Friday, January 14, 2011

Metaphorical Danger

Parshat Beshallah
9 Shvat, 5771
There was, in my first full year in Israel, a point when I began to get frightened. The year was 2005, and the Disengagement from Gaza was rapidly approaching. In the media, on the buses, in public places I started to hear a repeated phrase about the prospect of the withdrawal: “it’s like Sharon is coming to rape my sister.” This statement terrified me.
            It terrified me because this peculiar metaphor means something to Jewish ears. There is a  law in the Talmud called the rodef – the pursuer. It describes a person who is coming to murder or to rape another human being. The law states that it is permitted, perhaps even commanded, to kill such a person before they accomplish their crime. What I was hearing was the religious justification for political assassination.
            What I was hearing also wasn’t true. Ariel Sharon was attempting to leave Gaza, and forcibly remove Jews from their homes. But no matter one’s opinion on the Disengagement, he was not, in fact, coming to rape anyone’s sister.
            Using metaphor this way is damned dangerous and irresponsible. Hitler was Hitler – not the leader of the political party we despise, who isn’t in fact a genocidal terrorist. Nazis are Nazis – not the au courant favorite political insult both here and in Israel. And a blood libel is the false belief that we used the blood of Christian children in baking matzah – a lie for which we died by the tens of thousands – not the response of a criticized politician.
            Torah is unequivocal about our responsibility to watch our words: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Proverbs 18:19 We are awash in metaphor, and it’s time to stop.

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