American journalist and activist Masha Gessen, who was born in the former USSR, has written about the similarities between what the Soviet regime did to the Russian language and what the Trump administration is doing today to English and to the global political language.
In the former Soviet Union, everyone participated in so-called “elections” that expressed the “free will of the people.” Participation was mandatory and the ballot form included a set list of options.
Thus, the words “elections,” “freedom,” and “democracy” lost their meaning and were used only in a cynical context. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, officials have been unable to restore confidence in these desecrated terms.
Laundered language and words that have been emptied of their meaning are used today by various leaders for their cynical political interests.
Putin coined the terms “dictatorship of the law” and “managed democracy.” Trump gave new life to the term “fake news” and redefined the meaning of words like “media,” “truth,” and “justice,” and Erdogan did the same with “free media” and “opposition.”
We live in an era of “post-truth,” where public attitudes are based on an appeal to the sense of “unity,” personal opinions, and gut feelings. And what about facts and truth? They are only of secondary importance in shaping public opinion and get lost in a hodgepodge of carefully selected laundered words.
Netanyahu is the king of the laundromat. He did not invent “post-truth politics,” but he has learned from his good friends and has been busy refining the practice.
Imbued with a personal motivation to divert the public agenda from his personal affairs, Netanyahu himself directed the campaign that laundered the annexation discourse and, along with his partners, resorted to inciteful and hateful rhetoric to trample those who cling to the truth.
In a clear extension of those anti-democratic expressions, we are now witnessing the laundering and normalization in the public discourse of anti-democratic moves that run counter to international law.
The most prominent examples of whitewashed language are “annexation” and “application of sovereignty” – two concepts that were laundered by Netanyahu and his political partners and leveraged with the help of various media outlets to hide from the public the fact that an apartheid regime is about to emerge in Israel. Although annexation did not materialize on 1 July as Netanyahu had promised, the plan is still on the agenda.
A recent report published by Zulat for Equality and Human Rights, a new activist think tank, titled “Whitewashing Apartheid: How Netanyahu manipulated language to hide the consequences of unilateral annexation” describes the laundering process and analyzes data gathered from the media to demonstrate how it was carried out.
For example, between December 2019 and January 2020, use of the term “applying sovereignty” in the media soared to a record rate of 3,425%, while mention of the word “apartheid” remained unchanged and even declined in some outlets.
The report links the dramatic hike to a deliberate policy of laundering language by using mild words to disguise the cruelty inherent in unilateral annexation.
Through intricate manipulation of language, the launderers have turned “the apartheid plan” into a natural move. The implied positivity of the words “applying sovereignty” adds to the apathy that people feel toward annexation.
This allows Netanyahu to go on rekindling a phony “patriotic unity” and entrenching a false and distorted reality, as these two words create the illusion of a positive diplomatic step to be proud of.
Moreover, the terms “applying sovereignty” and “partial annexation” have been normalized and integrated into the public discourse and have become government policy with the support of the Labor Party and Blue & White, both of whom made it into the Knesset thanks to votes cast by center-left voters, who at best are unaware of the consequences of the move and at worst strongly oppose it.
The fact is that the majority of the public oppose annexation but feel they are in the minority and think there is broad support for the move. Thus, Netanyahu has also emasculated the words “majority” and “minority” and made them irrelevant, as he strongly dominates what will or will not make it to the public agenda.
Let’s do ourselves a favor and stop participating in the language laundering: Unilateral annexation will make Israel a country with an apartheid regime and us, its law-abiding citizens, partners in crime. No whitewashed words will remove this stain.
Einat Ovadia is the Executive Director of Zulat for Equality and Human Rights