Defining Democracy Down: Israeli Repression and the Language of Liars

Published as a ZNet Commentary, May 16, 2002

Webster’s New World Dictionary defines democracy as, “The principle of equality of rights, opportunity and treatment, or the practice of this principle.” Keep this in mind, as we’ll be coming back to it.

Now, imagine that the United States Congress were to pass a law stating that the U.S. was from this point forward to be legally defined as a Christian nation. As such, Christians would be given special preferences for jobs, loans, and land ownership, and Christians from anywhere in the world would be given preference in immigration, extended automatic citizenship upon coming to America. Furthermore, political candidates espousing the belief that we should be a nation with equal rights for all, and not a “Christian nation” were no longer allowed to hold office, or even run for election.

And imagine that laws were passed, say, next month, which restricted certain ethnic and religious groups from acquiring land in particular parts of the country, and made it virtually impossible for members of ethnic minorities to hold certain jobs, or live in particular communities.

And imagine that in response to perceived threats to our nation’s internal security, new laws sailed through the House and Senate, providing for torture of those detained for suspected subversion.

In such a scenario, would anyone with an appreciation of the English language, and with the above definition in mind, dare suggest that we would be justified in calling ourselves a democracy? Probably not, and yet the term is repeatedly used to describe Israel, as in “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

This, despite the fact that said nation is defined as the state of the Jewish people, providing special rights and privileges to anyone in the world who is Jewish and seeks to live there, over and above longtime non-Jewish Arab residents.

This, despite the fact that said nation bars any candidate from holding office who openly advocates the notion that Israel should be a secular, democratic state with equal rights for all, rather than the state of the Jewish people.

This, despite the fact that non-Jews are restricted in terms of how much land they can own, and in which places they can own land at all, thanks to laws granting preferential treatment to Jewish residents.

This, despite that fact that even the Israeli Supreme Court has acknowledged the use of torture against suspected “terrorists” and other “enemies” of the Jewish state.

For some, it is apparently sufficient that Israel has an electoral system, and that Arabs have the right to vote in those elections (though just how equally this right is protected is, of course, a different matter). The fact that one can’t vote for a candidate who questions the special Jewish nature of the state, because such candidates can’t run for or hold office, strikes most as irrelevant: hardly enough to call into question their democratic credentials. But of course, the Soviet Union also had elections, of a sort. And in those elections, most people could vote, though candidates who espoused an end to the communist system were barred from participation. Voters got to choose between communists; in Israel they choose between Zionists. In the former case, we recognize such truncated freedom as authoritarianism. In the latter case, we call it democracy.

I’m sorry, but I am over it. As a Jew, I am over it; and if my language seems too harsh, that’s tough. For it is nothing compared to the sickening things said by Israeli leaders throughout the years. Like Menachem Begin, former Prime Minister who told the Knesset in 1982 that the Palestinians were “beasts walking on two legs.” Or former P.M. Ehud Barak, who offered a more precise form of dehumanization when he referred to the Palestinians as “crocodiles.”

And speaking of Barak, for more confirmation on the death of language, one should examine his April 14 op-ed in the New York Times. Therein, Barak insisted that democracy in Israel could be “maintained” so long as the Jewish state was willing to set up security fences to separate itself from the Palestinians, and keep the Palestinians in their place. Calling the process “unilateral disengagement,” Barak opined that limiting access by Arabs to Israel is the key to maintaining a Jewish majority, and thus the Jewish nature of the state. That the Jewish nature of the state is inimical to democracy as defined by every dictionary in the world matters not, one supposes.

Barak even went so far as to warn that in the absence of such security fences, Israel might actually become an apartheid state. Imagine that: unless they institute separation they might become an apartheid state. The irony of such a statement is nearly perfect, and once again signals that words no longer have meaning. They are but the sounds that emanate from one’s throat and are accompanied by breath and occasionally spittle. They mean nothing; define them as you choose.

Interestingly, amidst the subterfuge, other elements of Barak’s essay struck me as surprisingly honest: much more so in fact, than when he had been Prime Minister and supposedly made that “generous offer” to Arafat about which we keep hearing. You know, the one that would have allowed the maintenance of most Jewish settlements in the territories, and would have restricted the Palestinian state to the worst land, devoid of its own water supply, and cutoff at numerous chokepoints by Israeli security. The one that has been described variously (without acknowledgement of the inconsistency) as having offered the Palestinians either 93 percent, or 95 percent, or 96 percent, or perhaps 98 percent of the West Bank and Gaza.

