Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Thucydides on the Language of War, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

"To fit in with the change of events, words, too, had to change. What used to be thought of as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward, any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one's unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant one was totally unfitted for action; frenzied violence came to be considered an attribute of a real man."--Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, Book 3

Thucydides reminds us that this sort of language bullying has been part of the war-making process, in which the "ability to understand a question from all sides meant one was totally unfitted for action."

In Israel, under the new Netanyahu regime, language--how it frames, how it syncs into narrative--is again the site of conflict, as the word "nakba" (the catastrophe, the name for Palestinian dispossession in 1948) is removed from all textbooks. A BBC News article, "Israeli Textbooks to Drop 'Nakba'" (July 22, 2009), reports:

Israel's education ministry is to drop from an Arabic language textbook a term describing the creation of the state of Israel as "the catastrophe".

The Arabic word "nakba" has been used with Israeli-Arab pupils since 2007. It does not appear in Hebrew textbooks.

Education Minister Gideon Saar said no state could be expected to portray its own foundation as a catastrophe.

Israeli Arab MP Hana Sweid called the move an attack on Palestinian identity and collective memory.

The passage in question, which occurs in one textbook aimed at Arab children aged eight or nine, describes the 1948 war, which resulted in Israel's creation, in the following terms: "The Arabs call the war the Nakba - a war of catastrophe, loss and humiliation - and the Jews call it the Independence War."

The sentence was introduced when Yuli Tamir of the centre-left Labour party was education minister.

Ms Tamir's successor in Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing administration, Mr Saar, said: "There is no reason that the official curriculum of the state of Israel should present the establishment of the state as a 'holocaust' or 'catastrophe'."

Mr Saar added that state education for children was not supposed entail the de-legitimising of that state.

"Including the term in the official curriculum of the Arab sector was a mistake, a mistake that will not repeat itself in the new curriculum, which is currently being revised," he concluded.

Correspondents say most Hebrew-language history books, especially when written for schoolchildren, focus on the heroism of Israeli forces in 1948 and gloss over the mass exile of Palestinians.

If it is mentioned at all it is attributed to a voluntary flight, rather than the deliberate expulsion which later revisionist historians claim to have uncovered from archive sources.

The term Nakba is usually applied to the loss suffered by millions of Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 war and subsequent conflicts; their fate remains a key factor in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Jafar Farrah, director of Israeli-Arab advocacy group Moussawa, told the BBC that removing the word Nakba from textbooks would not stop Arabs from using it, but it would complicate relations.

Far-right members of the Israeli government are pursuing legislation to make it illegal in Israel to commemorate the Nakba, as Palestinians and their supporters do every 15 May.

One of the strengths of Israeli democracy has been its relative liberality, its ability to discuss even the most painful aspects of Israeli politics and life. Such a recent setback demonstrates the rightward turn of the state under Netanyahu, but we should remember that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been waged on the level of language, of naming.

Any reader of Sahar Khalifeh's brilliant novel Wild Thorns (1978)--now thirty years old, but as classically contemporary as Thucydides--will recall the brilliant depiction of the checkpoint dialogue between Usama, returning home after five years abroad, and an Israeli security interrogator, in which each vies for naming the place from which Usama comes:
“I left home to work abroad five years ago, three months after the occupation started. We were living in Tulkarm; then my father died and my mother moved to Nablus.”
“Why did your mother move to Shekem?”
“She likes Nablus.”
“Why does she like Shekem?”
“She’s got lots of relatives in Nablus.”
“And why have you left the oil countries to return to Shekem?”
“I’m returning to Nablus because my father died.”
“Who died?”
“My father.”
“When did he die? Speak up!”
“Two years ago.”
“Why are you coming back now and not two years ago?
“I was waiting for permission from the family reunion programme.”

While the soldier insists on referring to Nablus as Shekem, Usama holds fast to his name, in a situation of humiliation and at great risk to his ability to pass through the checkpoint.

On the heels of another story on npr about the removal of names--of "Al-Quds" from road signs leading to Jerusalem/Al-Quds:
Israel's conservative new minister of transportation wants to remove the English and Arabic place names from new traffic signs. The Arabic and English lettering would remain, but would spell out Hebrew names.

The proposal has angered Arabs who say it's another attempt to erase the Arab connection to the land.

When motorists head up the hill to Jerusalem, for example, the large green traffic signs say "Yerushalayim" in Hebrew, "Jerusalem" in English and "Ursalim al-Quds" in Arabic.

But if transportation minister Israel Katz has his way, all three languages will spell out the word "Yerushalayim."

On its Web site, the ministry says the changes are intended to simplify things for drivers by minimizing the number of words that must be read. But Katz, a Likud Party hawk, also made clear in an interview with Israel's largest newspaper that he has a political motive.

"If someone wants, by means of a road sign, to make Jerusalem into Palestinian al-Quds," Katz said, "that won't happen in this government, certainly not with this minister."

This is not to say that Jewish suffering, the Jews' own profound history of dispossession and exile upon exile, is to be minimized, derided, or forgotten; on the contrary, the question becomes--how can we hold together an adequate narrative that acknowledges the terrible losses of all peoples, without merely using such a history as justification for vengeance or further brutality? Must we, as Thucydides saw, be swept up in the history of blood--as if it were as natural as the tide, and not something that comes from somewhere inside us?


MJFrost said...

Have we changed so little?

Philip Metres said...

MJ Frost,

indeed. This is part of a longer post that I'd like to do on language, given the ongoing use of language in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict--recent signs removing "al-quds" (the name for Jerusalem in Arabic) in Jerusalem, the removal of references to "nakba" from Israeli textbooks, etc.

Chris Vecchio said...

The video saddened me. It is disappointing to see a resurgence of the inability to talk about painful events. (or completely deny them)

I really feel bad for Palestine and Palestinians. I hope those in positions to help realize that an ethnic cleansing did occur in Palestine.

Great reference to Wild Thorns. I am glad I took your class. It opened up a whole new world for me.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Chris, for your comment.