MIT’s Orwellian language masks its stance on Gaza protests

cc. Ryan Tyler-Smith

I write this essay while thinking of my dear friend and colleague Noam Chomsky who deeply understands the importance of truth, courage, language and linguistics for decolonisation, liberation, peace and community-building in Israel and Palestine to Haiti.

In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the fictional language Newspeak is designed to control human minds and hide reality — for example, claiming that ‘war is peace’ and ‘ignorance is strength’ or, in the case of my native Haiti, calling a violent invasion a ‘peacekeeping mission’— so that the ruling classes of the world, aka ‘Big Brother’, can strengthen the power of their totalitarian regimes. In recent months, this dystopian use of language as a political weapon for a variety of nefast objectives (gaslighting, dehumanisation and manufacturing consent) has intensified in the context of the war on Gaza and associated protests and counter-protests, police crackdowns on student encampments against genocide. Most surprisingly, doublespeak has permeated even curriculum-related disputes with my own departmental colleagues at MIT about what’s ‘fit’ to teach as linguistics and what my expertise (or alleged lack thereof) should allow me to teach as such. Is ignorance really strength, even at MIT, even among linguists? If linguistics were taken as an indispensable tool for unveiling Newspeak’s semantic distortions and for advocating for liberation and community-building, it might help usher a better world.

Under the banner of Scientists Against Genocide Encampment (SAGE), MIT students are courageously standing for justice and peace for Palestinians. With their chants of ‘intifada’ (meaning ‘shaking off, uprising, resistance’ in Arabic) and of freedom for Palestinians ‘from the river to the sea’ (a phrase also used in Likud’s original charter, before Hamas, for Zionist expansion), they demand that MIT cut ties with Israel’s ministry of defence in the context of collaboration that represents only 0.03% of MIT’s 2023 allocated sponsorship. In their protests, the SAGE students have highlighted two projects that directly contribute to Israel’s war against Palestinians: one for autonomous robotic swarms of killer drones, the other for biosensors for remote detection.

SAGE includes, among many Jewish students, members of MIT Jews for Ceasefire (MITJ4C) who organised a Passover Seder at the encampment to which MITIA was invited

Some in the MIT community, like post-doctoral student Lior Alon, claim that the SAGE’s students’ pleas to halt the genocide of Palestinians are ‘pro-Hamas’ and advocate the killing of Jews. That’s false. And Alon contradicted himself by mocking his own ‘fear’ after scaling the gates of the encampment and standing on top of a chair among SAGE students minding their business and ignoring him. He sarcastically shouted: ‘Retsef, I feel unsafe. Can you come and help me? Retsef, I am all alone here, and I need help from some other Jewish person.’ Alon, like many other Zionist counter-protesters, participate in well-rehearsed propaganda that erases the anti-Zionist Jewish students and misrepresents them, along with their non-Jewish comrades, as violent and antisemitic. Here it must be stressed that the anti-genocide and pro-Palestinian protesters are not anti-Israel, though they are anti-Zionist to the extent that they want the peaceful co-existence of an Israel-Palestine where both Jews and Palestinians can safely live with fully uninhibited sovereignty, human rights, land rights, justice and dignity as equals.

Also read Anne-Cécile Robert, “Israel in the dock over genocide charge”, Le Monde diplomatique, February 2024.

Yet MIT president Sally Kornbluth, too, is guilty of participating in this narrative as she helps spread the racist trope that Palestinian students and their allies pose a potential threat to the MIT community. In a recent video, she criticises ‘chants [that] are heard by members of our community as calling for the elimination of the state of Israel’. SAGE students are now paying a heavy toll for her duplicity, when so-called ‘interim suspensions’ and other unprecedented penalties levied by MIT’s administration carry permanent consequences for students’ lives and careers, including delay in graduation and loss of employment, loss of post-graduate opportunities etc. Worse yet, these suspensions were decided without any due process. To date, four of them have had to be rescinded due to missing or false evidence in these students’ cases. Yet the administration still defends these measures, even comparing them to the preemptive measures that are needed to protect potential victims of sexual predators. The layers of doublespeak and racism are thick.

