The Pro-Israel Language Muddle

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

Update: I just read NY Times reporter Ethan Bronner’s interesting take on the different, seemingly irreconcilable narratives of Israelis and Palestinians, and the difficult of using “neutral” language in reporting on the conflict. Definitely worth a read. Get it here.

Over at JTA, editor Ami Eden has an interesting blog item that touches on the use of language in reporting on the vast array of American Jewish groups, almost every one of which considers itself strongly pro-Israel and pro-peace, but which have totally different views of what that means.

That reflects a dilemma we all face: how do we characterize activist groups in an overheated environment in which just about any term we use is sure to offend some of the people we write about?

Ami  cites a Jewish Week letter writer who complained about my recent story, “Fresh Rift Emerges Over War Responses.”  My sin? Calling groups like J Street, Americans for Peace Now (APN) and the Israel Policy Forum (IPF) “pro peace.”

First, the writer got it wrong; I refereed to such groups as pro-peace process. There’s a difference, although I think they are also pro-peace (AIPAC is pro peace, too, but they see a very different route to getting there).

But how, exactly, are we supposed to refer to activist groups in the Mideast realm without taking sides in the rhetorical wars?

As Ami points out, “left” and “right” don’t work very well.  They’re highly subjective terms with connotations that go far beyond the immediate issues these groups address.

“Hawkish” and “dovish” can get confusing. Ariel Sharon was a hawk who advocated many dovish positions. A lot of doves thought it was a good idea to bomb the heck out of Gaza in December.

I generally try for  descriptive terms, but since I work for editors who worry about such trivialities as having enough space for ads and other stories, I have to keep them as short as possible.  So J Street is a pro-peace process lobby group and political action committee; the Zionist Organization of America is a group that opposes new land-for-peace agreements.

No doubt such broad labels miss a lot of nuances, but it’s hard to find more accurate, descriptive alternatives that don’t take up paragraphs.

Generally the leaders of these organizations seem satisfied with such labels, but their political opponents often react with rage.  “Hawks”  (sorry, couldn’t help it) think we should call groups like APN  “left-wing and extreme left-wing groups that believe that a piece of paper signed by the Palestinians and Arab governments will deliver peace to Israel,” according to the Jewish Week letter writer, who says ZOA and similar groups might be better identified as organizations that  “believe in peace through strength, rather than through appeasement.”

Activists with APN, IPF and the rest of the pro-peace process alphabet no doubt believe  we should refer to ZOA as an extremist group that supports Israel’s right-wing settler movement and the continued occupation of all of the West Bank.

We sometimes get into the most trouble with groups somewhere near the amorphous middle,  like AIPAC.

A good proportion of the Jewish activists community considers AIPAC significantly right of center; another chunk sees it as much too willing to go along with Israeli peaceniks.  But calling it “centrist,” more often than not,  brings down the wrath of both sides.

This also brings to mind the frequent complaint that the mainstream media doesn’t generally present the “context” when it reports on Middle East issues.

So when they wrote about Israel’s recent Gaza offensive, they were negligent if they didn’t cite the history of Hamas terrorism against Israel, the group’s continuing rejection of Israel’s legitimacy and Israel’s efforts to make  peace with the Palestinians over the years.

But journalists operate in a very unfair environment in which we don’t have all the space we’d like to make everything crystal clear. “Context” is easy when you’re writing political polemics without word limits, pretty hard when you’re writing a 800 new story that barely has enough space to get in the basics, much less endless “context.”

It’s true that some news stories are skewed against Israel because they lack any sense of the context in which the reported events occurred. But often complaints about context are just thinly veiled attempts to get stories skewed the way the complainers want.

If you don’t think language is important, think about what happens every time reporters and columnists refer to Hamas operatives as “militants,” not “terrorists.”

But wait; the Israeli Foreign Ministry and much of the Israeli press refers to them as militants. So give us a break, why dontcha?

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.