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Language of Engagement

December 9, 2009 – 1:41 pm14 Comments

Source: http://neatorama.cachefly.net/

Source: http://neatorama.cachefly.net/

by Ittay Flescher

The Australian Jewish News recently published an opinion piece titled “Unsettled by the terminology” where the author contended that media outlets should stop using the word, ‘settlers’ to describe Israelis living in the West Bank.  He claimed that the usual association with the word, ‘settlers’ is to describe those who “invade and uproot, and hence deserve no human understanding.” His preference was to instead label these people as ‘human beings’. The article goes on to argue that people (sympathetic to that author’s position) must “reclaim the vocabulary.” With this in mind, I have compiled a list of vocabulary used to describe the Middle East conflict.

Names for the Conflict: Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish-Arab conflict, war on terrorism, good vs evil, clash of civilizations, matzav (situation), intifada, jihad (as understood by most Muslims), jihad (as understood by most in the West), caliphate, crusade

Barrier: wall, fence, security fence, fence against terror, separation fence, anti-terrorist fence, apartheid wall, demographic wall, Israeli West Bank barrier

Israeli Administered Territories: West Bank, Judea and Samaria (Yesha), Gaza Strip, Gush Katif, Golan Heights, occupied territories, disputed territories, Arab territories, green line, June 1967 borders, 1949 armistice line

Places of residence in the Administered Territories: cities, settlements, villages, communities, outposts

People who live in the Administered Territories: settlers, residents, occupiers, hilltop youth, colonialists,
Jews / Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs (blue ID, orange ID), Jerusalem Arabs, Zionists, human beings

As an avid reader of multiple Israeli newspapers each day, it is interesting to note the different terminology each employs to describe the conflict. Left wing publications prefer to use the words, ‘Palestinian’, ‘West Bank’, ‘conflict’, ‘settler’ and ‘occupied territories’. Right wing publications prefer to use the words, ‘Arab’, ‘terrorist’, ‘Judea and Samaria’, ‘jihad’, ‘Jewish citizen’, and ‘Eretz Yisrael’.

For those who are interested in seriously engaging with Israel, a great place to start could be by making a more deliberate use of language to describe the conflict. For those who support a two-state solution, it may mean referring to the areas under Israeli occupation as Palestine. For those who support the status quo, it may mean referring to these same areas by only their hebrew names or biblical designations.

With the right use of words a wall can become a fence, an occupation can become the fulfilment of a biblical commandment and a settler becomes a human being. But only if you will it…

Ittay Flescher is a Jewish Educator in Melbourne. He also blogs for Makom.

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  • TheSadducee says:

    I’m not even going here!  :P

  • The Hasid says:

    Ittay, you should have been a media student! I used to do this stuff all the time at uni – “quantitative analysis”. Basically, going through papers (say, The Age vs The Oz) and comparing the terminology used and the frequency of use of certain words. It sounds kind of dry but it was actually fascinating. The results were always a lot more disheartening than I expected. (The dangers of being an optimist!)

  • Larry Stillman says:

    The BBC has tried –and I know a lot of people hate the Beeb as much as the ABC–published a terminology list http://news.bbc.co.uk/newswatch/ukfs/hi/newsid_8370000/newsid_8374000/8374013.stm
    Despite this, I was quite amazed by Rabbi Kennard’s piece in the AJN, because for as long as I can remember, the settlers have been called that in Hebrew or English because a spade is worth calling a spade.  Just because some of the settlements are more like suburbs –and and are suburbs that cover older Arab villages, it doesn’t cover the fact that there are serious matters of international law and war and peace and stake that inconveniently keep popping up.  And most painfully, this involves parts of Jerusalem.
    What Kennard is doing in fact, is trying to further remove the fact of brute occupation from language by even removing the word ‘settler’, and thus, but just calling them ‘ human beings’ , depoliticise a highly political situation in which he then applies claims about Jewish rights (which I don’t dispute).  However, the situation is political and violent, and both sides need to give up a lot.  And aren’t Palestinians human beings as well?
    Thus, Kennard’s piece is regrettably another example of a push for a language of denial, that Israel is a contributor to , not just a victim of the current problems.   By thinking of settlers as just ‘human’ they can be even more easily considered as ‘victims’ in the propoganda war over calls for Israel to dismantle settlements.    It is also much more easy to consider them victims of Palestinian violence  (the non-humans) , even in situations where it is clear that extremist settlers have been the agent provocateur and have behaved like racist cowboys.
    I also think that Kennard’s statement ‘Would the new Left be so keen to make common cause with Islamic extremists if Hamas’ views on social liberalism, women’s rights or freedom for dissent were accurately termed “right-wing” or even “fascist”?’ is a gross over-geneneralisation of  how many (not just people on the ‘left’) see Hamas (including some  Israelis who can’t be considered as weak-kneed but realisitic, but a good throw away line to keep the Jewish community frightended.   Anyway, I didn’t know there was a new (sic) Left still around.

