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Passive Voice Genocide By: Jason Maoz
JewishPress.com | Wednesday, August 03, 2005


The day after a recent Netanya suicide bombing, this is how The New York Times headlined its story: "Suicide Bomber and 2 Women Die in Attack at Mall in Israeli Town." Talk about imprecise language and fuzzy imagery. Were the suicide bomber and the two women killed by a swarm of killer bees? Shot by Israeli police? Felled by simultaneous heart attacks? Were the women perchance accomplices of the bomber?

Would not a more literate - certainly a more accurate - headline have read, "Suicide Bomber Kills Two Women in Attack at Mall in Israeli Town"? It seems that if the Times can't paint a particular news story in the pale pastels of moral equivalence, the next best thing is to come up with a headline written in what grammarians call the passive voice, in this case lumping a terrorist together with his victims, all three of whom are described as having simply died.

Lest anyone accuse the Monitor of quibbling, consider what language expert Marylaine Block has to say about the use and abuse of the passive voice in writing: "It permits us to sanitize horrendous actions and make them more acceptable. 'Ethnic cleansing' sounds so much less brutal than 'forcing them out of their homes, raping them, putting them in concentration camps, and murdering them.'"

In a telling illustration, Block points out that "'the Jewish Question' was a freely debated intellectual issue in the twenties and thirties (and still a valid Library of Congress subject heading as late as 1978). The 'Jewish Question,' let us not forget, was whether Jews should be allowed to live. (Note the passive voice. By whom?)"

Block constructs a progression of statements to show "how euphemism and the passive voice have helped give Holocaust denial an aura of intellectual respectability:

"1. The Nazis systematically exterminated 6 million Jews and everybody else they considered defective.

"2. Six million Jews were killed during World War II.

"3. Six million Jews died during World War II.

"4. It is alleged that 6 Million Jews died...."

Yes, I am aware that the Times article obviously went on to tell a more detailed story than was possible in a mere headline, but to a casual reader or skimmer the damage was done before the eyes continued on to the smaller, non-bold text below the byline.

Want some more news as the Times sees fit to print it? A July 21 article by Israel correspondent Greg Myre titled "Israel Defeats Efforts to Delay Gaza Pullout; Protest Thwarted Again" started off with the lead paragraph offering a brief elaboration of the headline. Then suddenly, in the second paragraph, like a news flash interrupting previously scheduled programming, the focus shifted to an entirely different story: "Late on Wednesday, Reuters reported that a Palestinian boy had been stabbed to death by Israelis in the West Bank, citing reports from unidentified Palestinians."

The article stayed with the murdered Palestinian boy for three additional paragraphs, repeating for good measure (presumably in case a reader had missed it a few lines earlier) that "the boy...was stabbed by Jewish settlers." After that four-paragraph interregnum, the article returned for its remaining 10 paragraphs to its original focus - parliamentary maneuvering over the Gaza pullout and government efforts to quash an anti-disengagement march in southern Israel.

The next day, July 22, in a story by Greg Myre and Steve Erlanger headlined "Israel May Speed Gaza Pullout to Head Off More Protests," an update appeared on the stabbing of the young Palestinian. Turns out he wasn`t stabbed by Jewish settlers after all, but by his own cousin. (So much for the believability of Palestinian eyewitnesses.)

The first report, the one implicating "Jewish settlers" in the boy`s slaying, was featured, remember, all the way up in the second paragraph of an unrelated story. The second report, the one exonerating the settlers, began as the 15th paragraph in a 17-paragraph story. How many readers do you think bothered to read that far?

And still the New York Jewish Week`s estimable media critic makes it his business to proclaim, every six months or so, that the Times is not at all biased in its Mideast coverage and that anyone who says otherwise is oversensitive and quite possibly paranoid.

Jason Maoz is the senior editor of The Jewish Press. Jason Maoz can be reached at jmaoz@jewishpress.com.


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