In the first post in this series, I started with a very exact quote from Madeleine L’Engle to exemplify what happens when an author writes with authority, but with either incorrect information or a deeply problematic approach. Here, we’re talking about using language with precision, and I don’t just want you to think about the articles and news reports below—think about picture books. The absolute master of precision in language today is—drumroll—Mac Barnett. Consider his book The Wolf, the Duck, and the Mouse, illustrated by Jon Klassen. Marked by repetition (“Oh woe!”), it has humorous cadence. But in few pages, each with few words, Mac Barnett establishes characters’ voices (especially the briskness of Duck), and one stunning example of precise vocabulary when the duck says, “I may have been swallowed, but I have no intention of being eaten.” OK! Well, then. Everyone laughs, but Barnett has everyone thinking: “What do these words mean? What is the duck telling us, and why does it matter to the story?” If every journalist and op ed author out there were given the Mac Barnett Duck Test, every discussion of conflict over Israel and will-there-be-a-Palestinian-state would be vastly improved.
When I see articles and discussions about “Israel” or “Israel-Palestine” there’s always so much missing. Is a given article talking about the actions of the IDF in Gaza, or are we talking about the current government (whatever it may be today) and its political bungling (whatever it may be today)? Perhaps we’re talking about the police, which is a word that has additional charged feeling in North America right now, which you’ve gotta know people are exporting with North American understanding to apply exactly the same metrics to the police in Israel, and though I personally doubt they’re much better I do know they’re different. Perhaps, however, we’re talking about Arab populations in Israel—but maybe the Arabs in question are those in the territories outside the borders? Wait, when we say “Arabs” are we talking Christian or Muslim Arabs? Are we, perhaps, forgetting the intensely nuanced and diverse populations of the entire area and all of the charged feelings altogether?
I know the answer to only one of those questions, pretty much.
WHAT IS “SUPPORT” AND WHOM SHOULD I “DENOUNCE”?
Let’s start with a thought exercise: When are you asked to “Support Sweden!” or “Denounce Finland!” Sweden did an absolutely crappy job of handling the Covid crisis, right? Did you “denounce” it? I sure didn’t, because I figured, as I figured in the USA, which, by the way, also did a crap job, that there was a pretty complicated situation going on with key figures who were mismanaging things. Sweden-the-country had very little to do with Anders Tegnell. Sweden, to break things down carefully, is a country: a chunk of territory within artificial borders human beings like to set up so they can fight about where the imaginary lines run with other human beings. The people of Sweden enjoy a democracy, and they elected people, and who’s in charge of what got arranged following the elections of people to do the decision-making. To put it a bit more seriously and plainly: being a democracy, which is not a perfect system, they did what they did based on where they are at this moment in time, just as we did in the USA. We had a dreadful election in 2016 and the repercussions were simply disastrous in terms of the mismanagement of Covid despite the valiant and imperfect efforts of truly heroic people. I wouldn’t “denounce” the USA, nor would I “denounce” Sweden, so why would I, and why should you, “denounce” Israel or whatever the equivalent terminology for “Palestine” is?
What about “support”? Surely it’s OK to “support” someone! Again, Israel is not “someone,” and I feel stupid even typing that. No, I do not “support” Israel except in that I think it’s fine for it to exist and I’m glad it’s there, absolutely. And I regret that there is no equivalent State of Palestine, by the way. I wish with all my heart that there were a strong, stable, and happily kvetchy State of Palestine. Having got that out of the way—why should I “support” or be asked to “support” Israel every single time someone criticizes anything about “it” and I have to put “it” in quotes because I DON’T KNOW WHAT “IT” EVEN IS HALF THE TIME.
Does a university hire a probably mediocre academic who undoubtedly got hired due to being better at applications than most better academics (believe me, that happens a lot) and who knows how to write a snappy “controversial” piece in a journal somewhere? Write to the university! Support Israel! (NB: Israel really won’t vanish in a puff of air because someone wrote a snappy piece. It didn’t happen last time, it won’t happen this time.) Does a journalist write a thoughtful piece critiquing a military action of the IDF that, honestly, was necessary but wouldn’t have been necessary if the government had had the sense to be more diplomatic? Write a letter to the editor! Support Israel! (NB: think about why you’re asking me to do that.)
