Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

To Discuss a Fair Settlement of the Problem, Use a Fair Vocabulary

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

To Discuss a Fair Settlement of the Problem, Use a Fair Vocabulary

Article excerpt

Regular participants in political debates understand the importance of using exactly the right words to make a point. In "The Last Emperor," the movie depicting the life of China's last hereditary monarch, young Pu Yi's English tutor, Sir Reginald Johnson, drives home the importance of words: "If you cannot say what you mean, you cannot possibly mean what you say."

In writing this column, I have been struck by the degree to which convention has forced me to use words which do not say what I mean, words which do actual harm to the points I am making. Words have the power to convey messages far beyond their literal definition. To the degree that these messages conflict with my intended purpose, these conventional words become significant impediments in discussing Middle East policy with congressmen and senators.

From time to time I have made my own changes in conventional usage, refusing for example to use the term pro-Israel on those occasions when I really mean to say anti-Arab (newly elected Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, newly elected Vermont Representative Bernie Sanders and the late I.F. Stone are pro-Israel; the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, Florida Representative Larry Smith and Israeli Housing Minister Ariel Sharon are anti-Arab). I have gradually compiled a list of terms, all in popular usage, all of which misrepresent reality in varying degrees.

These terms are listed below, with the conventional term preceding the more accurately descriptive term. If those who are interested in a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict with justice for both sides (I wish I had a good term for that mouthful) can seize control of our own vocabulary, we can improve our chances of political success. By spreading accurate terminology into general usage and insisting that it be used whenever possible, we can begin to insist that everyone, especially media and public officials, say what they mean, and mean what they say.

Settlers/Squatters. The term "settlers" implies that those described by it live where they are by some legitimate right. Even more, it evokes images of a small, righteous band persevering in the face of ravening hordes of savages. The term "squatters" more accurately expresses the status of those who, backed by force of arms, illegally occupy land seized from others.

Settlements/Fortifications. If there are not settlers, then there are not settlements. Given the degree of armament used by Israeli squatters on Palestinian land, the term "fortification" is not inappropriate.

Occupied Territories/Occupied Palestine. "Occupied territories," not further defined, implies that the land in question belongs properly to the occupiers. This is surely a repugnant notion to Americans at a time when we have mobilized our military forces to defend the principle that territory is not legitimately acquired by force. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.