Joseph Fort Newton, acclaimed author and minister, once echoed, “Men build too many walls and not enough bridges.” Not all of those walls are physical, and especially elusive cases are walls built by language and the construction of narratives. I frequently encountered this concept during this past summer on a five-week Dialogue of Civilizations on the Multiple Narratives a Contested Territory, the overarching goal of which was to immerse students into the numerous narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I was aware that there were clear differences between the Israeli and Palestinian mainstream (or “official”) narratives, but what surprised me was the thread of multiple, simultaneous, and frequently irreconcilable “truths” within each side of the conflict. Even the idea of whether or not there was one fundamentally factual “truth” was debated.
The idea of truth and its formulation can be derived from the theory of constructivism, which states that the majority of what occurs within the international political arena is constructed, whether socially or historically. (Other mainstream theories, such as traditional realism or liberalism, usually credit these events to characteristics of human nature.) Thus, using the theory of constructivism, the inequality between Israelis and Palestinians within this incredibly tangled conflict can be constructed through past historical events, current perceptions, and most notably, through conversational language—the mode that I by far saw the most examples of. Language remains a major root of this conflict; specifically, it reinforces each side’s own narrative as well as its self-perception as a victim and position in the power asymmetry dominated by Israel. Part of the difficulty in finding one objective “truth” in this conflict is the fact that its subjectivity penetrates down to specific, subconscious word choice.
One notable example is diction surrounding the barrier between the internationally-recognized Israeli land and the West Bank. During my time in Israel, I encountered four different labels, which included wall, fence, security border, and barrier. “Barrier” carries connotations of segregation and prevents movement or access. “Wall” also possesses similar connotations but is more associated with enclosure or division. Furthermore, while both “fence” and “wall” are more neutral in describing the structure’s physical aspects rather than the structure’s politicized purpose, they only encompass it partially. “Fence” fails to acknowledge that there are areas severely separated by a substantial concrete structure. Conversely, “wall” only acknowledges the few areas separated by an actual concrete wall (which comprise only around three percent of the structure). “Security border” remains the most loaded and politically skewed term, as it reflects infringement of freedom of movement on Palestinians while asserting a connotation of danger surrounding them. The word “border” also obscures the physical structure itself, especially since many borders are “invisible.” From an Israeli perspective, the structure’s purpose is to decrease terrorist attacks on Israel, particularly after the numerous bomb attacks during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, the term fails to recognize that the vast majority of Palestinians are, in fact, not terrorists.
There are many more widely circulated examples of this politicized conversation. One set of terms include “forced exile” and “mass fleeing” regarding the exodus of Palestinians in 1948. “Occupation” and “fair spoils of war” have also both been used to describe the Israeli presence in the West Bank since 1967. Others include “infringement on personal freedom” versus “protection” regarding the disproportionately aggressive treatment of Palestinians by IDF soldiers, both at border checkpoints and within the West Bank.
Specific language not only constructs and promotes one narrative at the expense of the other, but as a result, also frequently exacerbates the asymmetry in power—most of which is held by Israel. For example, referring to the Palestinian exodus in 1948 as “forced exile” has more negative implications than “mass fleeing.” “Forced exile” dominates “mass fleeing” in intensity and outright blame towards Israelis, while “mass fleeing” implies passivity on their part and places the responsibility largely on Palestinians themselves. “Forced exile” is seen as too dramatic in comparison to “mass fleeing,” yet “mass fleeing,” respective to the Palestinian narrative, only represents a small fraction of the story. Both terms, whether too light or too heavy in implications, propagate an incomplete narrative. Israel has much more military and influential power—and, as such, is delineated as “the occupier,” while the Palestinians remain “the occupied” and “the controlled.” This application of language only further promotes the more privileged as the ultimate dictator of outcomes.
During my time in Tel Aviv, there was one particular IDF story which involved the specific ways commanders teach young IDF soldiers basic Arabic. Logically, teaching soldiers Arabic makes sense; they have to communicate with “the enemy” somehow. However, this Arabic did not include some of the most basic manners many of us are taught when first learning a language,namely please and thank you. These words were strategically omitted from instruction. The Arabic that the fellow IDF soldier and his comrades were taught was blunt, curt, and harsh. Moreover, the only way they witnessed communication between Israelis and Palestinians was in a loud and aggressive manner. These soldiers were completely isolated from any other type of communication. It effectively cut off these young IDF soldiers—mostly eighteen and nineteen year-olds—from speaking with Palestinians in any other manner. They had to resort to this language delivery for lack of another version of Arabic.
I never could have imagined the overwhelming scope of the power of language and its potential to manipulate and construct winners and losers, victims and culprits, and the innocent and the guilty. Part of language becoming a tool of narrative politics is the intense politicization within the region of Israel and the Palestinian Territories. It turns communication into a battle and thus language, the tool of communication, into a weapon.
That power, strong as it may be, can only go so far. It would be ideal if it could be a primary tool in mitigating the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. However, certain steps should be prioritized first, such as focusing on the status of Palestinian refugees, putting a permanent freeze on illegal settlement-building in the West Bank, and working with—or around—the administration, all of which have yet to be fully addressed. After those initial steps, a conscious and long-term lingual restructuring will be necessary to erase the deeply ingrained customs of blame and victimization. It will be an essential step to altering the culture of separation from which this conflict continues to suffer.
Further reading: For a list of definitions relating to the conflict, see here.