What about “Support Palestine!” Well, look. There’s the pretty obvious issue: there is no State of Palestine to support yet. There are territories where the Palestinian people live, where various bodies are in charge, such as Hamas or Fatah. It’s all very messy and complex. It would, without a doubt, be much better for everyone if there were a State of Palestine with jobs, a democratic government, elections, medical care, public education, etc. The thing is, it doesn’t exist and I find it hard to support what’s demonstrably nonexistent. As I just said above, I, personally, wish it did exist! So, when we’re told “Support Palestine!” many folks feel very righteous for saying it because, well, Palestine should exist. Right? OK, but since there’s no agreement, to put it mildly, as to what we’re being asked to support (i.e. are we supporting the hope for the existence of a state, are we supporting people who are Palestinian, are we supporting the eradication of the State of Israel and a return to pre-1948?), many who are met with the demand to “Support Palestine!” blink silently in question… and others fulminate, imagining that they’re being asked to see their relatives deported from their homes and the State of Israel turned into… hmmm. What?
Again, think logically. When I’m told that Israel is a colonial power which shouldn’t exist and we have to “do something about it” I wonder what there is to return to. Pre-1948? There was no actual Palestinian autonomy, I’m afraid. Probably Britain doesn’t want to get involved here… they’re having enough issues with Brexit. There’s no Ottoman Empire since, you know, WWI, and if we want to go really far back—Italy and the Vatican would have to fight it out and I think that’s not likely to go anywhere. Without being too glib (oh, too late), there’s nothing to go back to, meaning the only way out is forward. So what’s going forward, what’s the goal?
Honestly, a good chunk of the issue is that the goal is not clear. There doesn’t seem to be agreement as to a goal, on the “Palestinian Side” if there is a “Palestinian Side.” It’s an enormous question built on politics, geography, and history, and most articles I read don’t seem to want to talk about that, even to say, “I recognize X, Y, and Z but am limiting this discussion to A, B, and C.”
What does all of that mean, then, the analysis of terminology above? Well, as I just said: the political landscape and history are fraught. The logic of terminology is hard to cope with. Most articles, especially opinion pieces, do not like to acknowledge or grapple with that… So they don’t, and readers and activists never respond calmly because the fraught history is emotionally charged. Politics and political history are hard at the best of times, and this… this is a question of “well ok what historical landscape in which territories and for which group of people at that historical moment?” Which is, clearly, not the easiest of scenarios.
OK SO WHAT ABOUT HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPRESSION
So the easiest thing to do, and the laziest, and aren’t we all so lazy? (Yes, yes, we are!), is to duck political history altogether and say, no! This isn’t political history at all! (I’m so sorry, my friends, but it really is.) It’s a matter of human rights and discrimination! Well, it is. But it is in the context of political history. And that’s the issue: who’s talking about which form of discrimination at what point, and if you want to “do something about it,” how is that best achieved with the most lasting results?
The Palestinians are being oppressed! OK, which Palestinians? Those who are Arab Israelis of Palestinian background in, perhaps, the area of Jerusalem? They have voting rights, healthcare, etc. Are they discriminated against? Often they are! They’re subjected to racism, Islamophobia runs rampant in Israel as in North America, and the erasure of Arab Christians has always bothered me. All of that is true. It is equally true that they have MKs who advocate for them, and their healthcare is equivalent to Jewish Israelis. They get parental leave like any other Israeli, better than most Americans. So we have to differentiate their situation from the oppression of Palestinians outside of Israeli territory, in which case we simply can’t evade political history because it comes right back to who has the rights to which territories. In short: who’s in charge, who’s doing the oppressing, and in which situation does which group have the right to claim rights to oppress whom on which square foot of land? That’s complicated and if your goal is simply stability then you either have to wipe out one group altogether (that’s called “genocide”) or else you have to concede that it can’t possibly be figured out without negotiations and compromise, really, it just can’t. And, my friends, I’m going to make you all mad: I have heard everyone—liberal Jews, conservative Jews, Arab Christians, Arab Muslims, American Muslims—try to get around negotiations by claiming human rights, but it simply won’t work that way. Even if we don’t think it’s “fair,” labelling a political situation “just” a humanitarian crisis is not going to get you out of the realities of negotiations and politics. Every humanitarian crisis also has political issues inextricably entwined, from antiquity to the present day, from the Reconquista to Darfur. There’s no way out of it.
