Politics of Language: Israel/Palestine Discourse

25 Nov

The politics of language raises delicate issues in the setting of assessing the Israel/Palestine conflict as the year 2010 draws to an end. A neutral and objective terminology associated with the abusive Israelis occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza seems consistent with the spirit of accommodation and eventual reconciliation, but it also clouds the mind, and obscures the daily ordeal of the Palestinians who are enduring multiple privations with no end in sight after more than 43 years of occupation, and some 62 years of dispossession. If it were possible to attach any hope to the possibility that a just outcome to inter-governmental negotiations could be forthcoming, then it might be best to avoid inflaming emotions by escalating the rhetoric of exposition. If, in contrast, the negotiations are far more likely to lead no where or entrap the Palestinian negotiating side, then it seems preferable to call attention to what seems to have taken place under the misleading rubric of temporary belligerent occupation, a presence that seeks and acquires no longevity.

In my opinion, there is an important issue of language that arises from the cumulative effects of Israeli severe and multiple violations of international humanitarian law, and related international human rights law and international criminal law. It becomes increasingly misleading to treat these violations as distinct behavioral instances disconnected from broader consequences that are either designed by intention, representing the motive for the violations, or the natural outcome of accumulating circumstances (so-called ‘facts on the ground.’). These concerns about language are accentuated because Israel is the stronger party in all diplomatic settings, and generally enjoys the unconditional support of the United States, because unlawful Israeli behavior that starts out as ‘facts’ is gradually and deliberately over time transformed into ‘conditions’ that are treated as essentially irreversible, which is true of several aspects of the occupation, including at a minimum ‘the settlement blocs’ and ‘the separation wall.’ To perceive the effects and implications of these unlawful patterns, and their attempted de facto ‘legalization’ requires stronger expository language to understand better the assault of Palestinian rights and prospects for meaningful self-determination. It is against this background that I believe the time has come to call ‘a spade a spade’ and use such terms as ‘annexation,’ ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘colonialist,’ ‘settler colonialism,’ and ‘criminality.’ Although admittedly emotive, and requiring a finding by a court of law to be legally conclusive, such robust language, in my view, more accurately describes the unsavory realities of the occupation at the present time than does the more neutral seeming language beloved by diplomats and welcomed by defenders of the established status quo. Of course, the limit language test in the relationship between Israel and Palestine is the infamous G-word, which I am not ready to apply as a moral, political, or legal term of art, but if the more ambiguous ‘genocidal’ is invoked to identify the tendencies implicit in this kind of prolonged and invasive occupation, I would not disagree.

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2 Responses to “Politics of Language: Israel/Palestine Discourse”

  1. texascomrade November 25, 2010 at 2:49 pm #

    Professor Falk, I agree with your general sentiment and feel the movement needs to have a more active discussion on this topic.

    However, I would like to stress that the opposite is also a big problem for advocates of Palestinian rights, when using exaggerated or sensational language. It annoys me to no end when allies shoot themselves in the foot and give in to using lazy terminology to try and convince skeptics of Israeli human rights abuses and Palestinian dispossession. The G word is just one example.

    Keep blogging!

  2. Evan Lehrer March 20, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    Hi Professor Falk,

    My name is Evan Lehrer and I am a junior at Ithaca College who is currently studying International Relations and Multilateral Diplomacy in Geneva, Switzerland. I was intrigued by this blog post as I am just about to begin an Independent Study Project where I will be doing a discourse analysis of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (Negotiations, Justification for violating IHL, discourse with the ICRC) My true path is not yet laid, but this is the direction I will be going. If you could please email me back I would be most grateful. If at some point you could offer me an informal interview via Skype or email that would be fantastic. Thanks so much.

    -Evan Lehrer

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