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shibboleth by wonderferret CC BY-NC 2.0
The Brink

Sibboleth: A Reply to Zadie Smith on the War in Gaza

In taking up shibboleth at the near end of its itinerary from “stream” to “cliché,” Smith shortchanges the capacity of this particular narrative—one of the Bible’s most memorable and disturbing myths of sovereign power—to address what is happening, now, “in the case of Israel/Palestine.”

[…I]n its fearsome political ambiguity, shibboleth could today name…the present state of the State of Israel.

Jacques Derrida, Shibboleth: For Paul Celan

In the Hebrew Bible, the word shibboleth means “stream” (Ps. 69:2, 15; Isa. 27:12), except when it means “ear of grain” (Job 24:24). As a multilingual loanword from Hebrew, though, shibboleth derives from Judges 12, where it doesn’t mean anything at all. In fact, in translations it must stand untranslated in order to preserve its decidedly non-semantic function: “Then say shibboleth” (Judges 12:6).

Accordingly, in modern languages shibboleth has come to denote three speech acts in which semantic content is somehow effaced: password, slogan, cliché. The password hews closest to the story in Judges 12. There, what matters is not the meaning of the word but rather its correct pronunciation, which secures passage across the Jordan River. The slogan, meanwhile, signals one’s belonging to a party; this use, too, has some affinity with the biblical source. At the furthest extreme, the cliché evacuates language not only of sense but even of performative function, reducing it to the mindless twittering of iteration without intention.

The word shibboleth hovers somewhere between these latter two meanings—partisan slogan, vapid cliché—in Zadie Smith’s May 5, 2024 New Yorker essay, titled “Shibboleth.” Smith’s argument concerns both the relation of language to violence in Israel/Palestine, and, more specifically, the student movement protesting U.S. institutional and governmental complicity in what many experts are calling the genocide that Israel is perpetrating in Gaza. “In these constructed narratives,” writes Smith, “there are always a series of shibboleths, that is, phrases that can’t be said, or, conversely, phrases that must be said. Once these words or phrases have been spoken… and one’s positionality established, then and only then will the ethics of the question be attended to (or absolutely ignored).”

Smith insists that she is not, as she appears to be, “making a rarefied point about language and rhetoric while people commit bloody murder,” because “the case of Israel/Palestine…is in fact perhaps”—note the utter incoherence of that formulation—“the most acute example in the world of the use of words to justify bloody murder, to flatten and erase unbelievably labyrinthine histories, and to deliver the atavistic pleasure of violent simplicity to the many people who seem to believe that merely by saying something they make it so.”

The examples of this practice Smith offers—“to say the word ‘Hamas’ as if it purely and solely described a terrorist entity,” “to say ‘There is no such thing as the Palestinian people’ as they stand in front of you,” “to say ‘Zionist colonialist state’ and accept those three words as a full and unimpeachable definition of the state of Israel, not only under the disastrous leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu but at every stage of its long and complex history, and also to hear them as a perfectly sufficient description of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived in Israel or happened to find themselves born within it”—are not merely “rhetoric…, essentially meaningless,” because they construct what she calls “zones of interest,” the Nazi term for the Polish land surrounding the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex.

Smith seems to be alluding—although this is only my inference, as she never elaborates on her conspicuous use of the phrase—to Jonathan Glazer’s 2023 film The Zone of Interest, set in the eponymous region. Smith’s point is that in the student protest movement, language functions as do the walls of Auschwitz in Glazer’s film: preventing us from apprehending the facts of mass murder.

Thus language is, Smith contends, a “weapon of mass destruction.” (The fact that Israel has constructed literal walls and fences to separate—concentrate, if you like—the Palestinian population does not figure into her discussion.)

Smith’s name for these zone-delineating speech acts is, of course, “shibboleths.” These shibboleths:

describe a people, by defining them against other people—but the people being described are ourselves. The person who says ‘We must eliminate Hamas’ says this not necessarily because she thinks this is a possible outcome on this earth but because this sentence is the shibboleth that marks her membership in the community that says that. The person who uses the word ‘Zionist’ as if that word were an unchanged and unchangeable monolith… does not so much bring definitive clarity to the entangled history of Jews and Palestinians as they successfully and soothingly draw a line to mark their own zone of interest and where it ends. And while we all talk, carefully curating our shibboleths, presenting them to others and waiting for them to reveal themselves as with us or against us—while we do all that, bloody murder.

Smith never quotes any actually existing person, nor does she ask any such person what they mean by any of these “shibboleths.” Is it true that people who call Israel a colonial state also intend this “as a perfectly sufficient description of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived in Israel or happened to find themselves born within it”? (Not in my experience, as somebody who does call Israel a colonial state.)  

