Monday, September 28, 2009

Naim Ateek in `Cornerstone': The Laundering of Words and the Oppression of Palestinians

Cornerstone "...and the truth will set you free." (John 8:32)

Sabeel's Cornerstone, a quarterly newsletter:

In his introductory article, Sabeel director Naim Ateek deals with truth and language. I post the entire article here. For much more, see the full 18-page newsletter which includes articles by Gideon Levey, George Appleton and Joy Mead.

The Laundering of Words and the Oppression of Palestinians
by the Rev. Naim Ateek

“… so also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth
come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so”
(James 3:5-10).

Words are powerful instruments that people use for good and evil. Someone once said that people need to handle words carefully because they have more power than an atomic bomb. The letter of James in the New Testament, from which the above quotation is taken, is only one example of the power of words which we all use and abuse. For James, the tongue is a small member but it is capable of great exploits. Words can be “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” With words we can bless God and one another and with words we can curse them. If words are not controlled, they can consume people like fire. This phenomenon is not new. From time immemorial, human beings have discovered the power and subtlety of language and the use and misuse of words.

From the beginning of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the propaganda machine of the state of Israel has coined words, created myths, produced stereotypes, and crafted propaganda tools in order to justify and legitimize the Zionist narrative, while at the same time, it has managed to cast doubt upon and negate the Palestinian narrative. Through the power of laundered words Israel has been successful, to a large extent, in presenting itself to the West as the victim in the conflict over Palestine and not as the victimizer. Through the power of words, Israel has smeared the Palestinians as a bunch of warmongers, innately violent, and by nature, enemies of peace, while presenting itself as peace-seeker and peace-loving. What the government of Israel has done is to write and propagate the history of the conflict through its own prism and with laundered words.

Consequently, many Israelis have grown up believing the image of the Palestinian and the Arab that has been fashioned by Israel. In addition they have been given a powerful vocabulary of laundered words that they employ whenever they refer to the Palestinians and Arabs. It isimportant for the reader to realize that the words that are used have been laundered by the strong detergent of the Israeli propaganda machine and are intended not only to hide reality, but also to change it. In this issue of Cornerstone, Sabeel’s objective is to help the reader to discern the truth because the truth is capable of setting people free. Jesus said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32)

The main article in this issue is written by Gideon Levy, a well known Israeli journalist to whom we are deeply grateful. In this editorial, I am introducing the theme from my own experience with Israel as well as from the writings of others.

It is important to note that before 1967, the Arab citizens of Israel could not refer to themselves as Palestinians; it was taboo. They were known as Arabs and collectively as the Arab minority in Israel. The first identity cards (ID) issued by the new state of Israel after 1948 used the word “Palestinian” to describe their nationality. Later the Israeli government issued new ID’s and replaced “Palestinian” with the more generic term “Arab.” After that, the word “Palestinian” could not be used. It was revived only after the 1967 war when Israel occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.

From the beginning, the Israeli state recognized the power of words and their psychological effect. By laundering words, Israel hoped to change reality, create new realities, erase memory, and induce a change in people’s vocabulary. This was achieved partly by the laundering of words and partly through the use of the newly imposed Hebrew language on the Palestinian Arabs who became citizens of Israel. Avraham Burg, in his book, The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes, writes:“…the modern Hebrew language employs word laundering to mask an arrogant, violent and even racist attitude toward the Arab enemy. In everyday spoken Hebrew, the adjective Arab has a bad connotation.”1 “Israel’s word laundering is among the most advanced in the world….” (Burg, 61).

Laundered words are deceptive and intended to hide and suppress the reality and truth of the situation. They create misconceptions that aim at softening injustice and oppression, and attempt to justify and rationalize mistreatment. In short, laundered words blame the victim as being the actual perpetrator of the injustice and acquits the guilty party. As an example, the government of Israel has never admitted any responsibility for the 1948 Nakba when, directly or indirectly, it displaced over three quarters of a million Palestinians from their homes and refused to allow them to return, thus violating the terms of international law and UN resolutions. Israel then turned around and created myths and lies about the Nakba. Israel has always maintained that it did not drive the Palestinians out of their homes in 1948; they simply fled of their own volition. Despite the scientific and well documented research that has been done by Israeli Jewish historians, which prove that the expulsion of the Palestinian people was clearly planned by the Zionist leaders, the government of Israel continues to ignore and deny such irrefutable evidence.2 This explanation has been one of the oldest myths used by Israel, despite the personal testimonies of tens of thousands of Palestinians who were forced at gunpoint to leave their villages, like my family, which was driven out of Beisan.

