Losing the Semantic War on ‘Palestine’
I have written before about the importance of semantics in the discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how frustrated many people are about losing various battles over nomenclature, such as references to the disputed territories as “occupied,” and “Judea and Samaria” as the West Bank. An arguably more important semantic battle regarding this area has gone largely unnoticed — and been lost without a fight.
Many of Israel’s detractors, professors, the media, and others now routinely refer to the conflict as “Israel-Palestine.” Here are a few examples:
- Jewish Voice for Peace has a web page for Israel Palestine Conflict 101.
- Human Rights Watch’s website has the header “Israel/Palestine” as does the respected journal Foreign Policy.
- The Global Policy Forum goes one better with its page on “Israel, Palestine and the Occupied Territories.”
- Brown University’s newspaper headlined its coverage of a discussion by two Middle East analysts, “Policy experts talk Israel-Palestine conflict.”
- Tablet ran the story, “How To Talk About Israel And Palestine.”
- Haaretz, Newsweek, NPR, and The Independent are just a sample of media outlets listing articles under “Israel-Palestine.”
- The Middle East Studies Association routinely has panels and papers such as “Regional Politics and the Palestine/Israel Conflict” and “Memory and History in the Palestine/Israel Conflict.”
- The University of Colorado has an endowed professor of Israel/Palestine Studies in the Program in Jewish Studies.
Why is this a problem?
Any scholar who is not pushing a political agenda knows Palestine ceased to exist in 1948 when Israel won its war of independence, and Jordan (which is also part of historic Palestine) seized the West Bank and Egypt captured the Gaza Strip.
The use of the word “Palestine” is sometimes unclear. Is it referencing the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Israel, Gaza, or some combination of these areas? Depending on the interpretation, this could delegitimize the existence of Israel and the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their homeland.
It is also problematic because it can imply that the conflict is over an area where the Palestinians were once sovereign. This feeds the narrative of Israel as an occupier. The Palestinians have never had a state, and had no interest in one during the Jordanian occupation.
Referring to the Israel-Palestine conflict also reinforces the idea that the dispute is over land. Often misleadingly described as a fight by two peoples over one land, the reality is more complex, as it involves politics, psychology, history, and religion. In recent years, the Islamization of the conflict has eclipsed other factors, as many Palestinians reject the historical Jewish connection to the land and will not contemplate Jews living on Islamic territory or ruling over Muslims.
The most pernicious aspect of the reference to “Palestine” is to create a false equivalency with the sovereign nation of Israel. Israel is a democracy that shares the values and interests of the West. Palestine does not exist; it may one day in the future, but for now, there is only the Palestinian Authority, which is autocratic, denies its people their basic rights, and does not share the values or interests of the West.
The equation is also a political statement that accepts the position that a Palestinian state already exists. One could argue this is reasonable given that “Palestine” is recognized, according to Wikipedia, by 138 of the 193 member states of the United Nations. That legitimacy is undermined, however, by the fact that the European Union, the United States, and other democracies such as Australia, Japan, Canada, and Mexico do not recognize a Palestinian state.
This usage is another reason for concern about the campus situation. Professors are knowingly presenting their students with this specious formulation, with all the aforementioned implications. Students are ill-equipped to challenge this narrative on the merits and will likely be castigated as anti-Palestinian if they try.
It is unlikely anything could have been done to preempt the shift in language, and now it is yet another genie that cannot be put back in the bottle. The usage is widespread. Still, it is important to point out the bias, inaccuracy, and misleading nature of the word “Palestine” when used in the context of the conflict with Israel.
Mitchell Bard is the Executive Director of AICE and Jewish Virtual Library.