The Palestine-Israel language trap

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Last Saturday I attended a one-day conference on Israeli Settler-colonialism in Palestine organised by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) in Edinburgh. It was a moving and gripping day. All the speakers at the conference acknowledged, each in his own way, that speaking about settler-colonialism in Palestine-Israel clarifies and simplifies the narrative about what is really going on there.

One of the more moving speakers at the conference, Mahmoud Zawahra focused on the idea of resistance and spoke about the many ways that resistance expresses itself in everyday life in Palestine. At the end of his talk Zawahra called on us to support non-violent Palestinian resistance in a variety of ways. Resistance is vital to our survival when someone not only tries to destroy us physically, but attempts to erase us from history and from collective memory by annihilating our very spirit, culture, memory of, and narrative about what we are experiencing.

I came away from the conference with a strong sense of clarity and urgency. I realised that alongside our efforts to liberate the Palestinians from Israeli settler-colonialism through Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and other means, we must also liberate our language. In fact, liberating our language might be the key to achieving liberation on the ground. In order to mobilise opposition to Israel and put our collective foot down once and for all, we need to get rid of euphemisms and false language and call what Israel does by its real name, ‘settler-colonialism’.

In my writings and talks I have been avoiding the words, ‘occupation’, ‘conflict’ and ‘peace’. These words in the context of Palestine-Israel have long felt false and misleading. Israelis who are more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause use these words extensively, and even mainstream Zionist Israelis live with them reasonably comfortably. Outside Israel the vast majority of analysts and commentators use these words frequently. They are ever-present in titles and contents of articles of even progressive thinkers, and in the verbal narratives used in mass media reports.

‘Occupation’, ‘conflict’ and ‘peace’ are paralysing words that usher us away from the ‘scene of the crime’, and send us on a wild goose chase after ‘peace talks’ — yet another fictitious and fraudulent phrase in the reality of Palestine-Israel. When we use our language to define problems incorrectly, we then apply irrelevant or wrong solutions.

These three words are convenient and safe — indeed an effective tool in Israel’s psychological and propaganda wars. On the propaganda front, they help to obscure reality by trying to tell us that we are dealing with a ‘simple’ case of occupation, and a conflict between two equal groups, and conflicts end when there is peace. The word ‘occupation’ also falsely suggests that the problem in Palestine-Israel dates back only to 1967. As Ilan Pappé reminded us on Saturday, occupations end and conflicts can be resolved through discussions and negotiations. That’s what the less informed observer would expect when he or she hears these words. Things might be bad just now and it might take a while, but because it is an ‘occupation’ and a ‘conflict’, there is always hope for a ‘peaceful’ resolution. Allowing people to believe that it is only a matter of time is an important and effective stalling tactic for Israel while it seeks to complete its settler-colonial project.

On the psychological front these words serve to confuse the general public both inside and outside Israel and paralyse effective activism. Many good people with a social conscience and with empathy have told me over the years that they avoid expressing their feelings and opinions about Palestine-Israel because they don’t feel they understand the issues well enough. ‘It seems so complicated’ is such a common sentiment. Our political leaders, on all sides of politics in the most influential countries in the West are either intellectually lazy, dishonest or cowardly. But this language helps them enforce this paralysis and their lack of willingness to do the right thing and support the indigenous people of Palestine as they are gradually squeezed out by Israel. If we call a crime a crime, we can act against it. But while we say it is something else, we don’t have to act, or we act in an irrelevant way.

Many people already know that language is political. That’s not a new idea. Language isn’t just an innocent and neutral tool for us to communicate with one another. How we talk about issues, the language we use, doesn’t just *express* how we perceive reality, it can and often does *determine* our perception of reality. Language provides the parameters for discussion, and marks the boundary between the sayable and unsayable. Language provides a distinct identity to groups and to ideas, and distinguishes them from other groups and ideas. As our understanding of issues deepens, so does our language, and as our courage (or frustration) grows, we salvage the unsayable and make it sayable. We can dissolve groups with a change of language, and we can cross over from one group to another as we change our language. Listening to language and terminology warns us about the ‘wrong’ people, and lets us know who we should listen to and who we shouldn’t, that is if we don’t want to find ourselves in the fringes of our groups or completely out in the cold. There are plenty of examples of all of these in the way we talk about Palestine-Israel.

Settler-colonialist projects not only take over land and remove the existing inhabitants. If they want to overcome their victims, take what was theirs and get away with the crime, they must also control the language used to talk about what’s happening. Indigenous people’s voices and narratives have traditionally been weaker and less present than those of the settler-colonists groups. (Why this might so is the subject for another article and is probably already the topic of writings about colonialism and settler-colonialism.) If that was not the case, the indigenous people would be more successful in driving the settler-colonialists out and taking back what is theirs. There is a good reason why we say that history is written by the victors. But it’s not just history in hindsight, it’s also the moment-to-moment narrative that is dictated by those who colonise and settle and who are the more powerful side in a story like this.

In terms of language and narrative, Israel has created two effective traps for us. One is the ‘antisemitism trap’ and the other is the ‘specialness trap’. It is almost impossible to speak about Palestine-Israel without worrying about, or at least mentioning antisemitism. Israel successfully tied antisemitism both to supporting the Palestinians and to criticising Israel. Not only are we told that criticising Israel is antisemitism, but anyone who supports the Palestinians has to worry that they might be an antisemite. I have encountered this more times than I can think over the years. People genuinely worry about it, and it stops them from speaking out or expressing their feelings openly. Worrying about antisemitism, discussing it ad nauseam, successfully distracts us and paralyses the struggle for a change on policy on Israel, and delays any decisive action on behalf of the Palestinians.