Similarly, for the government of Israel, East Jerusalem is not “occupied” it is “liberated.” Israel does not use the word “occupation” for the West Bank because it believes that all the land is the “Land of Israel.” The usual Israeli reply is: “How can you occupy your own land?” By doing this, Israel lives in its own illusory world creating false realities and giving its people false hopes. In the Israeli Jewish psyche and logic, if there is no occupation then there is no oppression and no injustice. The Palestinians are only foreigners who are resident aliens who create trouble, commit violence and terror against the Jewish owners of the land. Therefore, when the army kills Palestinians they are only uprooting the violence and the terrorists. Killing terrorists is not murder; it is self defense. Thus,soldiers need not feel guilty when killing Palestinians. It is a sick psychology that rests on false premises and deceptive words. Indeed, the international community talks about a belligerent Israeli occupation while Israel marches through history talking about liberating and redeeming the land.

This reminds me of what happened at the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The political situation in the country was extremely tense. There was an impending Babylonian military threat against Jerusalem. Some people, however, were taking things very lightly and spreading rumors that since God was on their side no harm would come to Jerusalem. They were crying out: “peace, peace, when there is no peace” (Jeremiah6:14). Jeremiah called such words deceptive: “Do not trust those deceptive words” (Jer. 7:4).

Deceptive words are received by some people. They give comfort and assurance but, ultimately, they deceive because they convey false realities and create false hopes. Sooner or later, people discover the deception and deviousness.

In a section of his book, Avraham Burg focuses on Israeli use of laundered words. He writes that in the Nazi documents one seldom finds words like “destruction,” “elimination,”“murder,” or “killing” to describe what the Nazis were planning to do to Jews. What one finds are words like “evacuation,” “special treatment,” “relocation,” “work in the East,” “residential relocation,” and “final solution.” He continues: “The special terminology was developed to allay the fears of Jews so that they would go easily to the centers of death, believing they were going to work in the East….” (Burg, 58).

Burg adds: “A civilization that employs laundered words uses a false language to represent a false culture and allows a state to wash itself clean of any responsibility for acts done in their name. ‘I didn’t know,’ ‘I wasn’t told,’ ‘It can’t be, the newspaper didn’t report it’ are common manifestations of responses to laundered language.” Burg believes that the reply should be: “They did tell you, but in words that allowed you to not acknowledge their true meaning. They told you, but in a way that enabled you to not know what you did not want to know” (Burg, 59).

With the presence of a right-wing government in Israel there is fear that the laundered words, the inflammatory language, the deception and the lies might begin to affect people at the center. Burg says, “Inflammatory language arouses passions but creates false warmth. They allow themselves to speak words that should not be spoken in respectable places. Extremism moves from the fringes of xenophobic nationalism to the more moderate right and from there on to the cultural and political mainstream. The circles of influence almost always parallel those of indifference” (Burg, 63). The racist views of a person like Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister of Israel, might be rejected as extremist in the beginning, but with time, the same words might be accepted and eventually affect others at the center.

We must witness to the fact that laundered words do not contribute to peacemaking. On the contrary, they inflame anger, hate, and revenge. Laundered words are as devastating and damaging as the physical oppression of the occupation itself. Whereas the first target of the occupation is to hurt the body, the primary target of laundered words is to hurt the spirit and the soul and to break the will and morale of people. It is our duty and responsibility to expose the destructive phenomenon of laundered words. It must be resisted and confronted as an evil that must be rooted out. It is an ugly form of racism that we all detest.

Ultimately, it is truth and not lies that will endure. It is light and not darkness that will prevail.

1 Burg, Avraham. The Holocaust is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
2 See Morris, Benny. The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004 and Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. Oxford: Oneworld Publications Limited, 2006.

The Rev. Naim Ateek is the Director of Sabeel, the Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center in Jerusalem.

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