In Smith’s essay, “colonialism” is less the name of a distinct political practice of domination than a shibboleth, marking my membership in the community of people that says “colonialism.” But isn’t it possible that intellectuals across the world, from East Jerusalem cafés to Lakota land in the U.S., use the word because it best reflects a history of both occupation and conquest?

That’s not to say that rhetoric is innocuous or language a neutral instrument. Isn’t it possible, though, that by using this word and other so-called shibboleths, such as “genocide,” we conduct an analysis that finally brings into view a reality of dispossession and murder which has, for too many, long been confined beyond the “zone of interest”? Why should we avoid noticing that these are the facts, and these are the words that best describe them? Is language not for understanding with?

But in “Shibboleth,” we have to take Smith’s word for it. That is, we have to accept the intentions she has imagined must motivate a range of speech acts that she cannot imagine herself personally executing. This is framed as a sober act of reasoned judgment, whereas those who seek to use language to comprehend and judge the situation supposedly indulge a desire for simplicity that both flattens history’s unfathomable complexities and dulls the clear-cut ethical demands of the present.

A reader concerned with rhetoric might ask whether Smith doesn’t, in her turn, divide the terrain into two sides, the ethical and the shibbolethic; a reader concerned with ethics might wonder whether the best way to respond to the moral exigency of the present is to decline to try to understand its past.

It’s evident that Smith revisited the Bible while writing “Shibboleth.” In the final paragraph, she alludes to both Hebrew meanings of the word (“little stream,” “ear of corn”) and the story from Judges (“putting me over there with those who lisp or those who don’t, with the Ephraimites, or with the people of Gilead”). Yet in taking up shibboleth at the near end of its itinerary from “stream” to “cliché,” Smith shortchanges the capacity of this particular narrative—one of the Bible’s most memorable and disturbing myths of sovereign power—to address what is happening, now, “in the case of Israel/Palestine.”

Here is Judges 12:1–6, in my translation:

  1. And the men of Ephraim gathered and crossed over toward Zaphon and said to Jephthah, ‘Why did you cross over to fight against the Ammonites, but us you did not call to go with you? We will burn down your house upon you with fire.’
  2. And Jephthah said to them, ‘I and my people struggled greatly with the Ammonites, and I summoned you, but you did not rescue me from their hand.
  3. When I saw that you were not going to rescue me, I risked my life and crossed over to the Ammonites, and the LORD delivered them into my hand. So why have you come up to me this day to fight against me?’
  4. And Jephthah gathered all the men of Gilead and fought against Ephraim, and the men of Gilead defeated Ephraim, for they had said, ‘You, Gilead, are fugitives amidst Ephraim and amidst Manasseh.’
  5. And Gilead took the fords of the Jordan before Ephraim. And it happened when a fugitive of Ephraim would say, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead would say to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’
  6. then they would say to him, ‘Then say shibboleth [שִׁבֹּלֶת],’ but he would say sibboleth [סִבֹּלֶת], being unable to pronounce it correctly. Then they would seize him and slay him at the fords of the Jordan. Thus, at that time, 42,000 of Ephraim fell.

In this text, shibboleth is neither a cliché nor a slogan. It is not even, technically, a password. Passwords entail secrecy, but everybody involved in the horror that unfolds on the riverbank knows the word is shibboleth.

Furthermore, as Marc Redfield observes, the Ephraimites “presumably knew how they ought to be pronouncing a word that had just been pronounced for them” (23)—it is just that they cannot pronounce the phoneme written in Hebrew as the letter שׁ. The shibboleth “is nothing more than the linguistically inscribed body’s ability to pronounce a word,” Redfield goes on. “No conscious knowledge or intent, no reserve of intelligence or virtue, no strength of character or will can access this fundamentally banal though, at the crucial moment, all-important secret-without-secret. It is accessed only when ‘the subject’…does not know what it is doing” (31).

Pace Smith, then, there is no possibility of “carefully curating our shibboleths.” For the shibboleth is the bodily unconscious of language; it resists our best efforts at curation, manipulation, intentional concealment, or disclosure.

True, the biblical shibboleth does divide self from other, us from them, but the zone of interest thereby articulated is closer to the one (not) seen in Glazer’s film: to fail the Gileadites’ test is definitionally and automatically to be condemned to death. Smith’s separation of the verbal shibboleth from the real scene of slaughter runs directly contrary to the biblical tale, where the shibboleth functions as a technology for genocide (42,000 killed—and that’s just the men, the only dead who count in biblical tabulations). In Judges 12, “merely saying something” really does “make it so”: Ephraimite/Gileadite difference is produced by the act of saying, or failing to say, shibboleth.

