The language that absolves Israel
A special political vocabulary prevents us from being able to recognize what’s going on in the Middle East.
By Saree Makdisi June 19, 2009
On Sunday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivered a speech that — by categorically ruling out the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state — ought to have been seen as a mortal blow to the quest for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On Monday morning, however, newspaper headlines across the United States announced that Netanyahu had endorsed the creation of a Palestinian state, and the White House welcomed the speech as “an important step forward.” Reality can be so easily stood on its head when it comes to Israel because the misreading of Israeli declarations is a long-established practice among commentators and journalists in the United States.
In fact, a special vocabulary has been developed for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the United States. It filters and structures the way in which developing stories are misread here, making it difficult for readers to fully grasp the nature of those stories — and maybe even for journalists to think critically about what they write. The ultimate effect of this special vocabulary is to make it possible for Americans to accept and even endorse in Israel what they would reject out of hand in any other country. Let me give a classic example. In the U.S., discussion of Palestinian politicians and political movements often relies on a spectrum running from “extreme” to “moderate.” The latter sounds appealing; the former clearly applies to those who must be — must they not? — beyond the pale. But hardly anyone relying on such terms pauses to ask what they mean. According to whose standard are these manifestly subjective labels assigned? Meanwhile, Israeli politicians are labeled according to an altogether different standard: They are “doves” or “hawks.” Unlike the terms reserved for Palestinians, there’s nothing inherently negative about either of those avian terms.
So why is no Palestinian leader referred to here as a “hawk”? Why are Israeli politicians rarely labeled “extremists”? Or, for that matter, “militants”? There are countless other examples of these linguistic double standards. American media outlets routinely use the deracinating and deliberately obfuscating term “Israeli Arabs” to refer to the Palestinian citizens of Israel, despite the fact that they call themselves — and are — Palestinian. Similarly, Israeli housing units built in the occupied territories in contravention of international law are always called “settlements” or even “neighborhoods” rather than what they are: “colonies.” That word may be harsh on the ears, but it’s far more accurate (“a body of people who settle in a new locality, forming a community subject to or connected with their parent state”). These subtle distinctions make a huge difference. Unconsciously absorbed, such terms frame the way people and events are viewed. When it comes to Israel, we seem to reach for a dictionary that applies to no one else, to give a pass to actions or statements that would be condemned in any other quarter. That’s what allowed Netanyahu to be congratulated for endorsing a Palestinian “state,” even though the kind of entity he said Palestinians might — possibly — be allowed to have would be nothing of the kind. Look up the word “state” in the dictionary.
You’ll probably see references to territorial integrity, power and sovereignty. The entity that Netanyahu was talking about on Sunday would lack all of those constitutive features. A “state” without a defined territory that is not allowed to control its own borders or airspace and cannot enter into treaties with other states is not a state, any more than an apple is an orange or a car an airplane. So how can leading American newspapers say “Israeli Premier Backs State for Palestinians,” as the New York Times had it? Or “Netanyahu relents on goal of two states,” as this paper put it? Because a different vocabulary applies. Which is also what kept Netanyahu’s most extraordinary demand in Sunday night’s speech from raising eyebrows here. “The truth,” he said, “is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians.” In other words, as Netanyahu repeatedly said, there is a Jewish people; it has a homeland and hence a state.
As for the Palestinians, they are a collection — not even a group — of trespassers on Jewish land. Netanyahu, of course, dismisses the fact that they have a centuries-old competing narrative of home attached to the same land, a narrative worthy of recognition by Israel. On the contrary: The Palestinians must, he said, accept that Israel is the state of the Jewish people (this is a relatively new Israeli demand, incidentally), and they must do so on the understanding that they are not entitled to the same rights. “We” are a people, Netanyahu was saying; “they” are merely a “population.” “We” have a right to a state — a real state. “They” do not. And the spokesman for our African American president calls this “an important step forward”? In any other situation — including our own country — such a brutally naked contrast between those who are taken to have inherent rights and those who do not would immediately be labeled as racist.
Netanyahu, though, is given a pass, not because most Americans would knowingly endorse racism but because, in this case, a special political vocabulary kicks in that prevents them from being able to recognize it for exactly what it is.
Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. He is the author of, among other books, “Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation.”