  • ariel says:

    Larry, I’m sure you’re aware that Tel-Aviv was also called a settlement when it was founded.
    As was the very first settlements, Petach Tikva, Rishon LeTzion, etc.
    I would call the verb “resettlement” and the noun “village” or “town”.
    As for calling a spade a spade: A terrorist is a murderer who does not distinguish between military and civilian targets and uses their violence as a political tool to make governments change policy.
    On the other hand, a militant is the unionist who hands out flyers and placards on strike day.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    Ariel, context is important. You can’t separate words from context.   That is why words in fact, have so many shades of meaning.  It is a basic  feature of living language.
    The ‘settlement’ of Tel Aviv (except for irredentists) is contextually understood quite differently from a ‘settlement’ on the West Bank.
    A unionist who is militant is quite different contextually from ‘a grenade attack by militants’ .
    In any case, euphemisms and new words  to sanitize nasty actions don’t make problems go  away.     The Americans were specialists at ‘pacification’ in Vietnam with a technocratic vocabulary to fool the public, aided by bright social scientists  (brilliantly pulled apart by Chomsky in the 1960s at a time when btw, he was arguing for a two state solution and was pilloried).   The Iraq war suffered from ‘surgical strikes’ and the same type of langauge was used with the Gaza conflict.  We similarly suffer a deluge of weasel words in Australia, fortunately, in a much less violent environment.
    The language of avoidance  and obfuscation is very common.  Haven’t you suffered from an  ‘optimised’ ‘framework’ ‘going forward’?–meaning you are ‘restructured’ and ‘downsized’.  It’s the same story in the middle east conflict.  Finding new words may fool some people some of the time, but a lot of people who can’t be fooled, won’t be fooled by such diversions or arguments over ‘true’ meaning.  Context and knowledge are everything.
    In fact, Ittay’s article  is a akin to a precis of what has been already well-identified in press coverage and  online debate about the extent to which it occurs in the Middle East conflict.
    A random example,  a press report –http://articles.latimes.com/2002/aug/25/news/adfg-midspeak25.

  • Joel Lazar says:

    I recall when Ittay ran an educacational exercise for myself and fellow Hineni Shnatties at Machon in ’07 . The peula was on the plethora of terms one could use to describe the – umm… my choice of word here implies a political connotation right? But alas! I must. The separation barrier/fence/wall/part-concrete-part-fence-like thing, was the topic of discussion and the various terms usd to describe it appeared throughout various media outlets, suggesting certain political views of those organisations. As a politicalyl non-partisan youth movement, we were discussing the dangerous feld of phrase selection when conveying poltical programs and how we must be careful not to thrust a particular political angle on our chanichim unknowingly (or knowingly for that matter). After all, every word bore deepy embedded meaning.
    But the more I thought about it the more I realised that whilst every word is accompanied by a certain meaning, intended or otherwise, how could one proceed to make any analysis of a given situation without simply chosing a word?
    I found myself linguistically strangulated when I merely wanted to raise an issue but was accused of holding a particular view due to my choice of word. I guess you could say that any piece of writing or point of view that I wished to express should be accompanied by my desired choice word – one that matches my view. But I do not subscribe to the idea that every choice of word is a deliberately chosen manipulation device. Sure, public image spin doctors work tirelessly at this pursuit to further their cause. But if I intend to raise an issue, with my starting point one that is balanced and impartial (intending to open it up for debate), I am justified in simply chosing a word that is most commonly identifiable to my market audience. I might use the word “settlement” instead of “village” with regard to a small West Bank…umm..area, simply because that is the common choice of word in the media. I would do so not because I agreed with the apparent meaning behind the phraseology but because I want my audience to be able to quickly recognise certain intricacies of the issue rather than use a more obscure word that is ideologically congruous to my viewpoint (but is more puzzling to the reader amongst the busy political terminological terrain).
    Language is not solely a conyeor of meaning from the mental vault of the communicator to that of the receiver. Whilst that is undoubtdly one of its primary puposes, it also serves to set a ‘scene’ or a ‘playing field’ over which a particular dialogue can proceed and with which members of that dialogue can grapple. Set up the wrong stage, and you’ll find yourself an actor in the wrong play.

  • ariel says:

    Joel, you make an interesting point. The problem is that the media uses completely inappropriate words to describe situations and objects – and does so incessantly – until those words take on new meanings entirely.

