although such claims are completely unfounded — and honestly quite ridiculous — they reflect President Pollack’s lack of acknowledgment of the political divide in the Middle East and on campus. Her lack of any stance ignores both sides of the conflict. Her email, instead, mimics the speeches of politicians talking loudly but saying nothing in order to garner the most support, or, in this case, the least opposition. Her apolitical stance speaks of privilege and detachment. As Cornell’s preacher of freedom of expression, President Pollack should know that taking a stand is the first step of expression.

President Pollack’s follow up to her initial Israel message later that evening acknowledges this omission: “I have heard from a number of you who expressed dismay that I failed to say that the atrocities committed by Hamas this past weekend were acts of terrorism, which I condemn in the strongest possible terms.” Yet, it carries undertones of pressure from Jewish donors and trustees. Opinion is not distinguished from political and economic demands.

President Pollack’s last email, “Supporting one another as we stand against hatred,” offers detachment from brutality in a new light. While offering support for Israel, her language choice excuses the death (and genocide) of Palestinians. 

She opens, “The despicable atrocities perpetrated by the Hamas terrorist organization in Israel last week left the world reeling with shock, horror, anger and grief.” Support for the innocent lives shattered and unimaginable pain caused is provided only for Israel; blame is confined to Palestine. A certain death — Israeli military raids in the Palestinian city of Jenin, a raid of Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, snipers along the barrier fence that separates Gaza and Israel — is overlooked.

President Pollack more explicitly drives the divide between excusable and inexcusable death: “I weep for the Israeli babies who were murdered or kidnapped; I weep for the Palestinian babies now in harm’s way.” Language becomes an instrument of both passivity and violence. President Pollack acknowledges the brutality of the Hamas attack, but not Israel’s retaliation. She suggests that Israeli children are targeted, while Palestinian children are accidental casualties. She paints the murder of a specific group as accidental and ignores the intentional operations of the Israel Defense Forces. Meanwhile, death does not occur only on one side. It exponentially increases both in number and brutality in Israel and Palestine.

In times like these, we need to stop talking around one another, silencing the opposing arguments and ignoring not only different opinions but the destruction of families. Language should be an instrument of support and understanding, not hatred and violence. So, to President Pollack: As the first step toward peace, acknowledge both sides.

One day, a century of violence will culminate in a peace agreement. One day, we will mourn the lives lost without rockets exploding in the distance. One day, living with that grief will get easier. One day, peace will come

Ilana Livshits is a first year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column Live Laugh Livshits focuses on politics, social issues and culture at Cornell. She can be reached at [email protected].

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