The Cons of Pro and Caring More

On Language

By Philologos

Published October 21, 2009, issue of October 30, 2009.
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I suppose it is late in the day to plunge into the argument over J Street, the “pro-Israel” Political Action Committee — as it likes to call itself — whose repeated criticism of Israeli government policies and actions has many supporters of Israel up in arms. Still, with the organization’s first annual conference in Washington the week of October 25, I find it hard to resist.

I’ll leave the politics of it to others. Here, I’ll simply say a word about the semantics of “pro-Israel,” a descriptive adjective that seems to occur in just about every press release that J Street puts out about itself and just about every positive article that gets written about it. So, for instance, in a column in The Washington Post on September 20, Stephen Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of the hardly pro-Israel “The Israel Lobby,” declares: “The good news [about Jewish political activity in America] is that there is a new pro-Israel organization, J Street, which is committed to the two-state solution and solidly behind Obama.”

A much publicized June poll, of which Walt was surely aware, showed, according to The Jerusalem Post, that “only 6 percent of Jewish Israelis consider the views of American president Barack Obama’s administration pro-Israel.” This while 50% regard these views as “more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israeli” and the remaining 44% think them to be neither, one might ask what exactly is “pro-Israel” about an organization that is “solidly behind Obama.” To this, of course, there is the answer that J Street regularly gives. It is “pro-Israel,” it says, because the policies it favors are in Israel’s best interests, even if the large majority of Israelis do not agree.

Is this a plausible or defensible use of the adjective “pro-Israel”? Let us think for a moment. Suppose a Washington-based PAC called for more rigorous restrictions on the ownership of weapons while advertising itself as “pro-firearms,” because guns would be put to better use if fewer people had them. Or what if an organization espoused policies offensive to homosexuals while calling itself “pro-gay,” because homosexuals are deluded about what is best for them? What would we say about that?

We would say, I submit, that this is at best disingenuous and at worst blatantly hypocritical. One has, of course, a perfect right to hold any opinion one wishes about what is good for others. But to call oneself “pro-X” while campaigning on behalf of doing to X what X is opposed to is an Orwellian abuse of language. J Street can call itself “pro-Middle East peace,” “pro-two-state-solution,” “pro-Obama,” pro-anything it likes, but it would do us all a favor if it stopped calling itself “pro-Israel.” If you are really someone’s best friend, you don’t declare it every time you open your mouth about him. As Hamlet’s mother says to the player queen, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” It’s only a matter of time before someone proposes silencing the new PAC in the name of being “pro-J Street.”

Needless to say, the neoconservative magazine Commentary is poles apart from J Street, with which all it has in common is my taking it to task in this column. Ever since I can remember, Commentary has been one of the most rigorously edited of American intellectual publications, impeccable in its English usage. It is distressing, therefore, to encounter the following sentence in an article in its October issue, by executive editor Jonathan Tobin, on the subject of “rebranding” Israel to make it a “sexier” country for American Jewish tourists: “Thus, a greater focus on reinforcing positive Jewish images of Israel, especially those that are experiential… is far more important than marketing the country to a generic population of American adolescent boys and men who could care less about the nationality of the women they ogle.”

Who could care less? Doesn’t Mr. Tobin mean who could not care less? Although this is a common error made these days by many English speakers, one would not have expected to find it in Commentary. It’s a matter of simple logic. If it is possible to care less about something than you do care about it, then you do care about it; only if it is not possible can it be said that you don’t. One is reminded of the Mad Tea Party in “Alice in Wonderland”:

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

“I’ve had nothing yet,” Alice replied in an offended tone, “so I can’t take more.”

“You mean you can’t take less,” said the Hatter. ‘It’s very easy to take more than nothing.”

Commentary is now under new editorial direction, and it may be that in the excitement of the changing of the guard, the old standards have temporarily lapsed. One hopes to see them speedily restored.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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