At a recent academic conference devoted to the historical analysis of culture, I spoke to a young Israeli colleague about the highly problematic nature of the term “terrorism”. As I spoke, he looked at me with genuine bafflement and then said, “I don’t understand what you are talking about”. And I really think that at that moment it was the case.
For this thirtyish resident of the self-proclaimed Jewish state there were—despite his professed interest in the historical evolution of languages and social ideologies—no semantic mysteries to be plumbed in this matter. No, for him, a terrorist was what the opinion-makers of his country had long told him it was: a person with malign and, more importantly, wholly irrational desire to harm members of his blood-bonded collective.
I then went on to explain that the powerful have long used the term terrorist to delegitimate the often quite understandable use of violence of their less lethally endowed adversaries, adducing a list of historical examples ranging from 19th century colonial Ireland to the South Africa of the 60s, 70s and 80s, where, of course, the now sanctified Nelson Mandela was considered the number one “terrorist” threat to the geboorteland.
Being a smart guy, he soon began to realize where this was going: to a place where his simplistic moral views of good and evil, rooted in cartoonishly ahistorical notions of causality, would not hold up too well. Not surprisingly, he changed the subject at the next socially appropriate juncture of the conversation
It is an experience I have had time and again over the years not only with Zionists, but their ideological first cousins, American Exceptionalists. Think of it as a form of tactical retreat designed prevent the further exposure of what spies sometimes refer to as “sources and methods”.
To engage in a discussion over the power of naming—which is to say, the descriptive shorthand used to generate more or less apprehensible (though not necessarily accurate) renderings of the enormous complexity of lived reality—is to admit the existence of the game. And to admit the existence of the game is to call attention to how power elites have long used it to deprive the less fortunate of the ability to craft an accurate and compelling narrative of their plight. The partisans of established power instinctively understand that they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, in such dialogues. Hence, their vigorous attempts to head them off at the pass.
So, what are those of us on the other side to do when those comfortable with the status quo will not engage us on the very important matter of language usage?
Before answering that query, it might be useful to establish what we definitely SHOULD NOT do in such matters. First and foremost we need to stop engaging in the widespread fantasy, especially prevalent among liberals, of believing that “some how, some way” (it never ceases to amaze me how vague liberals can be on the operational details of their efforts within wars of ideas where the other side plans each move with great forethought and precision) we can substantially advance our cause from within the nomenclature the other side has established, and which it actively manages.
As long as we accept the blithe use of terms like “terrorist” to refer to Palestinian fighting for basic dignity and freedom, or, going in the opposite direction, accept the matter-of-fact description of Israel as a “democracy”, we lose the game. Why? Because those terms, and instructions for their effective deployment within dialectical confrontations, have been carefully designed by people like Frank Luntz to leave no room for a true dialogue of ideas. Indeed, their prime purpose is to stop sincere interchanges right in their tracks. So, as a first step we need stop expending our energies on arguments taking place within their parameters of thinkable thought
One thing we CAN do is to politely, but firmly contest such usages in our everyday conversations. No need to get aggressive. Rather, when, in a dialogue, your interlocutor refers matter-of-factly to Palestinians as terrorists, or as people who widely “embrace terrorism” and who are bent on “ throwing Israel into the sea” you simply refer to the same people, as “resisters” “patriots” or “lovers of freedom” when it comes your time to speak.
Having grown used to employing such pejorative terms without reserve or circumspection for a long time, many will get annoyed. But if enough of us do it over time, they will begin to feel a lot less cocksure about their self-image as speakers of self-evident and unambiguous truths.
A version of this technique was used in Catalonia in the first years of the new Spanish democracy. During the nearly four-decade dictatorship of Franco, the use of Catalan in public spaces had been prohibited. With the coming of democracy in the eighties, linguistic and cultural activists made a point of always responding in Catalan (a more or less mutually intelligible language) to those that addressed them in Spanish. At first, this rankled the hell out of those who saw Spanish as the unquestioned first language of that cultural space. Over time, however, most came to accept it as least the co-equal of Spanish in their immediate surroundings.
Much more important in the long run, however, will be the construction of a readily apprehensible epic of the Palestinian experience of resistance and survival, and the creation of institutions—understood here in the broadest possible meaning of the term—that remind people of this very particular history.
Zionists have excelled at this practice during the last century. Granted, they have had many friends in the media to help them along. But, in the end, all such attempts to instrumentalize the past of a collective—an absolutely ubiquitous and essential element of all movements of national mobilization—begins with the psychological decision on the part of that movement’s partisans to invest themselves with the power to name, and from there, the power to generate their version of who has done what to whom over time.
For example, Yad Vashem has a special section devoted to the Righteous Among the Nations whose purpose, as the organization’s website makes clear, is to honor what they portray as the relatively few gentiles that rose above the generalized “indifference” and/or “hostility” toward the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust.
Not much shyness or ambivalence about naming there. With enormous self-assurance, the management team at Yad Vashem presumes that it is very much in its purview as representatives of a people who have suffered massive and grotesque destruction, to spell out who among the much larger collective of gentiles acted in morally acceptable fashion. Much like the US government in the post September 11th era, they effectively put a great mass of people in the position of being guilty until proven innocent. And in this realm who holds the exclusive keys to their symbolic exoneration, a.k.a. the right to be “unnamed” as morally suspect? Quite conveniently, this institution of the Zionist state.
Let me be clear, I fully support the Zionist right to engage in these acts of moral discernment.
What I am challenging is the decision among many of us outside the pale, so to speak, to allow Zionists to view claim this pursuit as their near exclusive prerogative.
For example, what if those that support the Palestinian right to live in peace and dignity were to begin identifying and honoring “Righteous Jews”, that is, those people from Israel and the diaspora who have bucked the widespread social pressure of their communities to accept the logic of settler colonialism rooted in ethnic supremacism not only as normal and unremarkable, but as a great and admirable historical enterprise?
Sound jarring? Provocative? A little too “in your face”?
The fact that it probably does conjure up these feelings in many reading these lines confirms just how much of our universal moral patrimony, our inherent individual and collective right to forthrightly “name” calculated acts of inhumanity in our midst as we each see fit, has been ceded to a small group of people with the incredible nerve to repeatedly present themselves and/or the group they belong to as having the Last Word™ when it comes to measuring the true comparative import of the targeted destruction of one nation by another, or deciding how others should or should not (e.g. the case of the nuns at Auschwitz) be able to commemorate such horrific tragedies.
The Zionist establishment its legion of paid and unpaid hasbarists have very seldom shown any reticence about playing dialectical hardball with those they perceive as their enemies, nor of using any and all linguistic tropes at their disposal to keep those inclined to criticize Israel’s consistently atrocious behavior toward the Palestinians back on their heels in a defensive posture.
I think it is time for us to demonstrate in a more coordinated and concrete fashion to our Zionist friends that the “name game” is now—and will for the foreseeable future—much more of a two-way street.