By weaving sounds and syllables together, human thought is presented in verbal form, a distillation of ideas that is of no little consequence. Words can enrapture, teach, and divide. They are the building blocks through which we communicate, the portent by which we interact with the world. The Bible even says that God spoke the world into being; one cannot begin to imagine the complexity and eloquence of the words that He must have spoken.
In short, language matters.
Unfortunately, human history is littered with episodes of violence, deception, and hatred, whose seeds were sown through the perversion of language and, by way of this, the poisoning of ideas. In modern history, writers like George Orwell, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Robert Fisk have repeatedly prodded us to be wary of these distortions, as they are not conducted haphazardly but intentionally, patronized by cliques whose motives are oftentimes corrosive, and powerfully so.
Recent developments in the Middle-East have once again brought to light the perennial conflagration that appears to us in the West as the Israel-Palestine conflict but, to those whose lives are directly touched by its flames, is a painful daily reality. What makes this conflict especially disturbing are the glaring omissions, distortions, and fabrications that continue to mask its true nature but have come to characterize American coverage of this immensely important issue.
Under the bland but insidious justification – so they tell us – of being “evenhanded,” or not “taking sides”, virtually all major American publications have come to portray the conflict as that between Israel, a supposed bastion of enlightenment, and Palestine, an allegedly synthetic nation of implacable squatters.
We are assured that when a disillusioned Palestinian suicide bomber sets off her bomb it is an act of inexplicable madness, or “terrorism”, to use the appropriate terminology. What they judiciously choose to omit, however, is that as an EMT she (yes, she is – or was – a human being) had spent her last years watching her patients die as Israeli soldiers stoically refused to allow them pass through their arbitrary (and illegal) checkpoints . Sometimes when a dream is deferred it does not “dry up like a raisin in the sun” but, yes, does “explode”.
When an Israeli missile hits a minibus taking Palestinian children to Indira Gandhi kindergarten and their teacher Najweh Khalif is fatally wounded in front of their eyes, we are told with a straight face that this was simply “collateral damage,” necessary for maintaining that promiscuous word, “security”. And when a Masalah, a Palestinian teenager, is shot while fishing – a toilsome job meant to augment his family’s meager income – we are assured by the Israeli military that their rigorous investigation (their motto is not “purity of arms” for no reason!), “found that no casualties were identified in this event” (Gideon Levy, The Punishment of Gaza, p. 69). Masalah is incredulous – he might lose his leg.
The uncomfortable fact is that those with power are able to weave their own narrative of events, regardless of its semblance to reality; and more often than not because reality, to them, is itself inconvenient.
When the United States’ top diplomats overseeing the “peace process” are all Jewish and the lead diplomat, Dennis Ross, formally worked as a staffer for the most powerful arm of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington (AIPAC) the reality of this power dynamic becomes palpable. Now this is not to say that all Jews are pro-Israel in American usage of the term, for that could not be further from the truth. However, imagine what the Israeli government’s reaction would be if the top American diplomats overseeing the “peace process” were all ethnic Palestinians?
This unbalanced power dynamic continues to pronounce itself via Washington’s economic sanctions on Iran and meek response to Israel’s bloodcurdling statements against the Iranian people. The United States’ promiscuous use of economic sanctions (a measure that the American government considers an act of war if used against its own people) on peoples whom the Israeli government does not care for, again emphasizes the fact that the Israeli Lobby has the U.S. government in its pocket. After all, it was this self-same lobby who most vociferously advocated for American sanctions regimen against Iraq during the 1990s, a measure that wrought suffering of Biblical proportions. The UN estimates that over a half-million Iraqi children died during this period as a direct result of this most archaic and brutal form of collective punishment.
Pro-Israeli, Anti-Israeli Democracy
While it is easy to cite the litany of excesses and atrocities first bankrolled and then whitewashed by these governments and their acolytes at the behest of the Israel Lobby, doing so fails to take into consideration one other pernicious consequence: the dismantlement of the Israeli body politic .
Though the Israel Lobby is real enough and, as most Washington insiders would admit in private, one of the most powerful and exasperating lobbies around, its moniker is somewhat misleading. While AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and Anti-Defamation League among others, may claim to speak for all Israelis, they simply do not. What all of these organizations have in common is that they equate any criticism of Israel, no matter how legitimate, as unwarranted – even anti-Semitic. And this is where their true power lies, for what politician can possibly hope to keep their office after being labeled “anti-Semitic”.
By providing the Israeli government carte blanche to pursue its ethnic-cleansing policies in the Palestinian Occupied Territories the United States is running roughshod over any hope of turning Israel into a truly vibrant democracy. While it is true that the radical right in Israel supports the accumulation of Israeli Lebensraum through the colonization of Palestinian land (in violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Conventions), it is also true that the majority of Israelis view this profligate land-grab with disgust, or at least a strong dose of skepticism. In other words, the United States is currently underwriting (illegal) political projects that do not actually conform to the ideals and ethical principles of a large swath of the Israeli population – especially the 20% who are ethnic Palestinians.