OK, what about another one? Criticism of Israel isn’t anti-Zionist, it’s anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism! This one gets at me personally, boy does it ever, in large part because I’ve heard that since I was at least 12 and I tried to accept it, really, I genuinely did, hearing it from people I love and trust, but… it doesn’t compute, it really doesn’t. That’s not to say that no one uses Israel as code for Judaism, criticizing Israel gratuitously for the sake of getting at Jews. But let’s not forget that many “supporters of Israel”—see above: what does it mean to “Support Israel”?—use it as a barb against Jews and Judaism, too.
Criticism of Israel, again, depends on the day and the situation, it just does. Are we criticizing the IDF? Well, that’s one situation: we can discuss their policies, methods, leadership, all of which changes with general circumstances. But they’re the military, responding to military threats; they do not have very much (if anything) to do with the negotiations around running Israel or talks with the Palestinians. So what about the political leadership, which depends on who’s elected when and by whom? Was criticism of Ehud Barak anti-Semitic, or is criticism of Netanyahu anti-Semitic? What about criticism of Israelis? Which Israelis? Settlers? For what it’s worth, I’ve been criticizing the settlements since I was 14 or 15 years old, starting high school, and arguing with my teacher that it looked pretty freaking disingenuous to claim to have the moral high ground in peace talks while tacitly or explicitly permitting settlements to spring up all over the place. That was at my most conservative phase, my friends! If you think I wasn’t “supportive of Israel” then, if you think I was anti-Semitic, I don’t think we’re seeing eye to eye today, because you’re not even reading this, you’re in your own little world.
The only “Criticism of Israel” I can concede is inherently, every time, problematic is “Criticism of Israel for existing at all in today’s world.” Which, by the way, I differentiate from “thinking Israel shouldn’t have been permitted to exist, but accepting it’s a done deal and must be dealt with.” Fair enough, I feel that way about lots of things! However, saying it needs to cease to exist today? That’s problematic, for sure, because, well, Israel does exist, and, again, it’s a hard thing to deal with logically: what would the return to pre-1948 look like, and, given that it’s impossible, does your interlocutor just want to eradicate the State of Israel, period? If that’s the case, you’ve got bigger problems, there, and that’s actually worth looking at—depending on whether the interlocutor is worth your effort to begin with. (Hint: Do they have power to eradicate Israel altogether? Then pay attention.) However, 99% of the time I see screeching emails in my inbox about “criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism,” I look and find that it is not inherently anti-Semitic by any stretch and the hawklike glare at any criticism is so entirely counterproductive I’m simply boggled at its prevalence.
BE CAREFUL WITH THAT LANGUAGE
However, the problem is that we’ve sunk so far into this “but it’s a human rights issue not a political issue” that it’s dizzying to keep up with. Let’s look at more of the language regarding human rights:
Apartheid is a biggie. I was taught that any reference to Israel as an apartheid state is automatically wrong and anti-Semitic. I still don’t like it, I consider it unclear, unhelpful, and unnecessarily divisive, but I’ve started to approach it differently because it’s become prevalent enough that people who are otherwise logical and open to conversation use it and I think it’s more important to have the conversations than it is to shriek about terminology. Here’s what the OED says:
“Name given in South Africa to the segregation of the inhabitants of European descent from the non-European (Coloured or mixed, Bantu, Indian, etc.); applied also to any similar movement elsewhere; also, to other forms of racial separation (social, educational, etc.). Also figurative and attributive.”