    One example is the security fence. I’m sure you saw it when you went to Israel and realised that 90% of is a cable fence which is visually less of a barrier than the solid fence that stands between two suburban houses anywhere in the modern world. Yet the media focuses on the 10% of it which is concrete and calls the entire structure a “wall”. Soon “wall” will take on the same definition as a “separator” (mechitza), regardless of what it actually looks like.

    Another classic example is the word “martyr”. The traditional definition of a martyr has always been “one who would accept death rather than compromise their principles”, or religiously as “one who would accept death rather than be forced to convert”.
    Yet the Islamistic (as opposed to Islamic) distortion of this word has been grabbed by the media to the extent that it now means “one who commits suicide and murders others for refusing to accept his/her lifestyle”. In other words, martyr has taken on the opposite meaning of what it has always meant until now.

  • Joel Lazar says:

    You also make a valid point Ariel. And I would also like to add to that by saying that, as a friend of mine just commented to me, that the more a particular word is used in public discourse the more it can help shape it. So, instead of simply using a word that is easily identifiable, it would be better to use one that you thought was just, accurate and appropriate (placing perhaps a disclaimer at the beginning that assisted receviers of the message to understand the terminoogy) in order to aid in imposing the correct term onto a complex issue. If you believe justly that ‘apartheid fence’ is the correct one to be used in the issue, you should use it as much as possible in order to make it prevalent and widespread, to then be used by others too.

  • Joel,

    You say “… I do not subscribe to the idea that every choice of word is a deliberately chosen [my emphasis] manipulation device”. Very true. Problem is almost that every word does imply a certain position, and it’s very hard to escape that. Also, the reader/listener doesn’t now if the use of the term is deliberate or not. This makes open debate even more difficult. Perhaps this is why the world has gone PC crazy?


    The term “marytr” is an interesting one. Last night on SBS Two, we happened to end up watching a bizarre documentary called “My daddy is a martyr”. The way the Hezbollah “welfare” organization proudly declare that one element of their mission is to spread the culture of maryrdom and jihad was just mind-blowing (no pun intended). The mother wishes for her son to also follow in his father’s footsteps and be a martyr too.

  • Henry Herzog says:

    Becoming Friends of Gush Katif’s pin-up boy (or rabbi) because of his article, I bet Rabbi Kennard wishes it hadn’t been published in the first place.

  • ittay says:

    You wrote that when thinking so much about language, you found yourself, “linguistically strangulated when I merely wanted to raise an issue but was accused of holding a particular view due to my choice of word.”
    That is my point exactly. There is no such thing as a purely neutral word. That said, I think the highlighted in the BBC guidelines make a good starting point.

    For my part, the words I would use if I was not trying to make a political statement would be: conflict, barrier, disputed territories, settler, Israeli and Palestinian.

    If I was trying to make a statement, either left or right, I would use words such as: apartheid, Judea and Samaria, occupation, Jihad, Jewish and Arab.

  • Larry Stillman says:

    A lot of what this argument is about is in fact, at the core of a lot of discussion about the philosophy of language and how language cannot be distinguished from perceptions of reality. Finding neutrality in language for many things is the hardest of things to do–and this is what makes the social sciences, or more broadly, the interpretation of reality so different, most of the time from talking about  how a house is built (you take a nail, you take a piece of wood etc).  It’s what the house represents through our language and symbols, like  the structure of concrete (barrier, wall, separation fence), that is rooted in complexity.
    If you want to have a nice few hours reading about language and reality on the couch look at Winch, The Idea of a Social Science, one of the  all time classics on this topic (and a beautiful piece of writing that should used as a model of clarity on very complex stuff).  He was a devotee of Wittgenstein.  It is available on line if you look around.
    “Our idea of what belongs to the realm of
    reality is given for us in the language that we use. The
    concepts we have settle for us the form of the
    experience we have of the world. It may be worth
    reminding ourselves of the truism that when we speak
    of the world we are speaking of what we in fact mean
    by the expression ‘the world’: there is no way of
    getting outside the concepts in terms of which we think
    of the world…. The world is for us what is presented
    through those concepts. That is not to say that our
    concepts may not change; but when they do, that
    means that our concept of the world has changed too.”
    But in the hot world of black and white politics and Zionist or anti-Israel ideology,  we don’t like to question our assumptions, and particularly our linguistic truths.

  • Ittay says:

    Here’s another example of language being used to declare ownership from today’s haaretz.
    “Give Arab train stations Hebrew names, says Israeli linguist”

  • larry Stillman says:

    See my blogpost on this on the AJDS website. As if the Hebraization of Arabic place names of abandoned villages (therefore taking them out of  any historical consciousness) is not enough, we have such stupid proposals to further deny the multicultural nature of Israeli society.  But it will get support, I am sure.  Oh, and of course, Arabic has official status.
    More ammo for anti-Israelism http://www.ajds.org.au/node/101

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