MIT professor Retsef Levi, a member of MIT Israel Alliance (MITIA), has added fuel to the fire of these Orwellian allegations about SAGE students’ violence when he mistranslated the Arabic slogans ‘Death to the Zionist project’ as ‘Death to the Zionists’, and ‘Israel is thief’ as ‘Israel destroyed’. These mistranslations are tendentious, as confirmed by colleagues who speak and study Arabic. It’s as if Martin Luther King had called, not for an end to racism, but for death to racists. Such slander endangers SAGE students, especially when mistranslated videos go viral in Zionist anti-Palestinian circles. These distortions come from the same professor who, on 8 May at SAGE, decided unilaterally that his senior MIT faculty colleague (myself) cannot be considered ‘faculty’. During MITIA’s Yom Ha’atzmaut party on 7 May, an event sanctioned by MIT, Zionist Jews were dancing near SAGE to the beat of חרבו דרבו, ‘Harbu Darbu’, a song calling Palestinians ‘whores’, ‘fucking mice coming out of tunnels’ and ‘children of Amalek’, which encourages the Israel army to make a ‘complete mess on [their] head[s]’. Yet it’s the SAGE students who are accused of posing an existential antisemitic threat to the community and to Israel, and who are met with suspensions and evictions.

The antisemitism charge is false. In the Boston Globe, the MIT Israel Alliance characterised SAGE as ‘anti-Jewish’, ‘anti-Israel’, and fear-inducing for Jewish students. There, too, there’s no mention that SAGE includes, among many Jewish students, members of MIT Jews for Ceasefire (MITJ4C) who organised a Passover Seder at the encampment to which MITIA was invited. MITJ4C students, too, have been forceful in their critiques of Israel’s government.

Truth, though, must not get in the way of Orwellian language. Observing a counter-protest on 3 May 2024 at MIT, co-sponsored by Israel’s consulate in Boston, one would think Palestinians didn’t even exist. The ‘Never Again Is Now’ rally focused solely on the evils of the Holocaust, the atrocities on 7 October and antisemitism — not one word about the ongoing genocide in Gaza and the preceding violence against Palestinians since the Nakba.

The very objective of research seminars at MIT Linguistics is to expand knowledge about language by applying already acquired insights to new empirical domains

In her work, Israeli professor Nurit Peled-Elhanan, formerly at Hebrew University, has described a ‘semiotics of othering’ used in Israeli schools to foster indifference toward the suffering of Palestinians and toward the genocidal discourse of Israeli leaders and their allies. In this context, Palestinians are equated with Nazis; now the SAGE and other anti-genocide students are subjected to the same slander — and to ‘Hamasification’. In a related Orwellian twist, an MIT Israel Alliance student called Israel a ‘successful anti-colonial movement’, ignoring the fact that Theodore Herzl, at the end of the 19th century, founded Zionism as an explicitly colonial project. ‘Ignorance is strength’, indeed.

Also read Noam Chomsky &

Daniel Mermet, “Democracy’s invisible line”, Le Monde diplomatique, August 2007.

Kornbluth described the Israeli counter-protest as being ‘in support of our Israeli and Jewish students’ (note the pronoun!), again erasing anti-Zionist Jewish students who support justice for Palestinians on a par with Jews. This instance of Newspeak also fails to acknowledge the unusually direct interference of a foreign government in MIT’s affairs, with the Israeli consulate in Boston co-sponsoring a Zionist counter-protest on MIT’s main front steps. This is from the same government whose prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, compared encampment students with Nazi students in German universities in the 1930s. Meanwhile, the pro-Palestinian liberation chants that Jews for Ceasefire students sing keep challenging the false binary of pro-Palestine versus pro-Israel in MIT administration’s discourse about students’ protests — a binary that leads to unfair equations that conflate pro-Palestine with anti-Israel, pro-Hamas and even neo-Nazis. This is yet another manifestation of anti-Palestinian racism that’s veiled by doublespeak.

But there’s more Orwellian Newspeak from Kornbluth. She calls MIT’s collaboration with Israel ‘vibrant’ even though it violates MIT’s own ‘red lights’ principle for halting projects that violate human rights. These ‘red lights’ are based on the same ‘core values’ that led MIT to put a stop to individual MIT faculty accepting gifts from convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein; those faculty who engaged with Epstein were asked by MIT administration to publicly apologise or resign. MIT also stopped collaboration with Russia immediately after the start of the war on Ukraine. Where are the ‘red lights’ to stop MIT complicity in the slaughter of tens of thousands of Palestinians by Israel’s military? In yet another Orwellian twist, Kornbluth appeals to ‘academic freedom’ in order to trump human rights and license MIT’s complicity with genocide.

