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Language, labels and the Arab-Israeli conflict

On language, labels and the Arab-Israeli conflict

I’m a translator and an interpreter. I love nothing more than words and labels. I adore the neatness and order of grammar and syntax, the richness and nuance of vocabulary and the easy fit of definitions. As a result, it is my natural inclination to look at the Arab-Israeli conflict from the perspective of the words that we use and the ways in which we define ourselves. But how well do the most-used words really apply in this context? Do they do us a service, or do they limit our vision and ability to see beyond our own self-imposed categories?

Allow me to be upfront. I wildly envy both leftists and right-wingers. I am intensely jealous of both doves and hawks. I crave the audacity of certitude that seems to be the purview of both right and left in Israel. Oh, to know that you are right! (or left, as the case may be). How much easier that must be. So many Israelis and Diaspora Jews seem to be so entrenched in their own self-defined appellations and categories that the nuances and colliding truths of the Arab-Israeli conflict appear to pass right over their heads.

How useful it might be to abandon the labels that we have attached to ourselves. If the Arab-Israeli conflict were so simple as to fit into neat semantic boxes, perhaps it could have been resolved long ago. What I hear is the Israeli left lambasting the current reality, without even acknowledging the prima facie impossibility of making peace with those who refuse to recognize us and who continue to extol and glorify the virtues and perpetrators of terror in word and in deed. And by the same token, the right, that stakes an unswerving claim on every inch of the West Bank, with no right-wing voices ever daring to question the moral wrong and international unfeasibility of perpetuating control over another people.

Because it is all true, and it results in what might well be an intractable quagmire. And where does that leave smooth linguistic categories, orderly self-defined terms of political belonging? I want some gray, dammit. I yearn for some recognition on the part of both camps that there is no absolute truth or one path to a better future. I want a cognitive reality that neatly defined terms defy.

I propose that we cast off linguistic labels like pro-peace and progressivepeace camp versus nationalist camp. What does pro-peace even mean? To me, it’s like when well-meaning, albeit largely clueless people proudly proclaim that they are anti-war. Aren’t we all – left and right – pro-peace and anti-war, in our own way?

Consider the common use of the word progressive – a usage I find particularly odious. Why has progressive been held to exclusively embody the left? According to Merriam-Webster, synonyms for progressive include developed, evolved, refined, open-minded and forward. Wouldn’t we all like to consider ourselves progressive? Because the opposite of progressive is – what? Ah, yes – backward, primitive, rudimentary and underdeveloped. So, how exactly did the left expropriate “progressive”? Because I would like, thank you very much, to claim that lovely word for my very own.

At the other end of the spectrum, let’s look at the term nationalist. My dictionary tells me that it means having or showing love and support for one’s country, with related words including ardent, loyal, and impassioned. Yes, I identify with all of those attributes and characteristics, as I know that many of my friends on both the left and the right do. Certainly, I would define myself as a nationalist, in the sense that I am a passionate Zionist and a proud Israeli who loves and identifies with the Jewish people, but I don’t consider myself a right-winger, by any means. Must every nationalist, in the sense of one who loves and supports Israel, belong to the right or be a proponent of an unyielding political perspective in order to merit this title? Or has the word nationalist become a misnomer?

So, what am I? I guess that you could call me confused. Or perhaps you could call me realistic. In contrast with so many people on the right and the left, I don’t purport to have a solution to the Arab-Israel conflict. I’m not at all certain that there is one. And I sure don’t know what to call myself.

I know that I am not a right- or left-winger. In a perfect world, we would all abandon words and categories that only serve to divide us and to intensify our national myopia. But in the absence of that ideal, perhaps we must rely on more unconventional definitions. I don’t see anything wrong with identifying myself as a progressive nationalist, in the truest and most uncommon sense of those words, even if the rest of the world might consider that an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms.

Happy Hanukkah, everybody!

About the Author
Rina Ne'eman is a translator and interpreter, and the managing director of Legaltrans.com. She is a proud Israeli and an avid amateur photographer. Follow her on Twitter @rinaneeman or e-mail her at rina@legaltrans.com.