Well, in the Times piece, Barak came clean, admitting that Israel would need to erect fences in such a manner as to incorporate at least one-quarter of the territories into Israel, so as to subsume the settlements. So not 93 percent, or 96, or 98, but at best 75 percent, and still on the worst land. Furthermore, the fences would slice up Jerusalem and restrict Arab access to the Holy Basin and the Old City: a direct swipe at Muslims who seek access on a par with their fellow descendants of Abraham.

That this was Barak’s idea all along should surprise no one. And that such a “solution” would mean the final loss for the Palestinians of all but 17 percent of their pre-Israel territory will not strike many in the U.S. media as being terribly unfair. If anything, we will continue to hear about the intransigence of the Arabs, and their unwillingness to accept these “generous offers,” which can only be seen as generous to a people who have become so inured to human suffering that their very souls are in jeopardy. Or to those who have never consulted a dictionary. For once again, it defines generous as: “willing to give or share; unselfish; large; ample; rich in yield; fertile.” In a world such as this, where words have no meaning, we might as well just burn all the dictionaries.

Sometimes, the linguistic obfuscation goes beyond single words, and begins to encompass entire phrases, as with the oft-repeated statement that “Jews should be able to live anywhere in the world, and to say otherwise is to endorse anti-Semitism.” Thus, it is asked, why shouldn’t Jews be able to settle in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem? Of course, whoever says such a thing must know of its absurdity beforehand. After all, the right to live wherever one chooses has never included the right to live in someone else’s house, after taking it by force or fraud. Nor does it include the right to set up house in territories that are conquered and occupied as the result of military conflict: indeed, international law expressly forbids such a thing. And furthermore, those who insist on the right of Jews to live wherever they choose, by definition deny the same right to Palestinians, who cannot live in the place of their choosing, or even in the homes that were once theirs.

Needless to say, many Palestinians would like to live inside Israel’s pre-1948 borders, and exercise a right of return in order to do so. But don’t expect those who demand the right for Jews to plant stakes anywhere we choose to offer the same right to Arabs. Many of these are among the voices that insist Jordan is “the Palestinian state,” and thus, Palestinians should be perfectly happy living there. Since Palestinians are Semites, one could properly call such an attitude “anti-Semitic,” seeing as how it limits the rights of Semitic peoples to live wherever they wish, but given the transmogrification of the term “anti-Semitism” into something that can only apply to Jew-hatred, such a usage would seem bizarre to many, one suspects.

The rhetorical shenanigans even extend to the world of statistics. Witness the full-page advertisement in the New York Times placed by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which ran the same day as the Barak op-ed. Therein, these supposed spokespersons for American Judaism stated their unyielding support for Israel, and claimed that the 450 Israeli deaths caused by terrorism since the beginning of the second intifada, were equal to 21,000 deaths in the U.S. from terrorism, as a comparable percentage of each nation’s overall population. Playing upon fears and outrage over the attacks of 9/11, the intent was quite transparent: get U.S. readers to envision 9/11 all over again, only with seven times more casualties! A brilliant move, indeed.

But of course, honesty — an intellectual commodity in short supply these days, and altogether missing from the rhetorical shelves of the Conference of Presidents — would require one to point out that the numbers of Palestinian non-combatant deaths, at the hands of Israel in that same time period, is much higher, and indeed would be “equal to” far more than 21,000 in the U.S. as a comparable share of respective populations. To be honest to a fault would be to note that the 900 or so Palestinians slaughtered with Israeli support in the Sabra and Shatilla camps during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, would be equal to over 40,000 Americans. Even more, the 17,500 Arabs killed overall by Israel during that invasion would be roughly equivalent to over 800,000 Americans today: the size of many large cities. In a world where words still had meaning such a thing might even fall under the heading of terrorism.

Sounding eerily like Hitler, Ariel Sharon once said, “a lie should be tried in a place where it will attract the attention of the world.” And so it has been: throughout the media and the U.S. political scene, on CNN in the personage of Benjamin Netanyahu, and in the pages of the New York Times.

And in my Hebrew School, where we were taught that Jews were to be “a light unto the nations,” instead of this dim bulb, this flickering nightlight, this barely visible spark, whose radiance is only sufficient to make visible the death-rattle of the more noble aspects of the Jewish tradition. Unless we who are Jews insist on a return to honest language, and an end to the hijacking of our culture and faith by madmen, racists and liars, I fear that the light may be extinguished forever.

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