In the midst of the thousand things I read or watched about Gaza in the past week, one really stood out. Fox News reporter Peter Doocy asked White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre “Does President Biden think the anti-Israel protestors in this country are extremists?” Obviously this was a baited question from a disingenuous reporter, leading to his follow-up question about why the White House frequently uses the term extremists to describe MAGA protestors, but hadn’t yet used it in this more recent context. Nothing all that interesting there.
But her response was worth thinking about. She said:
What I can say is what we’ve been very clear about this when it comes to antisemitism, there is no place. We have to make sure that we speak against it very loud and be very clear about that. Remember, when the President decided to run for President was when what he saw in Charlottesville in 2017 when he saw neo-Nazis marching down the streets of Charlottesville with vile antisemitic hatred and he was very clear then and he’s very clear now.
Doocy said “anti-Israel protestors,” referring to the broad coalition of people currently speaking out against weeks of devastation in Gaza, and Jean-Pierre said “antisemitism” and “neo-Nazis.”
For anyone who has participated in any of the conversations about the conflict between Israel and Palestine, now or in the past, Jean-Pierre’s term-switching isn’t surprising, which is all the more reason to talk about it.
So I want to try to walk a careful line and actually not talk about the war being waged in Gaza right now, which – for full transparency – I know to be a gross violation of human rights with war crimes committed, it seems, daily if not hourly.
For these reasons, I want to actually talk about the talk about the conflict between Israel and Palestine. I’m doing this because, on one hand, that’s what I do. I study and teach about language, rhetoric, and writing. So it’s where my strengths are. But it’s also important to think about how these events are being discussed publicly because, while people draw on their personal experiences to understand the world, they often learn to interpret those experiences using the words they hear and the ways others frame events. So, if we want to change the ways people respond to the ongoing murder of Palestinians, it is necessary to look critically at the ways it is talked about.
The main thing I can see when thinking about discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is all about naming. When supporters of Israel talk about this conflict, Israel is synonymous with Jews. While that might seem to make sense, it’s not very accurate. At least a quarter of Jewish Americans do not associate themselves with Israel and actually see it as an oppressive apartheid state. This group is exemplified by groups like Jewish Voices for Peace who recently staged a large-scale act of civil disobedience in New York City protesting the devastation in Gaza. It is likely not the case that these protestors were speaking out because of intense antisemitic motivations, as the White House suggests.
Even in Israel itself, the population is not wholly Jewish, but includes a not-insignificant mix of peoples of Arabic descent, some Christian, some Muslim, and some of no particular religious affiliation. Taken as a whole, the Jewish population of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories numbered about 47% last year, according to The Times of Israel.
So it isn’t accurate to say that critics of Israel hate Jewish people, just as it wasn’t reasonable for Al Qaeda to hate all Americans because of the actions taken by the United States government. Governments and people are separate. Instead, it’s more accurate to associate Israel with Zionism, the movement to create, strengthen, and expand a Jewish state. Zionists are sometimes Jewish and sometimes not. And sometimes Zionists in Israel explicitly target Jewish groups who argue against the actions of the Israeli state. For example, in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem, heavy anti-Zionist sentiment is prevalent among Jewish residents, especially with the Ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta who reject Israel’s claim to dominate the region. This week, Israeli police attacked several Neturei Karta residents of the neighborhood for posting flags in support of Palestinians.
The thing about shifting between the terms Israeli, Jewish, and Zionist is that sometimes it’s unconscious, illustrating the ways that people forget that these terms don’t all mean the same thing. But it’s also sometimes highly rhetorical. It’s convenient, when someone says, “Israel should stop murdering civilians in Gaza,” or, “I disagree with the Zionist arguments for extending more Jewish settlers into Palestinian lands,” to be able to say, “Why do you hate Jewish people?” It’s also convenient, when someone says, “I am protesting Israel’s unjust war in Palestine,” to conflate such protests with actual antisemitic and racist protests where white-supremacists chant, “you will not replace us,” mixing in, “Jews will not replace us,” for some extra disgusting specificity.
