Reviews — From the January 2010 issue
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Reviews — From the January 2010 issue
Any philological account of this conflict must begin with the name of the younger aggrieved party: “Palestinian” is the word for a people created by the fall of the Ottomans, an empire destroyed in World War I along with two other vaunted houses of the nineteenth century—the Habsburg and the Romanov. Ottoman decline left the Muslim and Christian Arabs living in Palestine to seek for themselves nationhood and a cultural identity distinct from Turkish suzerainty. Meanwhile, the rise of pogroms in Russia, and pervasive anti-Semitism within a host of newly nationalistic countries liberated from the multiethnic inclusivity of empire, turned disparate Jewish populations—from Hasidim in rural Poland and Ukraine to worldly businessmen in Berlin and Paris—into “the Jewish People,” dedicated to re-establishing a country that no Jew had ruled in more than two millennia.
Palestine was then a British “mandate”—that term denoting an indefinite interregnum between colonial rule and colonized self-governance. In 1917, with the war entering its gory senescence, the Balfour Declaration—an open letter from British Foreign Minister Lord Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, Hannah’s grandnephew and the premier Jewish philanthropist of his day—took pains to assert that the newly proposed Jewish homeland shall not “prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine,” and so defined the rightful Palestinian inhabitants of Palestine apophatically, or by negation, as what they were not.
That declaration and the subsequent White Papers of 1922 and 1939 were effectively nullified in the wake of the Shoah (much of the Arab world was aligned with the Axis), and by Jewish paramilitaries such as Lehi, Haganah, and the Irgun, which led raids on Arab settlements and British military depots. Israel’s founding, coming six months after the United Nations passed Resolution 181, which advocated Palestine’s partition into Jewish and Arab states, immediately triggered a war when the provisions of that resolution were violated, by Arab aggression and by Israel’s very existence. Israelis call this the War of Independence; Palestinians refer to it as the Nakba, or “Catastrophe.” Here is another Catastrophe: At the time of this writing, that term, Nakba, previously allowed in Arabic schools and textbooks, has been removed from all curricula in the State of Israel by order of the Education Ministry.
The manipulation of language is no metaphor for political manipulation; it is political manipulation, and every government that has ever sought to convert its citizenry has turned to words—the medium of the media that is also the domain of the poet, who is a veritable president of words. (In Israel the presidency is a powerless office, yet possessed of symbolic significance.) According to Victor Klemperer, by 1933 the German language had swollen with an array of new compounds involving the word Volk: Volksfest (a festival of the people, later the Führer’s birthday), Volksgenosse (comrade of the people), Volksgemeinschaft (community of the people), volksnah (one of the people), volksfremd (alien to the people), volksentstammt (descended from the people). Klemperer, a Jew and leading lexicologist of the Reich, along with Karl Kraus, of decayed, feuilletonistic Vienna, are perhaps Laor’s foremost political precursors—Nestbe-schmutzern, or “people-who-dirty-their-own-nests” (leave it to German to have a word for this)—and the best popular theorists of how a change in public language can manifest a change in public consciousness.
Indeed, this reification of language is a tenet of all Abrahamic faiths. Allah, through the angel Gabriel, dictated the Koran to Mohammed; in the Torah the world itself is made by Word: “Let there be light,” and there was, and we’re told “it was good,” and so it is good still. Vitriolic critic of a country that proudly defines its citizenry in the terms of a Volk—Das Jüdische Volk—Laor makes the following tally. Since Israel’s inception, more than 400 Arab settlements have been dismantled, and not a few have had their ancient toponyms Hebraicized—Rami to Ramat Naftali, Majd al-Krum to Beit Ha-Kerem, Ja’una to Rosh Pina. This first summer of the Netanyahu government, just as Nakba was deleted from the schoolbooks, the Transportation Ministry proposed to redo Israeli street signs so that even the names written in Arabic would be Hebrew transliterations (e.g., the city of Jaffa would be written as the Hebrew Yafo on Arabic signs, not as the Arabic Yaffa).
These official measures, Laor insists, just legislate the bias with which the conflict is reported in Israel and in those countries, like the United States, influenced by Israeli hasbara, or “explanation”—the Hebrew term for wartime lobbying. According to the Nakdi Report, a set of guidelines drafted by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority, the epithet “East Jerusalem” is strictly verboten. During the First Intifada, Israel fought, according to the American press, not an organization like the PLO but “the Palestinians.” Israeli soldiers are regularly “kidnapped,” whereas Hamas “fighters” can only be “arrested.” A Palestinian action is normally “terrorism”; an Israeli action is routinely a “response.” To be fair, the official Palestinian Authority newspaper did, at millennium’s end, call “the Jew” “the disease of the century,” but Laor insists on criticizing only his own.
More from Joshua Cohen:
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