It started in South Africa, in other words (the word literally means “separateness” or “apart-hood”), and the situation there simply can’t be logically extrapolated to be comparable to Israel. Arabs within Israel, as I said, vote and have rights. Palestinians outside are in a bad way, but they can’t vote in Israeli elections for the simple reason that they aren’t Israelis, have their own government and issues, and their own system, messy and inadequate as it is. But there are certainly forms of racial and religious separation, there is plenty of racism (institutional or not) and, yeah, ok, figurative and attributive… well, there we are. It’s used, I’m not happy about it, and I wish people would think more critically before application of the term or at least footnote it with why and wherefore, but if we write off everyone as “anti-Semitic” for its use, that’s neither accurate nor is it helpful. Far better, in my opinion, to ask the question, listen carefully and politely to the reply, and respond with thoughtfulness. If you respond with insults and indignation, you’re doing both the people and the language a disservice.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Apartheid isn’t a good term, but this time round I’m seeing Israel/the IDF/Israelis (again, be specific, folks!) accused of actual genocide (one quote from a certain “Statement in Solidarity with Palestinian Liberation” said “What we are witnessing is called genocide,” so you can’t get more categorical than that), which it’s hard to think of as being anything but disingenuous. To me, it says: “Israel rose in 1948 from the ashes of the Holocaust so if we say they’re just as bad, we get rid of them and get a state, maybe?” Except, you know, these are North Americans talking. They aren’t even there. And it’s insulting to call it a genocide. I’m not bothering to go to the OED on that one—really, I trust you.
Equally as insulting, but not to me personally, are the folks calling the Palestinians the “indigenous” population, often residents of North America drawing a direct analogy to the First Nations tribes in North America. I’ve heard First Nations leaders speak against that, and I’m not at all surprised. The First Nations tribes were here for long years before European contact, with autonomy and culture and lives—until Europeans showed up and took over and, in a nutshell, killed them and deliberately attempted to eradicate their way of life. The situation in the Middle East is far messier historically, much less cut and dried, and if you don’t know that—you should. Do research before you draw such comparisons, and allow each tribe a voice, a history, a present, and a future.
And don’t think for a moment as I list the issues with language such as “apartheid,” “genocide,” and “indigenous” that I don’t see those Jews of North America using sometimes explicit, often more veiled critiques of the usually Muslim leaders in the Palestinian Authority. I have heard with my own ears Jewish homeowners in Jerusalem say they’d rather not hire Arab workers, for example. Anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia run rampant and I refuse to pretend they don’t exist.
In North America, I have broken bread with people who have, without the benefit of knowledge of any kind (and I think back, here, to Madeleine L’Engle having Vicky’s grandfather muse on who has the authority to say “what Christians think”), explained that violence is inherent to Islam; that since certain Muslim leaders are anti-Semitic and want to kill Jews, “we” (and I wasn’t really clear on who “we” referred to) are more than justified in annihilating the countries of those leaders (I never returned to that house but I’m still ashamed of not having gotten up and left at those words, leaving no doubt of my anger); and who have told “anecdotes” without evidence beyond “I was there and I saw this” which attempted to suggest that “they’re different from us.” That last one is the most insidious, the most problematic. It drives in wedges. It makes us doubt. “Well,” it quietly says, “if this is what they are teaching their children then we just know they’re not going to like us because they’re indoctrinated against us and no attempt at rapprochement is even necessary, justified, or worthwhile.” Meanwhile, of course, that sort of thinking means we instill “they vs us” in our own children, and, I’m sorry to say: I saw this in school, too.
Which is a great way of making sure nothing good ever happens because we’re indoctrinating ourselves with so much anticipatory racism that we’ll never, ever be open to those who are open to us. Great job, us. We’ve persuaded ourselves they hate us so profoundly that we’ve created an enmity within ourselves so that we don’t even have to try.
What we’re left with is a pretty miserable mess of language that creates alarm, paranoia, separation, and division. In my next and final part in this series, I’ll discuss writing responsibly, and what we can do to create a better form of discourse at both the personal level and in the literary landscape.