Throughout their century-old struggle over Palestine — or is it the Land of Israel? — Jews and Arabs often have vied with each other not only for the same land but also for the same words, the same images and the same conceptions of themselves, each side spinning a narrative that has been the upside-down reflection of the other’s. Which of them was the true owner of the land? Which the conquering invader? Which the tragic victim of history? Which the exiler? Which the exiled with the right to return to an ancient home?
These past weeks, with the uprooting of 8,000 Jewish villagers from Gaza, have witnessed an intensification of this kind of mirror imaging. Suddenly there is once again a stream of refugees in Palestine — but this time, they are Jews.
The Hebrew of Israel has flip-flopped these past weeks, too. Words that Israelis have long been accustomed to applying to Arabs have started, all at once, to be used for Jews. Plitim (refugees) is only one of them.
Take mistanenim (infiltrators) for example. For years, a mistanen, to use the singular form, meant one thing: an Arab or Palestinian who crossed the border from a neighboring Arab country illegally, either to return to his native village or to commit theft, sabotage or murder. In the early 1950s, in particular, when Israel was plagued with armed and unarmed infiltrators of this sort, mistanen was a word possessing the fearful resonance that “terrorist” has today. To speak of a Jewish mistanen would have been oxymoronic — the very concept would have made no sense.
And yet, what have been some of the headlines in the Hebrew press in recent days? “4,000 Infiltrators [Mistanenim] in Gaza”; “Gush Katif [the main bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza] Infiltration Ring Broken”; “2,100 Infiltrators in Northern West Bank, Many Armed.” Nowadays an “infiltrator” in Israel is an anti-disengagement activist who has entered illegally a Jewish settlement declared off-limits by the army in order to resist attempts to evacuate it. The worst confrontations with the army in the course of the past week all have involved large numbers of “infiltrators.”
Or take the actual Hebrew word for terrorist, meh.abel. This, too, until recently — within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — applied only to Arabs and never to Jews. Jewish ultras who took the law into their own hands, attacking and killing Arabs, were called “murderers,” “extremists,” “underground activists” and other things, but never meh.ablim. To the best of my memory, even the notorious Baruch Goldstein of the 1994 Hebron Massacre escaped that epithet. Yet earlier this month, when Eden Natan Zada, an AWOL Israeli soldier, killed four Arabs on a bus in the Galilee in protest against the evacuation of settlements, the Israeli media referred to him without hesitation as a meh.abel. A few days later, when the settler Asher Weisgan opened fire on Arabs on the West Bank, the same thing happened: “Jewish Terrorist [meh.abel] Murders Four Palestinians Near Shilo,” the headlines said.
In another case, the turnabout has involved an expression of more recent vintage. As the second intifada was running out of steam in early 2004, Israeli army chief-of-staff Moshe Ya’alon declared his hope at a press conference that the uprising’s failure would “burn into the Palestinians’ consciousness” [yitsrov be’toda’at ha-Palestina’im] the futility of fighting Israel with terror. (Ya’alon was playing on the Hebrew expression, taken from the world of CD-RWs, “burning the disc in someone’s brain” in the sense of “getting it into someone’s head.”) Now, as the Gaza settlers and their supporters have been forced, too, to acknowledge failure, they have adopted — and adapted — Ya’alon’s language. As many of their leaders have been declaring, resistance to evacuation has nevertheless “burned into the consciousness of the country” that the trauma of Gaza must never be repeated.
And then there is the Arabic word sumud — literally, “standing firm” or “steadfastness” — which has served since 1967 as a slogan among Palestinian Arabs for holding on to their land and villages at all costs, as opposed to their mass flight in 1948. Arabic and Hebrew are closely related languages, and a Hebrew cognate of sumud is hitzamdut, i.e., sticking to or clinging to something. Although in the past, hitzamdut was never a word particularly associated with the settlers, now they have begun to use it intensively. “The rift between us [the disengagement and anti-disengagement camps] is catastrophic,” as the weekly Makor Rishon recently quoted settler spokesman Ziv Lebenhertz. “On one side we see clinging [hitzamdut] to every particle of soil… and on the other, pacifism, emigration and [Jewish] self-hatred.”
It is ironic that the settlers, who have been, to put it mildly, unsympathetic to the Palestinian cause are now using language that expresses an identification with it, just as it is ironic that their political conflict with other Israelis is now being colored linguistically by Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians. But so it has been from the beginning. In their long territorial struggle, Jews and Arabs have not only fought each other but have defined themselves in terms of the other, as well. Language offers many examples of this, and we have looked at a few today.
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