Photo Credit: Jewish Press

One of the most superficial statements people who are not religious say to people who are is that religion is responsible for more wars and suffering than any other aspect of human society.

I suppose if they take the 20th century out of their “exhaustively” researched summation of human history, they have some basis for their belief, but it still is a puerile one. The 20th century saw more people killed in wars than in all of human history before then. Few, if any, of those conflicts could be said to have started because of religion.


The real cause of human conflict seems to be a different one and it is one of difference. People don’t seem to do very well dealing with others who are not like them. Of course, the difference could be a religious one, but it is just as likely to be a tribal one, a racial one, a political one, or a nationalist one; it could be for good old-fashioned greed for someone else’s natural resources.

When Franz Stangel, the commandant of Treblinka, was captured by American forces, he was interrogated about his pivotal role in the Holocaust. His prisoners were made to perform back-breaking work and were systematically starved so that they looked like walking skeletons. They also were routinely denied permission to use the latrines (which were anyway woefully insufficient). The result was that prisoners became covered in their own urine and feces.

When Stangel was asked why he treated them this way if the prisoners were scheduled to be killed anyway, he replied, “To condition those who had to carry out the policy. To make it possible for them to do what they had to do.”

Stangel, one of the most evil mass murderers in history, understood that even for the S.S. to kill Jews, they had to see them as not being like them – as other human beings.

The Torah identifies a core difference that leads people not to see others as human beings. It is stated fleetingly in the story of the Tower of Bavel. The difference is, of course, language. There are few other distinctions that say “other” more than a difference in language. A person shows that he is not like you the moment he starts to speak using words you cannot understand.

Language identifies and connects its speakers with the nation and peoplehood to which they belong. That association may produce positive or negative reactions.

When I was a teenager and spent most of my summers in Paris, France, Parisians would often scowl at me if I spoke to them in English, assuming that I came from England. When I responded with, “Je Suis Ecossais – I am Scottish,” the scowls immediately changed to warm smiles (the French have a historical resentment of the English).

Many countries vigorously tried to suppress and even eliminate the languages of their minorities or the peoples they conquer. The Spanish tried to eliminate the Basque and Catalan languages with their speakers being told to “speak Christian!” and you won’t hear too much Aztec or Mayan spoken in Central America these days.

I paused after writing that last sentence to confirm a suspicion that popped into my mind while writing it. I searched the Internet to see if China’s brutal suppression of its Uyghur minority included attacks on their language. It does.

In 2011, Abduweli Ayup founded a school in the Chinese city of Kashgar that taught in Uyghur, Mandarin, and English. The school knew that by offering instruction in Uyghur, it was at odds with the Chinese government’s objective to marginalize minority languages. It also knew it was challenging the government’s language ideology, which depicts the Uyghur language as “backward” and “unpatriotic” or… just plain “different.”

Removing a word, part of a language, or an entire language from existence is an attempt to remove its speakers from existence too. Totalitarians of all kinds from Spain’s medieval monarchs to the Soviet Union’s dictators understood that well.

George Orwell in 1984 envisaged “Thought Police” (Thinkpol), the secret police of a totalitarian super state who uncover and punish “thoughtcrime” – personal and political thoughts unapproved by the government – and eliminate words that might cause people to think in ways the state views as dangerous and, of course, different.

That concept is something the Jewish people have known about for around three and half thousand years. It was one of the things we fought against in Egypt and played a key role in maintaining our survival as a nation. It is no less important today than it was then. Insisting on our own words and the language that expresses who and what we are, is essential to our survival.

It is a concept enshrined as the first amendment to the American constitution of course. It prevents the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion or abridge the freedom of speech or the freedom of the press.

The recent attacks on freedom of speech by the big tech companies represents the biggest assault on the first amendment since it was written.

The incoming Democratic government seems set to take up exactly where the last one left off. The Left’s “Thought Police” are back getting ready to remove pronouns such as “he” and “she” and other words that define cultures they see as “backward,” “unpatriotic,” and “different.”

American Jews better prepare themselves to defend our language and our culture in a way we have never had to do before.


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Rabbi YY Rubinstein is a popular lecturer, a regular broadcaster on BBC National TV and Radio, and the author of 10 books (including, most recently, “Jewish Life and Jewish Laughter”).