To Bernie Sanders, the 2,000-square mile swath of disputed territory east of the Green Line demarcating the internationally recognized border of Israel is known as “Palestine.”
Hillary Clinton has called it the “West Bank,” the mainstream term used by the White House and most news organizations, including this one.
Ted Cruz refers to it as “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names spoken by the Israeli government.
And Donald Trump — well, he’s all over the place. Literally.
These distinctions are more than technicalities; they are insights into the presidential candidates’ grasp of Middle East complexities and their respective alliances with the clashing narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The most recent disputes — over Sanders’s repeated use of “Palestine” and Trump’s inability or unwillingness to decide what term to use at all — are derided by some as a sign of political correctness run amok, as if a giant and nefarious censoring machine hovers over the campaign and those who cover it.
I disagree. Words matter. The words used by people who want to be president really matter.
In this, we who care about Israel are not alone. Every disputed land or subject I’ve covered as a journalist has its own trip wires over which one carefully treads if neutrality is the worthy, if elusive, goal.
Just one example: For decades, the ruling English Protestants called the second-largest city in Northern Ireland “Londonderry,” even as the insurgent Irish Catholics wished to erase London, and therefore any trace of England, from their land. “Derry,” the Catholics called it. I remember seeing a sign before entering the city, in which “London” was crossed out defiantly. When filing stories from there as a foreign correspondent years ago, I felt obliged to pick one dateline, knowing that in some sense I was taking sides.
But that was a disagreement confined to one locale and followed mostly by the Irish diaspora, who felt connected to it. The debate over what to call the West Bank has wider, international implications. That’s why we should pay careful attention to the terminology in this presidential campaign, not to play gotcha or to restrict speech, but because of what it says about the candidates.
While I might not always agree with their thinking, I have a grudging admiration for the candidates who know what they mean and mean what they say. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, one of the zillion early Republican presidential wannabes, is a proud evangelical Christian who pointedly refuses to use the word “settlement” when referring to the Jewish residents of disputed Palestinian territory and considers that land, “Judea and Samaria,” to be part of Israel. Period.
Whereas another presidential dropout, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was forced into an embarrassing backtrack after using the term “occupied territories” in a 2014 speech before the Republican Jewish Coalition. For the RJC and especially for its patron, the ultra-conservative Sheldon Adelson, those territories may be territories, they may be disputed, but they are not occupied. For Christie, it seems, definitions depend on who he hopes is footing the bill.
This quest for consistency is not applied equally within the GOP, however. The front-runner can do similarly acrobatic flip-flops and it seems to hurt him not a whit. Consider the contrast between Trump and Sanders on the use of the word “Palestine.”
When Sanders says it, even when he flubs other facts about the region, you know where he’s coming from: He is unabashed in his sympathy toward the Palestinians, and he regards Palestine as a fact of life, not as a geopolitical aspiration.
Trump used “Palestine,” too, in his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, no less, which could have been seen as a bold, independent move — if we had any sense that he knew what he was saying. Even though Cruz, following Trump, pounced on it immediately — “Perhaps to the surprise of the previous speaker, Palestine has not existed since 1948” — no one called Trump on it, or asked him to clarify his views.
That is why, a few weeks later, when the Forward’s Josh Nathan-Kazis was invited along with other members of the Jewish media to interview Trump, he probed the issue by asking the candidate what he called the land east of the Green Line. “It was a question meant to elicit a specific response on a politically freighted issue,” Nathan-Kazis wrote. “Essentially, Trump didn’t answer.”
The candidate said that there were “many words that I’ve seen to describe it,” then turned over the question to his expert adviser on Israel — Jason Greenblatt, his longtime real estate lawyer, who happens to be an observant Jew and travels to Israel about once a year. Greenblatt said he wouldn’t use “occupied territories” and otherwise didn’t want to get hung up on terminology.
Now, I can imagine a clever candidate skirting the question by acknowledging its political sensitivities and pledging to reconcile the competing narratives once he or she is in office, etc, etc. But to swat it away as if it were irrelevant palaver indicates not only ignorance, but also a certain lack of courage — quite a contrast to the bold, say-it-like-it-is persona that Trump usually projects.
But maybe Trump’s multiple-choice answer is a thing of the future. Years after a tentative peace has taken hold in Northern Ireland, that second-largest city is now officially known as Derry-Londonderry. Who knows? President Trump may use nonchalant ambivalence on the Middle East to his advantage. It’s worked so far.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.