The personal is political, and nowhere is this more evident than in our academic institutions. On 1 April 2024, I was startled to learn, in a police report, that the MIT Israel Alliance (MITIA), an organisation claiming to be the victim of fear caused by allegedly antisemitic student activists, had, in fact, called for the physical surveillance of those protesting against the war on Gaza. In a disturbing twist of Newspeak, a student who was caught photographing me told MIT Police that the individuals targeted by MITIA were ‘disruptive’ and ‘confrontational’. Yet, the only instances when I felt unsafe at anti-genocide rallies at MIT were when Zionist counter-protesters physically or verbally assaulted the protesters. And on that April day, it was this student’s very actions, surreptitiously photographing me and then fleeing, that disrupted my peace of mind and prompted me to report the incident to MIT Police.

Also read Eric Alterman, “Young, liberal and critical of Israel”, Le Monde diplomatique, February 2019.

This incident is part of a larger pattern of surveillance and repression. The differential treatment by the MIT administration, hesitating to address such affronts while swiftly suspending and evicting pro-Palestinian student groups, is deeply concerning — especially when the reason given is the need to protect community members who feel ‘unsafe’.

As a Haitian-born linguist, I’ve dedicated my career to using language and linguistics as a tool for decolonisation and liberation. My Fall 2024 seminar, like many of my previous courses such as ‘Black Matters’, ‘Creole languages and Caribbean identities’ and ‘Linguistics & Social Justice: Language, Education & Human Rights’, is an embodiment of MIT’s now familiar, if somewhat hypocritical, slogans — for a #BetterWorld with #MindHandHeart. This seminar, for which I’ve already received MIT MindHandHeart funding for inviting experts in fields adjacent to mine, will explore linguistic dimensions of truth-seeking and nation-building from Haiti to Palestine — from Creole exceptionalism to the Palestine exception. However, my proposal for this seminar has met with resistance from my colleagues at MIT Linguistics — based on ‘concerns’ about whether it would ‘fit our curriculum’ and whether I have the necessary expertise to plan this seminar — though I’ve already invited authors of books who can help us navigate new contents in their respective fields of expertise when needed. My colleagues have even appealed to a clause in MIT’s ‘Report on Free Expression’ that limits ‘academic freedom’ in case a faculty member wanted to teach outside their expertise — for example, ‘Beginning Chinese’ in an advanced calculus class. Yet the very objective of research seminars at MIT Linguistics is to expand knowledge about language by applying already acquired insights to new empirical domains — in the case of my seminar, from Creole exceptionalism in Haiti to Palestine exceptions and Orwellian Newspeak in discourse about the war on Gaza. My MIT Linguistics colleagues have initiated an unprecedented review process for this course proposal, contrasting starkly with the swift approval of previous courses on a variety topics, taught by junior, senior and even visiting professors.

The ongoing scrutiny of my seminar feels less like an issue about ‘curriculum fit’ and ‘expertise’, and more like an attempt to silence analyses that might be perceived as a threat to the status quo. This suspicion is heightened when I recall that even the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), whose mission is ‘the advancement of [linguistic] knowledge and the betterment of society’, rejected my proposal of a statement about linguistic distortions regarding the war on Gaza.

The challenges at hand are not just about Orwellian misrepresentations of Gaza protests and counterprotests at MIT or the censorship of one professor’s graduate seminar. These strategies of repression illustrate a critical battle around truth, freedom of speech, academic freedom and even democracy itself, amid political pressures that seek to mold academia, not into a crucible of critical, diverse and ethical thought, but into an echo chamber in service of hegemony. As for the linguistic battlefield, we’ve now glimpsed how the use, interpretation and translation of language are powerful weapons in creating fog around the war on Gaza. The light of truth, though, emerges when language is carefully analysed and its manipulation is exposed. By demystifying Orwellian language, Newspeak and doublespeak as weapons for gaslighting and dehumanisation, we can move closer to a world in which peace and freedom prevail for all — from Gaza to MIT to Haiti.

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Michel DeGraff