Maybe even more insidiously, the kind of language conflation of Israeli, Jewish, and Zionist can be used similarly to justify the murder of all Palestinians. The use of Hamas as a stand-in for all residents of Gaza and, to a lesser extent, all Palestinians was prevalent in initial statements after Hamas’s attack on Israel, when the conflict was framed as one between Hamas and Israel, failing to mention Palestinians at all. When the president of my own university issued a statement on October 10th, for instance, he mentioned Israeli civilians, several Israeli universities, and “Hamas terrorists.” Many – rightly – criticized him for not mentioning Palestinians, but it is important to consider whether he believed that he had mentioned them when referring to Hamas.
Certainly there is wide-spread belief among Israeli government officials and other Zionists that “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” as the Israeli Finance Minister recently claimed. Such arguments attempt to erase the distinction between Palestinian people and Hamas, justifying the Israeli military’s mass disregard for civilian life and human rights during their siege of Gaza. More broadly, denying the existence of a Palestinian people makes it easier for Israel to ignore the millions of Palestinians living in exile. In 1948, Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes to create the current state of Israel, which sometimes resulted in massacres of entire villages, like in Deir Yassin where Zionist paramilitaries murdered at least 100 men, women, and children.
Again, the question of what we should call the inhabitants of Gaza is not an abstract one. It is one that fuels actions on the ground and the attempt to justify the murder of the entire population. This justification can be seen in the rationale of an Israeli soldier correcting a CNN reporter, saying that “the war is not with Hamas, it is with all the civilians.” Certainly, this soldier’s message to the world echoes the Israeli Finance Minister’s claim that there were no Palestinian people, only terrorists to be murdered, a claim that has had clear consequences for the people in the hospitals and ambulances targeted by airstrikes. While some debate the legitimacy of Israeli assertions that the people targeted were Hamas militants, not civilians, the point is a moot one. What Israeli military and political figures are arguing is that everyone in Gaza is a Hamas member and should die. That’s genocide, perpetuated both with bombs and language.
In the United States, we see this kind of conflation of Palestinians and terrorists happen in the same ways. Palestinian-Americans have experienced a sharp rise in hate crimes since Hamas’s attack. Similar increases in hate crimes targeting Jewish people are also being blamed, often baselessly, on Palestinians and their supporters. This was the case with the tragic murder of Detroit synagogue president Samantha Woll, which was reported on as taking place “at a time of heightened tensions between Arab and Jewish communities” despite investigations that ruled out antisemitism as a motivation in the murder.
In southeast Michigan, which is home to a large number of Palestinian-Americans, protestors rallying against Israeli attacks are decried as terrorist supporters and, often, as terrorists themselves. Recently, a University of Michigan student was accosted by a passerby and her husband, asking, “Are you gonna send your terrorists after us?” and yelling, “rapists and murderers,” at other students taking part in the protest. Local Palestinian community leaders have reported visits by the FBI to mosques and homes. Palestinian Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, who represents the largest Muslim population in the United States, was censured by the House for her calls for a ceasefire and the end to US military aid for Israel.
Like Palestinians in Gaza, their supporters are conflated with Hamas in a way that justifies the violence of Israeli supporters and the wholesale dismissal of political talking heads like the White House Press Secretary, since any and all support for Palestinians can be framed as support for Hamas, just as criticism of the state of Israel can be conflated with hate-speech about Jewish people.
So, while also making arguments for a ceasefire and, beyond that, statehood and autonomy for the Palestinian people, it is important to continue to call out media figures, politicians, opponents, and (perhaps especially) allies when they use these terms in disingenuous or intentionally manipulative ways. This isn’t a simple matter of language niceties. It’s a way to counter arguments that make it seem as if the colonial Zionist project represents all Jewish people or similar arguments that conflate the Palestinian people with Hamas in ways that justify genocidal attacks like those we’re witnessing in Gaza. It’s also a way to avoid sparking further hatred from news-watchers, as was alleged to be the case when 6-year-old Palestinian-American Wadea Al-Fayoume was brutally murdered by his landlord, a man who had previously built him a tree house and brought toys to the house on multiple occasions.
Words have material consequences, and the framing of the Palestinian genocide has been in the hands of murderers and their allies for too long. It is time to take the discussion back, all as part of a process of securing a safe and vital Palestinian homeland, free of fear that every man, woman, and child can be killed and then called a murderer to justify the crime.