The famed Chinese anti-blessing runs ‘May you be blessed to live in interesting times’ and it’s been uttered very frequently recently. For us in the Jewish community there are barely any times which are not interesting in one way or another, yet this current season is proving a challenge. One illustration of this was the conference originally pencilled in to be held at the University of Southampton at which the very right to Israel’s existence was to be debated and discussed. Thankfully the university realised that this was not a freedom of speech issue but an anti-Semitic abuse of freedom and cancelled it. Sadly it has reappeared now at an Irish university.
What shocks me though is not that this is debated, although that is bad enough, but the implications this throws up. It is often argued that what Israel is doing to the Arabs who live in certain areas of Israel are going to be ‘ethnically cleansed’ and removed from ancestral homelands. That this could even remotely be true is so laughable as to not merit a response here, but it is the language that shocks. If it is an act of ethnic cleansing to remove Arabs, then it surely is the same to remove Jewish people from said territories too. Indeed, a call to remove Israel from the map as has been often suggested by Arab, Muslim powers in the ME is often heard. Yet apparently this would NOT constitute an act of ethnic cleansing!
And here’s the nub of the issue, we live in an age where words are increasingly having no meaning whatsoever. Words now mean what we want them to mean, and that within our own ever decreasing bubbles of self-perception and personal indulgence. As the concept of absolute truth has been assaulted, and thereby the connected idea that words do have a meaning beyond ourselves and our own personal dictionaries of reality, the ability to communicate real meaning has diminished. In fact we have dug our own post-modern graves and are wilfully throwing ourselves into them as it were the best idea since sliced bread. The problem is that when we hear a news report about terrorism, we simply do not know any more if this is true. Such wilful abrogation of facts to suit ideology is shaking the ability to communicate to its core. And we see it everywhere across the ME in particular.
We can see this trend in other areas too: today people talk about ‘god’ without any concern as to which one, drawing upon a cultural consensus that has long since disappeared. Today we DO need to ask ‘which one?’ Words and their associated meanings are being reformed and given new semantic fields before our eyes and the minds of a generation are being transformed (or dare I say prepared?) for what is coming next.
If we learn one thing from the narrative of the Tower of Babel in Torah, it is that as language becomes muddled it is impossible to communicate any more. As people we then become separated and divided, and that produces conflict. Instead of using language to spread peace and guide people to worship the One true G-d in love and gentleness, we find the inflammatory use of words designed to stir up hatred and fear. One of the greatest minds of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill, knew this concept only too well when he famously said ‘Jaw jaw not war war’.
Today’s ‘meaning-crisis’ is creating uncertainty everywhere. What is truth, who is speaking it? In a post-truth age where experts are challenged and prejudice and personal opinion is vaulted as objective truth, we desperately need to go back to the source of all objective truth: The G-d of Israel. If we do not, the cultural and religious implications are severe. Assured cultural, moral and religious self-destruction will follow if no one knows what we mean any more. May we listen to the One who only speaks truth, whose meaning is clear, whose objective reality is the only narrative.