When, one day, the bloody and hateful Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been reduced from a roiling boil to a quiet simmer, the divide over words and phrases will be seen to have been one of the best indicators of the most important fault line. It’s a fault line not necessarily between Israelis/Jews and Palestinians, but between those able to see a different future and those stuck in the murderous status quo.
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Writing in these pages, my fellow blogger Bradley Burston pointed to the sad tendency of extremists to bend the meaning of events to serve their own twisted ends. But there are also more ordinary and subtle trends that tell an even more pervasive story. Over the last few days, as the news of the murder of the three Israeli teenagers broke, I’ve noticed how some words and phrases have become the domain of what we might call possibility-seekers. Other words and phrases are used by what we might call status-quo addicts.
Consider the words and phrases we’ve seen so often over the past few days, words like “justice,” “revenge,” “cycle of violence,” “culture of death,” “valuing of life,” “occupation,” “occupier,” “eradicate,” “terrorists,” “settlers,” “school,” and “boys,” and “death to Arabs.”
Grab a pencil and paper, and draw two vertical lines. In the left-hand column are the status-quo addicts on the Israeli/Jewish side (and their supporters). In the right-hand column are the status-quo addicts on the Palestinian side (and their supporters). And in the middle are the possibility seekers among them all. Hang out on blogs and social media for a few days, observe the content of the discussion, and then place these various words and phrases where they belong.
What I’ve noticed is that the Israelis/Jews (and their supporters) among the status-quo addicts seek to blame the “other side” for the ills of the region. In the wake of the murders, they talk about “justice” needing to be served, and may be referring to vigilante justice, or at least to retribution air strikes that will inevitably result in more innocents being killed. They talk about needing to “eradicate terrorists,” (see above regarding more innocents being killed) and they humanize and universalize the three teenaged victims when they refer to them as “boys” having been on their way home from “school.” They accuse the Palestinians of being consumed by a “culture of death,” whereas they themselves “value life.”
The status-quo addicts among the Palestinians (and their supporters) also seek to blame the other side, of course. They are also quick to point out desires for “revenge” by the other side, including by IDF soldiers, and revel in evidence of racism in Israeli society, including the frightening fact that some young Israelis have been calling for “death to Arabs” on the streets of Jerusalem. They point to the “occupation,” the “settlers,” and the Israeli “occupier” as the root cause of the region’s problems. They do not outright condemn acts of violence by their own.
In the middle are the possibility seekers among both sides. They use many of the same words, but they use them differently. They acknowledge that there is an occupation. They acknowledge that these murdered teens were innocent victims. Civilians are owed protection from the wars of their leaders, but all too often are not spared, and even worse, deliberately targeted. These possibility-seekers are able to see pain and suffering wherever it exists; they are not blind to the sorrow of the other. And if there is cultural analysis to be had, it is asserted as a hypothesis that can be adequately tested. Stating that the Palestinians are consumed by a culture of death, full stop, is neither scientific nor helpful. Authentic cultural analysis allows the members of the culture themselves to tell their own story, not have it be told to them.
Sadly, as well, status-quo addicts are more likely to justify their stance by declaring that there are few possibility-seekers among the “other side.” Why, they ask, in the Prisoner’s Dilemma that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the best of times, should they be the ones to get the sucker’s payoff?
Status-quo addicts don’t necessarily see themselves as extremists, of course. But through their language and discourse, as they hide behind their stone walls of accusation and self-righteousness, their cynicism serves to foreclose possibilities of a better future.