For the shibboleth-test to work, it is not enough that there be a difference between Gileadite speech and Ephraimite speech. In itself, that is adiaphora.This meaningless difference accrues cultural significance and lethal force when there is a radical asymmetry of power. The Ephraimites have lost the war, the Gileadites have seized the fords. From verse 5 on, the Ephraimites are refugees. They are caught at a border checkpoint and put to death.

So Judges 12 is not just a story about “the narcissism of minor differences,” to borrow an apt phrase from Freud (99). At bottom, it is a myth about power: power asymmetrically accumulated and wielded against those who do not have it; power that transforms a thing indifferent into a letter (שׁ) that kills. When one party has absolute sovereignty—the formalized power of decision over life and death—over the territory, and thus total control of the border checkpoint, it can impose, alter, or suspend the criteria for passage as befits its interests. It can build new walls or reroute existing ones. It can bar entry, refuse negotiation, take prisoners, and dispense death.

The sovereign’s speech acts do indeed “justify bloody murder.” But these speech acts are a far cry from a chant at a student protest; they carry real performative force. “Merely by saying something,” they do indeed—from the point of view of the legal apparatus the sovereign administrates, transcends, and even suspends—“make it so.”

In his 1986 commentary on the poetry of Paul Celan, also titled Shibboleth, Jacques Derrida suggests that the shibboleth exemplifies a problematic constitutive of all social identities. The “impotence coming over [the Ephraimites’] vocal organs” is, Derrida reminds us, a property of “the already cultivated body.” Linguistic differences are not natural; we are not born with them. Language is learned, artificial, techne. Yet we experience our language as if it were natural: by the time we are conscious of our (in)ability to produce a certain sound, the impotence is already “in the body” (59).

In this sense, the word shibboleth takes on yet another meaning: a shibboleth is any difference that distinguishes a group—indeed it is group identity itself, wherever this difference and identity are taken as facts of nature rather than constructions of culture. “One may, thanks to the shibboleth, recognize and be recognized by one’s own, for better and for worse” (63).

The shibboleth, Derrida warns, is thus always “double-edged.” As it includes, it also necessarily excludes; when coupled with sovereign power, as happens at the fords of the Jordan, the discriminatory logic of the shibboleth veers toward the violent homogenization of the ethnostate.

And, by the same token (“exactly the extent that one may make use of” the shibboleth), the in-group can always potentially become the stigmatized out-group. Then it would be the Gileadites “who are proscribed or held at the border, excluded from the community, put to death, or reduced to ashes: at the mere sight, in the mere name, at the first reading of a wound” (63). When the current of power flows in the other direction, shibboleth becomes sibboleth.

For Derrida, the shibboleth therefore always presents two alternatives for group identity. On the one hand, the community may double down on the shibboleth, seeking to force closed the undecidable gap between nature and techne through the mythologizing, fetishizing, hardening, and policing of the difference between the self and the other. That way lies the construction of the “zone of interest,” the logic consigning people to death by virtue of their birth, family, nationality, race, ethnicity. This is the future pursued by “the present state of the State of Israel,” “in its fearsome political ambiguity” (50). So Derrida suggested 38 years ago; how much more so today, in the wake of the Knesset’s 2018 “Nation-State Bill.”

On the other hand, we may instead reckon, painfully, with that gap: between a feeling of belonging to a community perceived as so fundamental to our sense of ourselves that it is felt “in the body,” and the ineluctable fact that this body is “already cultivated.”

As the Palestinian critic Edward Said puts much the same point in his late book on Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, “identity cannot be thought or worked through itself alone; it cannot constitute or even imagine itself without that originary break or flaw which will not be repressed…. The strength of this thought is, I believe, that it can be articulated in and speak to other besieged identities as well—not through dispensing palliatives such as tolerance and compassion but, rather, by attending to it as a troubling, disabling, destabilizing secular wound—the essence of the cosmopolitan, from which there can be no recovery…” (54). To attend to the “secular wound” is the other way of fording the Jordan.

A terrible present demands that we think through this radically challenging idea, which is Derrida’s idea and Said’s, Freud’s idea and Celan’s. Before any of them, it was the Hebrew Bible’s idea: shibboleth. Yes, I have made this “rarefied point about language” even as Israel continues to bomb the Palestinians who, pushed to the southern border of Gaza, now have nowhere left to flee. But that is the situation, and these are the words I have to understand it.

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