When a War of Words Becomes More Than Just Semantics

By Douglas Kahn

Published September 03, 2004, issue of September 03, 2004.
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Some of my best friends are skewish.

Israel’s ideological detractors have long sought to skew public debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by using particularly loaded terms to describe the Jewish state’s actions. But now, in listening to discussions about Israel’s new barrier, it is becoming clear that the transmitting of unfair prejudicial phrases has become a high art — and is spreading from Israel’s ideological opponents into our own community.

An example: You are engaged in a conversation with friends about Israel’s policy of identifying and killing terrorists who are planning imminent attacks on Israel before they kill untold numbers of innocent Israeli citizens. The “skewish” discussion is the kind that begins, “Israel’s targeted assassinations just lead to a continuous cycle of violence.” The key phrases employed, in this case “targeted assassinations” and “cycle of violence,” often predetermine the outcome of the discussions. Assassinations are seen by many, at best, as counterproductive and, at worst, immoral. And “cycle of violence” connotes the image that both sides are more or less equally to blame for perpetuating the conflict.

A recent Associated Press article quotes Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry as saying the following on the subject of preemptive strikes against terrorists: “Am I prepared as president to go get them before they get us if we locate them and have the sufficient intelligence? You bet I am.” And President Bush clearly supports the same policy, as Saddam Hussein’s sons discovered.

Is there anybody you know who raised a question about this particular American policy? There is no difference between this stated position and Israel’s. The only difference is in the terminology employed vis-à-vis Israel’s actions to illicit a negative reaction on the part of discussants. This is the skewishness that is increasingly evident in conversations about Israel. Double standards against Israel are often the by-product of such skewish behavior, as in this case.

A few weeks ago, I returned from Israel on a mission for key public officials and ethnic leaders in San Francisco. I was struck yet again by how reactions to Israeli policies are so often based on the choice of words. On the way to Masada and the Dead Sea, we took a slight detour to drive through Maale Adumim.

Skewish people would simply label Maale Adumim a settlement, since it is a post-1967 Jewish development in the West Bank. Immediately the term conjures up the image of an isolated outpost in the midst of a normally peace-loving people whose lives are disrupted by this thorn in their sides. However, Maale Adumim is, in fact, a city of 45,000 a few miles outside of Jerusalem, a nice distance from its nearest neighbors. Our stop there totally shattered the image most people have of a settlement. It was another reminder of how important it is to make judgments based on accurate information, first-hand visits and independent thinking, as our group did.

Israel is losing the terminology war and needs our help. And now there is a new front raging: the wall/fence/barrier front. Many of us have engaged in discussions with friends about the barrier Israel has built to try to stop the onslaught of terrorist attacks. The skewish version starts, “the Wall is Sharon’s way of avoiding negotiations.” The fact is that the barrier is not, for the most part, a wall — 95% of its length is a fence — and Prime Minister Sharon actually opposed the barrier until Israel decided it had no choice but to build it. Once again, misstatements frame the discussion and Israel is instantly at a disadvantage.

The barrier is actually a “wence”: a fence with just a few areas of wall because of heightened security challenges in those areas. But calling it a “wall,” notwithstanding the facts, is certain to evoke negative images — from the Berlin Wall to what anti-Israel forces refer to as the “Apartheid Wall” — thereby enabling those who are skewish to build resentment against Israel among the previously unskewed.

In 1994, the United States built a barrier along the border with Mexico to keep out illegal immigrants, people whose sole goal is to seek a better life in America. Were any of us present at agonizing discussions filled with a sense of outrage about this decision? I doubt it.

But Israel builds a barrier to keep out people whose sole goal is to destroy Israeli lives, and there is an immediate strong negative reaction. It would be one thing if the discussion were about the specific location of the barrier — that has been controversial, and the Israeli Supreme Court recently weighed-in with a decision that affirmed the extraordinary strength of Israel’s democracy when it said that the fence needed to be moved in places to minimize the infringement on Palestinians’ lives. But the discussions are typically not about such details; they are about the very idea of Israel’s right to build a barrier.

Whenever I speak to people who are skewish, I try to paint a picture that levels the playing field, provides historical context and offers compelling analogies. For example, when discussing Israel’s response to terrorism, I might say, “Do you remember John Muhammad and Lee Malvo, who terrorized the Washington area two years ago, shooting people randomly in parking lots, at gas stations, in the street? People were afraid to go out, to send their children to school, to stop anywhere. Imagine if that assault continued for four years instead of three weeks. Imagine if it were not just two men but entire terrorist cells. Imagine if an endless number of the terrorists were willing to blow themselves up if, in the process, they could kill as many innocent civilians as possible. Imagine that we had the option of stopping them before their next set of murders. Imagine we knew where they were coming from — and we built a barrier to protect all our citizens from harm. Would there be an outcry? Would there be international condemnation? Would there be any protest at all? Now, let’s discuss Israel’s actions and use honest terminology.”

At a time when it is harder than ever for Israel to get a fair shake, engaging in the war of words is critically important. Several weeks ago, after discussions with our local paper of record, the San Francisco Chronicle, the paper determined that it will generally use the term “barrier” instead of “wall.” Such choices make a difference in providing an accurate portrayal of the conflict and in trusting readers to thereby draw honest personal conclusions.

It is not too late to counteract skewed discussions. This is not a call for creating misleading euphemisms or agreeing with every policy of the Israeli government, but rather for much greater awareness regarding attempts, publicly or privately, to skew views against Israel. It is, simply put, too skewish out there.

Rabbi Douglas Kahn is executive director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

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