The ‘specialness trap’ is even more insidious. Jewish Israeli group psychology is very similar to the psychology of a cult. One of the hallmarks of cults is their feeling that they are special and that everything about them, who they are, what they believe, what they do, even their destiny, are special. Moreover, because of this specialness they cannot be judged or evaluated by the same rules that apply to everyone else. They are effectively outside the laws of general society. (Yes, cults fit well under the definition of a Narcissistic Personality Disorder). The state of Israel would like to trick us to think that what it is doing Palestine cannot be judged in the same way and under the same rules as other similar projects. The specialness trap here is designed to continue to make us believe that the Jewish people and the Jewish state are special and that the Palestinians are also special. We are expected to think that the Jews who settled and colonised Palestine are not like any other settler-coloniser in history and the victims, the Palestinians, are not like any other victims in history. Israel has worked hard to make us believe that the Palestinians are ‘bad’ people who deserve what they are getting, or even that they are not a people at all. The dehumanisation of the Palestinians has a long history dating right back to the 19th century.

Insisting on applying the correct label to what Zionism is doing in Palestine namely, ‘settler-colonialism’, frees our language from both traps. It liberates us from confusion about what’s really going on, and from giving Israel a special dispensation. The occupation is real alright, but it isn’t the real problem. It is only a tool in the bigger project of Jewish settler-colonialism in Palestine. The so-called conflict is a result of the resistance of yet another indigenous people to yet another settler-colonialist group. There is nothing special about the perpetrator and nothing special about the victim. To talk about settler-colonialism is to talk about a crime against humanity by humanity. This is not so complicated.

We have to go back to the same line of thinking that made Hannah Arendt so unpopular in Israel. Covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, she sought to learn universal lessons from the holocaust, rather than see it as a special case. She wanted to understand what can lead ordinary people like Eichmann to collude and facilitate such evil against their fellow humans. She recognised that this happens all the time in human experience. She talked about the banality of evil, and called for the development of a more robust framework of international law to cover crimes against humanity.

But Israel hates the idea that the holocaust is just another genocide, another crime against humanity committed by humanity. It has always refused to allow its own people and the outside world to learn a universal lesson from it. Jewish people have been taught to see the holocaust as a unique event in human history, and themselves as the greatest victims in human history. As the historian Benny Morris said in an interview with Ari Shavit in Ha’aretz in 2004, “We are the greater victims in the course of history and we are also the greater potential victim. Even though we are oppressing the Palestinians, we are the weaker side here.” Jewish Israelis and many Jews around the world have been conditioned to believe that anything that happens to anyone else pales by comparison to what has happened to the Jews. This too is convenient, because it means that whatever is inflicted on the Palestinians, however much they suffer even at the hands of Israel, cannot be as bad as what happened to us. I myself used to believe this in my past, and it was a feature of my very identity.

The Palestinians do not have a specialness complex. For them it is a given that the crime against them is a terrible injustice against human beings committed by other human beings, regardless of who they are. Many Palestinians I speak to often ask me with genuine puzzlement why this is happening to them. Most Palestinians are stumped by the world’s lack of action on their behalf and by the universal support for Israel in the face of such overwhelming evidence of the nature of the crime against them.

If we really want to help the Palestinians, we must examine our language, and we must not compromise. We can protest all we like, but if we continue to use words like ‘occupation’, ‘conflict’ and ‘peace’ we simply play within the rules and the traps that Israel has created for us. To resist a paradigm we can’t operate from within it, or we risk being impotent and ineffective.

In science when a theory does not fit empirical reality, the theory has to change or go. It’s bad and fraudulent science to ‘fudge’ or ignore evidence just to keep a theory we like, or that serves us somehow. The empirical evidence on the ground does not fit an ‘occupation’ or a ‘conflict’ theory, but it does fit settler-colonialism perfectly and it’s there for everyone to see.

Israel is a product of an ongoing settler-colonial project that started back in the late 19th century with the creation of the Zionist movement. In fact Zionism is settler-colonialism, and anyone who supports Zionism supports settler-colonialism. To be effective activists for ending Israeli settler-colonialism, we must be good scientists and make sure that the language we use, our theory, fits with the evidence. As long as we are bad scientists, we actively enable a crime against humanity to continue to march uninterrupted and with impunity to its terrible conclusion. This is unforgiveable.

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I don’t “get it”, but good luck to us all. So I/P is a problem of a settler-colonialist Israel. OK. So if Israel was ever “special”, is Israel not still “special” (even as a settler-colonial state)? And if opposing Israel or any of its projects was ever antisemitic, is opposing a settler-colonialist Israel not still antisemitic since, as is (falsely) claimed, such opposition opposes the only country of the so-called “Jewish People”? If a person… Read more »

Thanks for this analysis.

Regarding the section on Hannah Arendt above, I will borrow from one of Froggy’s comments on an earlier column on Elie Wiesel, quoting Howard Zinn: There have been shameful moments, travesties of Jewish humanism, as when Jewish organizations lobbied against Congressional recognition of the Armenian Holocaust of 1915 on the ground that it diluted the memory of the Jewish Holocaust. The designers of the Holocaust Museum dropped the idea of mentioning the Armenian genocide after… Read more »

I always enjoy reading your remarks, Avigail, but I’d like to ask what meaning is given to ‘settler colonial’? To me, SC means something like what was going on in Panama 1520 or Masachusetts 1630, with distant external sovereignty asserted and colonists arriving from a mother country which puts or purports to put their activities on a legal basis and provides essential long term support. Israel does not seem to fit this bill at all,… Read more »

I find it funny after all these years people are starting to turn towards the idea that Israel, through its own faults, simply do not deserve to exist. This is not anti semitic nor is it genocidal on our part to claim so.

Palestine will always be whole. The day Palestine is split into two is the day Palestinians cease to exist as a people.