This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
“Palestine.” The very name evokes so much. That’s why I found Martin Hughes’s post on the history of the word and territory fascinating.
Naming is what sets humans apart. Naming brings being into existence – beyond being. On the personal level, names aren’t interchangeable. This is true for collectives as well.
On the Israel/Palestine scene, naming is crucial. Barbra Streisand still calls Palestinians within the state of Israel, “Arabs,” as she did when she accepted her honorary Doctorate from Hebrew University last week. Evidently “Palestinian” doesn’t role off her tongue as easily as (Jewish) women’s rights.
A few months ago I lectured at a seminary in Puerto Rico. A rabbi and two of his congregants came to revile me. He led with his mighty right hook: “There never was a Palestine, that name was never used. Why do you lie about everything?”
If I had a dime for every time that “Palestine-never-existed” came my way, I’d be wealthy.
But naming goes both ways. If I could count the times my naming has been changed by well-meaning and supportive editors, I’d be wealthier still.
Below I cite four interesting examples of times I have been censored for naming.
The lesson – Censorship doesn’t only come from conservative forces.
The message – If you stop people from naming realities beyond what you see or beyond what benefits you or your organization, then the discussion you seek to foster falters. You and the people you represent lose out. At any rate, it’s only a matter of time before the real naming takes root.
After the Oslo Accords were signed, a prominent Palestinian academic journal asked me for an essay. When I received the edited version back, I noticed one substantive change. It had to with surrender.
In my text, I referred to Oslo as a Palestinian surrender. I noted that there was no shame in surrender since at certain times surrendering is the only way to survive to fight another day. I noted as well that Jews specialize in surrendering. This is one of the reasons Jews are on the scene today.
When I queried the editor, she understood my point but, in her view,the journal was hardly the place for this naming. Why hang out Palestinian dirty laundry for all to see? The editors wanted Oslo named something else.
A few years later a Rabbi asked me for an essay for a book he was editing on the meaning of the Holocaust for contemporary Jews. When I received a copy of the book, my use of “Holocaust” had been changed to “Shoah.”
Shoah means catastrophe, which the Holocaust certainly was, but the use of Shoah instead of Holocaust is precisely to further separate the Jewish experience of destruction from those who now use Holocaust to describe experiences of their people. Without consulting me, the editor had changed the trajectory of my thought. He wanted the Holocaust reserved for Jews.
I was present at the origins of a Palestinian Christian liberation center located in Jerusalem. When I started arguing that the Two State solution was over more than a decade ago, I was considered a troublemaker and was effectively banned from their conferences.
The Palestinians knew I was right. They didn’t want the end of the Two State solution named in public under their auspices. Today, the One State option is freely discussed in their conferences. But think of the time lost. Wouldn’t it have been better to name what everyone knew to be true?
Three years ago I was invited to a college in upstate New York to give a major lecture in a series featuring controversial issues. They asked a local Jewish educator to respond to my lecture. Usually these responses are hatchet jobs delivered by Progressive Jews.
To my surprise, my respondent agreed with all my points save one. The disagreement had to do with the ethnic cleaning of Palestinians in the creation of the state of Israel. His point: The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – which he agreed occurred – was not named as such then. The term “ethnic cleansing” came into usage only in the last decades. His conclusion: What happened to Palestinians should be named something else.
Since he accepted my major points, I was taken aback. I offered to find another term for what happened to Palestinians If Jews abandoned the term “Holocaust” for what happened to Europe’s Jews. The way we conceptualize and name the “Holocaust” as a Jews-only event only became normative in the late 1960s.
I have so many examples of censored naming it could fill a book. At first it makes you angry. After a while, you relax and let it roll over you. Sometimes it’s humorous. As often happens in censored naming, the censor doesn’t quite get it.
My latest example is an essay I wrote for a book supporting the One State option. The editors didn’t like my nuanced approach and so “corrected” and eliminated certain passages that didn’t comport with their ideas. I found it amusing and allowed them their editorial privilege. Since they were looking for the big differences they didn’t realize that what I had to say remained in passages they didn’t quite get. As I say, the essay was nuanced. They only understood the sledge hammer.
If censors are so entangled in false naming, you know it’s just a matter of time until they have to change. In the meantime, the challenge is to keep yourself untangled. While they’re sitting still, keep moving.
In the meantime you can still experience the power of naming. Shout out “Palestine” in a local synagogue service, at an Anti-Defamation League meeting, in a university Jewish Studies conference or during a Holocaust Remembrance luncheon. Note the response.
“Palestine” has a way of unnerving our empire sophisticates – in ancient times and today.