Monday, January 26, 2009

Speaking of War Crimes...

Words, as well as the meanings and connotations attached to them, will be extremely important in the coming weeks as the international community attempts to try Israeli soldiers for war crimes in Gaza.

I was reading Saree Makdisi's book this morning, Palestine Inside Out, when I came across a quote that reminded me of just how powerful words are in conflicts like that of Palestine-Israel. Makdisi is a scholar of English literature, and in the course of his studies has become fascinated by the use of language in the realm of politics and propaganda.

My scholarly interests have served me well in reading and writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which the interplay of language and politics has a special, almost unique importance. Whether the barrier that Israel is constructing in the West Bank is conveyed as a "wall" or a "fence"; whether Israeli housing units in the occupied territories are described as "neighborhoods," "settlements," or "colonies"; whether various personalities or movements are represented as "moderate" or "extremist"; whether violence directed against civilians is thought of as "terrorism" or "collateral damage": all these distinctions are both linguistic and political. Simple word choices both express and - more importantly - generate political effects. Language and politics are inseparable in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is virtually impossible to understand what is happening without paying particular attention to the ways in which language is used.


With this in mind, institutions like Amnesty International (or any other groups demanding justice for those devastated by the Gaza crisis) must be extremely careful with the language and definitions they use as they attempt to bring Israeli soldiers to court.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has long been a battle, not just of weapons, but of words. And in an international culture based on the instant spread of information, the wrong word, in the wrong place, at the wrong time can undermine the best of ideas and intents.

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