Commentary Magazine


What’s In A Word?

Of all the atrocities committed during the Israeli-Palestinian (and, by extension, the Israeli-Arab) conflict, some of the worst have been committed against language. Words and phrases with clear, long-established definitions have been twisted and perverted into whole new meanings — and worse, no one seems to want to point that out.

For example, “cease-fire.” In most cases, this means that two conflicting sides both stop shooting. In this case, it means that Israel stops shooting back. In the current “cease-fire,” rockets and mortar shells are fired daily from the Gaza Strip into Israel, yet it is only when Israel shoots back that the “fragile cease-fire is threatened.”

Another such phrase is “good faith gesture.” This is usually a part of troubled negotiations, when one side takes the first step and offers the first concession. Usually, this is done by the side that has shown bad faith in the past.

Here, it means “Israel is releasing more prisoners.”  This is a standard part of the ever-pointless cycle of negotiations; it will not be greeted as an actual good-faith gesture, it will not be reciprocated, and it will not advance matters one whit towards an actual peace agreement.

And, of course, there is the ever-popular redefinition of terms like “genocide” and “Holocaust.” Those are often tossed around to describe Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, most often in a truly dazzling display of linguistic jiu-jitsu: downplaying or outright denying the actual Holocaust while appropriating the term for use against the Israelis. This would have to be the first “genocide” or “holocaust” that resulted in a sustained increase in population among the targeted populace.

This may be why the peace process has been so bogged down for all this time. They have to spend all their time rewriting the language, and never get around actually to discussing the issues.

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