Arab Victories in the Language War by Daniel Pipes

We read that “Prime Minister” Mahmoud Abbas is running in the elections on Sunday to succeed Yasir Arafat as “president” of “Palestine.”

Excuse me, but prime minister, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, means the “head of the executive branch of government in states with a parliamentary system.” Despite tens of thousands of references to Abbas as prime minister, he in not a single way fits this description.

Oh, and there is also the small matter of there being no country called Palestine. Arab maps routinely show it in place of Israel. The United Nations recognizes its existence. So too do such telephone companies as France’s Bouygues Telecom and Bell Canada. Nonetheless, no such place exists.

One can dismiss use of these terms as symptoms of the same unrealism that has undermined Palestinian war efforts since 1948. But they also promote the Palestinian cause (a polite way of saying, “the destruction of Israel”) in a vital way.

In an era when the battle for public opinion has an importance that rivals the clash of soldiers, the Palestinians’ success in framing the issues has won them critical support among politicians, editorial writers, academics, street demonstrators, and NGO activists. In the aggregate, these many auxiliaries keep the Palestinian effort alive.

Especially in a long-standing dispute with a static situation on the ground, public opinion has great significance. That’s because words reflect ideas — and ideas motivate people. Weapons in themselves are inert; today, ideas inspire people to pick up arms or sacrifice their lives. Software drives hardware.

Israel is winning on the basic geographic nomenclature. The state is known in English as Israel, not the Zionist entity. Its capital is called Jerusalem, not Al-Quds. Likewise, Temple Mount and Western Wall enjoy far more currency than Al-Haram ash-Sharif or Al-Buraq. The separation barrier is more often called a security fence (that keeps out Palestinian suicide bombers) than a separation wall (that brings divided Berlin to mind).

In other ways, however, the Palestinians’ wording dominates English-language usage, helping them win the war for public opinion.

Collaborator means someone who “cooperates treasonably” and brings to mind the French and Norwegian collaborators who betrayed their countries to the Nazis. Yet this term (rather than informant, mole, or agent) universally describes those Palestinians providing Israel with information.

The refugee status normally applies to someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted . . . is outside the country of his nationality,” but not to their descendants. In the Palestinian case, however, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of refugees also merit refugee status. One demographer estimates that over 95 percent of so-called Palestinian refugees never fled from anywhere. Nonetheless, the term continues to be used, implying that millions of Palestinians have a right to move to Israel.

A settlement is defined as a small community or an establishment in a new region. Although some Jewish towns on the West Bank and in Gaza have tens of thousands of residents and have existed for nearly four decades, settlement, with its overtones of colonialism, is their nearly universal name.

Occupied territories implies a Palestinian state existed in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza, which was not the case, making these areas legally disputed territories, not occupied ones.

Cycle of violence, a term President George W. Bush has adopted (“the cycle of violence has got to end in order for the peace process … to begin”), implies a moral equivalence between the killing of Israeli civilians and Palestinian terrorists. It confuses the arsonist with the fire department.

The peace camp in Israel — a term that derives from Lenin’s usage — refers to those on the Left who believe that appeasing mortal enemies is the only way to end Palestinian aggression. Those in favor of other approaches (such a deterrence) by implication constitute the “war camp.” In fact, all Israelis are in the “peace camp” in the sense that all want to be rid of the conflict; none of them aspires to kill Palestinians, occupy Cairo, or destroy Syria.

Arabs may have fallen behind Israel in per capita income and advanced weaponry, but they lead by far on the semantic battlefield. Who, a century back, would have imagined Jews making the better soldiers and Arabs the better publicists?

Jewish World Review Jan. 4, 2005 / 23 Teves, 5765

Leave a Reply