Palestinian Word Games
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
We read that "Prime Minister" Mahmoud Abbas is running in the elections on Sunday to succeed Yasser Arafat as "president" of "Palestine."
Excuse me, but prime minister, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, means the "head of the executive branch of government in states with a parliamentary system." Despite tens of thousands of references to Mr. Abbas as prime minister, he in not a single way fits this description.
Oh, and there is also the matter of there being no country called Palestine. Arab maps show it in place of Israel. The U.N. recognizes its existence. So too do certain telephone companies – for example, France's Bouygues Telecom and Bell Canada. Nonetheless, no such place exists.
One can dismiss use of these terms as symptoms of the same unrealism that has undermined Palestinian Arab war efforts since 1948. But they also promote the Palestinian cause (a polite way of saying, "the destruction of Israel") in a vital way.
In an era when the battle for public opinion has an importance that rivals the clash of soldiers, the Palestinian Arabs' success in framing the issues has won them critical support among politicians, editorial writers, academics, street demonstrators, and NGO activists. In the aggregate, these many auxiliaries keep the Palestinian effort alive.
Especially in a long-standing dispute with a static situation on the ground, public opinion has great significance. That's because words reflect ideas – and ideas motivate people. Weapons in themselves are inert; today, ideas inspire people to pick up arms or sacrifice their lives. Software drives hardware.
Israel is winning on the basic geographic nomenclature. The state is known in English as Israel, not the Zionist entity. Its capital is called Jerusalem, not Al-Quds. Likewise, Temple Mount and Western Wall enjoy far more currency than Al-Haram ash-Sharif or Al-Buraq. The separation barrier is more often called a security fence (keeping out Palestinian suicide bombers) than a separation wall (bringing to mind divided Berlin).
In other ways, however, the Palestinian Arabs' wording dominates English-language usage, helping them win the war for public opinion.
Arabs may have fallen behind Israel in per capita income and advanced weaponry, but they lead by far on the semantic battlefield. Who, a century back, would have imagined Jews making the better soldiers and Arabs the better publicists?
July 19, 2012 update: I discuss the term "West Bank" today here.
Aug. 13, 2012 update: Philippe Assouline offers a delicious lexicographic study of Palestinian English titled "Palestinese Lexicon," where Palestinese refers "a parallel language … that Palestinian activists and their allies have indeed invented," today at the Times of Israel. Here is the first entry:
Reader comments (69) on this item
Comment on this item
You can help support Daniel Pipes' work by making a tax-deductible donation to the Middle East Forum. Daniel J. Pipes