The Mideast wars over words
When Israelis and Palestinians hold talks, as in Gaza this Friday, euphemism and subtext are usually the rule.
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The verbal battles between Israelis and Palestinians may be particularly intense, but their skirmishes over vocabulary are not new or unique. In 1917, when US Senator Hiram Johnson observed that "The first casualty when war comes is truth," he could have added the words 'and language.'Skip to next paragraph
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In his book "Faces of the Enemy," Sam Keen writes that "in the beginning we create the enemy.... Propaganda precedes technology."
Once physical conflict begins, militaries draw on a rich vein of euphemism. Military language provides the crucial function of legitimizing violent acts of soldiers that would be crimes in a civilian context. It also shields the public from the brutal business of war, helping people accept what they normally wouldn't stomach.
"Collateral damage" has become a familiar substitute for the killing of men, women and children who aren't soldiers. During the war on Iraq, Americans learned new phrases courtesy of some media outlets' use of military terms.
Television reporters for CNN told American audiences about Iraqi bunkers being "softened up" when they meant the soldiers inside were being ripped apart by bombs. Instead of using plain language to explain that US soldiers were slowly killing the Iraqi soldiers who resisted them, CNN borrowed Pentagon jargon to tell viewers that the opposing divisions were being "degraded" or "attrited."
An article about CNN's wartime vocabulary by Canadian columnist Russell Smith likens it to the language writer George Orwell had in mind when he coined the word "Newspeak."
The Israeli and Palestinian dialects of Newspeak are mostly political, but they have their military terms as well. Israelis speak of "focused intervention" to describe killing a man by firing missiles at his car on a narrow, thickly crowded street.
When Palestinian militant groups praise "successful operations" in "target rich" areas, often they really mean a nail-studded bomb exploding in an area full of people who subsequently die.
Yet words can have a powerful effect in countering violence and fostering understanding, say scholars.
"Right now the world operates in the language of militarization, which assumes that when a society is under threat, the resolution can be overcome ... by strengthening a military response," writes Dr. Nancy Snow, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Southern California, in an email interview. [Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly placed Dr. Nancy Snow at the University of California.]
"A language of peace emphasizes connection over separateness, a one-world consciousness - that what affects one affects me - and disengages from dichotomous language construction: me/other, us/them," she writes.
The exact meaning of a word can be hard to pin down in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, because it often means different things to the two sides. More commonly, the two sides use different language to describe the same thing.
Below, some examples:
Israelis say: Israel Defense Forces
Palestinians say: Israeli Occupation Forces
Israelis say: terrorist
Palestinians say: shaheed, or martyr. In the case of suicide bombings, the word glosses over the Muslim prohibition on suicide.
Israelis say: targeted killings
Palestinians say: assassination
Israelis say: they're against unilateral action in the territories that changes their status. What they mean is they are against a Palestinian declaration of statehood. Palestinians say: They're against unilateral action in the territories that changes their status. What they mean is they are against the Israeli settlement expansion.