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Israel and the "War of the Words"

By Michael Freund
8/5/2005, 12:00 AM

As the "People of the Book", you'd think that we Jews would be able to do a more effective job explaining ourselves to the rest of the world.

Sadly, that is not the case, and for far too long, Israel has underestimated the importance of the propaganda wars, often conceding many of its battles before they have even begun.

As I wrote in the article below, it is high time for this to change, and for the Jewish state to start thinking ahead and fighting back in the battle for world public opinion.

Words do count, and ideas do matter, so let's roll up our sleeves and get to work.


The Jerusalem Post, May 5, 2005

War of the Words

By Michael Freund

It is a war that Israel has never really fought, despite the inestimable damage which it continues to inflict. And while our foes have been on the offensive for decades, claiming one victory after another, most of us have yet to even acknowledge its significance.

It is the "War of the Words," or of terminology. It is a battle to define and describe Israel's conflict with its neighbors, and it is time that we started thinking ahead and fighting back.

Glance at any major Western newspaper and it quickly becomes clear who is winning the linguistic tussle in the Middle East. The territories are "occupied," Jews living there are "settlers," their supporters are "extremists," while those trying to kill them are mere "activists" or "militants."

On the whole, the language is clearly loaded, helping to shape public opinion against the Jewish state. And thanks to repeated use over the years, these terms have come to be accepted in nearly all public discourse regarding the Middle East.

Needless to say, this is far more than just a struggle over semantics. It is about influencing international opinion and shaping policy. Words, after all, are an instrument of persuasion. As George Orwell noted in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language": "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

And corrupt it most certainly has. An entire generation has grown up imbibing a slanted version of reality, one that is peddled on a daily basis by the Arabs and their supporters.

Our foes long ago understood that by fixing the definition, you also effectively fix the debate. In the process, they have succeeded in laying the conceptual groundwork that has come to dominate the world's (mis)understanding of the issues at stake in the region.

Now, you might be thinking: so what? What difference does it make?

The answer is a whole lot. Indeed, anyone who doubts the political role and significance of words need only take a look at the energy and effort expended by others to deploy them effectively.

Take, for example, the Bush administration. Say what you will about the conduct of the war in Iraq, but there can be no doubt that the US has managed the war of words in a compelling manner.

Saddam Hussein's government was always referred to by the ominous-sounding term "regime," and the war itself was dubbed "Operation Iraqi Freedom" to underline its main objective.

From the start of hostilities, administration officials were careful to refer to troops stationed in Iraq as "Coalition forces," rather than GIs, in an effort to stress international backing for the war.

Of course, finding the right phrase is not necessarily going to change people's minds or transform their positions, but it can and does have an impact on the way an issue is viewed and understood. And over time, this can have a cumulative and often decisive effect.

Is it any wonder that after being told for so long that the territories are "occupied," many Jews and Israelis have now come to view that as being the case?

By conceding the point, Israel unwittingly set the stage for conceding the territory, too.

And that is why it is so essential that we prepare ourselves for the next phase of the propaganda war, and start thinking more clearly and effectively about how to get our points across.

Consider the term "settlement blocs," which Prime Minister Ariel Sharon himself has used on occasion, including in his April 22 interview with this newspaper. Is that really the best phrase to be using when describing Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria that Israel intends to retain in any final-status agreement?

Over the years, our foes have succeeded in demonizing the word "settlement." By adopting this label, Israel is playing directly into their hands, giving them an unnecessary advantage.

Various other expressions, such as "Israeli population centers" or "suburban Jewish communities" should be used instead. They sound less menacing, and are more in line with our national interests.

At this point, it is perhaps too late to turn back the clock, or to press the rewind button and start fighting the linguistic battles that were lost decades ago. But it is certainly not too late to begin applying a little foresight, and to anticipate the clashes that inevitably lie ahead.

As John F. Kennedy once said regarding Winston Churchill, he "mobilized the English language and sent it into battle." After decades of forsaking this important arena, it is time for Israel at last to do the same.


The writer served as an aide to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.