Israeli Nomika Zion’s recent article in the ‘New York Review of Books’ (“It’s not just about fear, Bibi, it’s about hopelessness”) brilliantly captures this disaffection:
“Never have I felt an ounce of security or peace when our planes passed over the skies of Sderot at night en route to Gaza to “crush the head of the snake” of whichever senior or junior leader has been targeted, and whoever else happened to accidentally be in the way…And not since the siege placed on Gaza, not when the authorities have been trying to come up with scientific calculations for the number of calories a Gazan needs just in order to survive…And not since tens of thousands of homes were pounded, infrastructure crushed, and bodies lined up, row by row, children without names, youths with no faces, citizens without an identity. There are a thousand and one ways to suppress violence by means of violence but not one of them has ever succeeded in annihilating it.”
Imagine how most Americans would feel if a foreign country began to sponsor the Tea Party’s agenda with virtually unlimited financial and military support, allowing the extreme right to garner so much influence that the key tenets of its political platform became embedded in both the Democrats’ and moderate Republicans’ agendas. Needless to say, this “special relationship” between the United States and Israel is maddening for many Israelis. It allows the minority settler, i.e. colonist vote, to carry undue sway in setting the country’s agenda, subordinating the voices of moderation and inclusivity to the strident calls of theocracy and apartheid.
The U.S. and Israeli governments – at the end of the Israel Lobby’s hot poker – have worked not only against the well-being of Israelis, but of Jews everywhere and Judaism in general.
Since its founding, the Israeli government’s foreign policy has been guided by cynical realpolitik as much as any other government. While this point may – and should – be self-evident, the sublime narrative of Israel’s existence spoon-fed to Americans has had the effect of disguising this most simple and human of truths.
One of the most obscene and inexcusable examples of this realpolitik has been the manner in which the Israeli government brazenly engages in Holocaust-denial to safeguard its alliances with regional powers.
The word “Holocaust” was originally penned during WWII to describe the first instance of genocide of the 20th century: that of the wholesale slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by ethnic Turks and Kurds in what is now called Turkey (from 1915-1920). In order to safeguard its friendship with Turkey, a key member of its “alliance of the periphery”, Israel’s leading statesmen and women have repeatedly and confidently asserted that this Holocaust never occurred. As Shimon Peres, an Israeli prime minister who is currently lionized as one of the country’s most far-sighted statesmen once said: “we reject attempts to create a similarity between the Holocaust and the Armenian allegations. Nothing similar to the Holocaust occurred. It is a tragedy what the Armenians went through but not a genocide” (Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation, p. 339).
Apparently the razing of Armenian villages, erection of Armenian labor camps, and formation of mass graves of such scope that they literally altered the course of rivers was not “genocide”, much less a “Holocaust”. We are supposed to disregard the fact that the latter term was, in fact, invented to describe it.
If words like Holocaust are introduced because of language’s inability to describe the gravity of such horrors, then how does one describe the coldness of their denial?
The Israeli Lobby in the United States is no less guilty of similarly gutsy disavowals. And as Norman G. Finkelstein has made clear in his acerbic but important work The Holocaust Industry, prominent members of the Israel Lobby have tirelessly exploited the Jewish Holocaust in order to inveigle funds for Israel’s coffers in the name of Holocaust reparations. Pressing reparations out of countries and financial institutions that allegedly expropriated assets deposited by deceased Jewish Holocaust victims, many pro-Israel lobbyists have actually manipulated the suffering of Holocaust victims for their own political ends. Instead of distributing the majority of these funds to Holocaust survivors or their families, millions of dollars have evaporated in the form of six-figure salaries and expense fees charged by those who oversee their distribution. Sometimes the sums are simply handed over to Israel.
Neo-fascists and kooks of all varieties may deny the Holocaust of Jews during WWII, but many of the most outspoken members of the Israel Lobby best know how to capitalize on it – literally.
Speaking Truth to Power
But what does this all mean?
To begin, the United States should not be seen as an “impartial arbiter”, as this is flat-out disingenuous, triggering the gag-reflex of any sentient inhabitant of the Middle-East with a moral bone in their body. Palestinians do not need to be pontificated to about “democracy” or “human rights”. Thousands of Palestinians have and continue to engage in heroic hunger-strikes while languishing within the hell of “administrative detention”. Innumerable others weekly protest in the streets through vigils, peaceful demonstrations, and other ingenious forms of non-violent resistance. While the anomalous suicide bomber provokes paroxysms of indignation amongst Americans from the comfort of their Lazy-Boy recliners the fact that millions of Palestinians have chosen to resist occupation by non-violent means continues to be overlooked – an omission that is both profound and telling. It is one of the great misfortunes of history that when thousands of Palestinians successfully assert their humanity through organized hunger strikes (as in Spring 2012) their noble efforts are met with steely silence, while only the dehumanized suicide bomber is paid any attention. Is the West trying to say that only violence pays?
The “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel, under the auspices of the Israel Lobby, also discloses the bankruptcy of the American political system, as well as Israel’s. Powerful lobbies shamelessly assert undue influence on the political process, an influence composed of dollars, threats, and inflammatory lies. Promiscuously wielding their power like a warlord with his sycophants, they have set the U.S. on a collision course with the Islamic world, the country’s fiscal health and, above all, justice.
Lastly, America’s ill-advised adventures and clandestine forays into the Middle East convey the power of language to divide and unite. As the masterful Israeli journalist Gideon Levy has said, “Words, it is true, do not kill; but words can ease the work of killing” (Gideon Levy, The Punishment of Gaza, p.108). Till now, language has been employed to obfuscate, inflame, and divide. When will language finally be used to teach, unite, and heal?