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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Fighting a hostile lexicon of our own making

I was recently entertaining some business guests from outside the country.  They are from a country in Asia and were not at all familiar with the history of our region or the intricacies of its problems... but wanted to learn.  So I sat them down with a map of the middle east (and some visual aids from a few fairly unbiased reference web sites) and gave them the 50 cent tour of the Jewish Homeland and its history.

It's always interesting to see how someone with no stake in regional politics and no prior knowledge of how we arrived at the present impasse, perceives the map and the various players on it.  For one thing, the relative size of Israel as compared with the rest of our neighbors never fails to garner a strong response:

"They have all this... and they are fighting you all these years for part or all of your country as well?!"

I also enjoy showing the map of Israel, with the outline of the 'west bank' (Judea and Samaria) and Golan Heights clearly delineated, to people unfamiliar with the local geography.  Even without knowing the full extend of our historical rights to the area, or the fact that our neighbors lost the territory in wars that they themselves instigated and lost... actually seeing the size and strategic value of these two areas never fails to get a reaction:

"Oh my goodness!  If you give that much of your country away, any enemy can cut you in half in minutes, and reach your primary airport and major cities with even the most primitive weapons!  Why would you do this?!

Now, obviously a newcomer who is getting the 'Cliff Notes' version of regional history is not going to have a very nuanced understanding of the issues.  And since I obviously have a dog in this fight, the fact that I am the one presenting the history can't help but further color their perceptions.

But then the conversation ultimately gets around to a word which provides a negative, and entirely unnecessary differentiation between towns and cities inside and outside the green line; 'settlements'

Rishon L'Zion, Petach Tikvah, and many of other of the early communities in Eretz Yisrael were all originally called settlements.  Back then, this word fired the imaginations of anyone who was even passingly interested in the Zionist enterprise, and 'settlers' were not only national heroes, but came in pretty much every flavor and stripe (i.e. right wing, left wing, religious, secular, etc.).

The one thing that is indisputable is that the intent of the settlers was always to create (and in many cases re-create) permanent communities in their ancestral homeland.  But back then, nobody seemed to notice or care that the word 'settlement' sounds rather temporary... or worse; colonial.

A quick glance at some of the definitions listed on-line for 'Settlement' turned up the innocuous:

"settlelment.  a community of people smaller than a town"

... as well as the more troubling:

"settlement. see also, 'colony.  a body of people who settle far from home but maintain ties with their homeland; inhabitants remain nationals of their home state but are not literally under the home state's system of government"

Even more troubling than how the rest of the world defines 'settlement' is the fact that roughly half of Israelis today attach a strong negative connotation to the word, and use it quite deliberately in place of more appropriate and accurate words like 'village', 'town', 'city', etc., in order to impugn the people living in them.

Whenever I hear the word settlement, I think of a few caravans or temporary structures (legal, illegal or somewhere in between) sitting on a windswept hillside... a reality which today are more correctly called 'outposts'. 

But intended or not, the word 'settlement', as used in the press and in political circles, has a decidedly colonial ring to it, and retains enough of the temporary aspect that Israelis and foreigners alike see no real or semantic problem with discussing their removal... despite the fact that many are, in fact, large towns and cities that were established and nurtured with government approval (encouragement, even!) on Israeli government-owned land.

The sad result of this semantic tug-o-war is that more than sixty years after the establishment of the Sate of Israel, the rest of the world (including some of our closest allies) still relates to us in a manner that suggests that our sovereignty, borders and very existence are all provisional... temporary... and are therefore still a legitimate topic for discussion and decision-making.  In short, the nightmare situation in which we find ourselves is that every day is a virtual do-over of the 1947 partition vote, and the outcome is anything but assured. 

This is especially frustrating when seen in contrast to parallel discussions being held around the world regarding the sovereignty and borders of a Palestinian State that exists only in theory.  For some reason, there is a permanence and inviolability of Palestinian rights, borders, choice of capital, etc. that has never been assumed of, or applied to, Israel.

But worse even than the way foreigners speak about Israel in such tentative/provisional terms, is when I hear my fellow Israelis using language that calls into question the permanence and legitimacy of towns and cities that were established with the full approval and blessing of the Israeli government!   

I wish they would think for a moment about the fact that for much of the world, the 'settlements' of Rishon L'Zion and Petach Tikvah are every bit as colonial, illegitimate, and disruptive to peace efforts as Ariel, Ma'aleh Adumim and Efrat.

Posted by David Bogner on June 11, 2009 | Permalink


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You must have read my mind. I've always had problems with our calling our towns, regardless of where they are located - "settlements". They are villages, cities... homes.
By our calling them settlements we are legitimizing others' claims.


Posted by: anonymous | Jun 11, 2009 8:02:45 PM

The modern Hebrew word for settlements is derived from the biblical verb התנהל

וְהִתְנַחַלְתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ (במ' לג)

which means to create or to take possession of an estate נחלה. "To settle" is an accurate translation of the biblical verb. Secular and religious Jews who settled in Eretz Israel chose this term in the early 20th century precisely for its biblical connotations. The fact that many Israelis now finds the term distasteful speaks about their alienation from the history of their country. And this is a very bad reason to start trying to change the word. If someone doesn't like the idea of Jews settling their land, no amount of semantic word play will cause them to change their views.

Posted by: ashoichet | Jun 12, 2009 12:11:02 AM

Oops. The modern Hebrew word for settlements is derived from the biblical verb התנחל

Posted by: ashoichet | Jun 12, 2009 12:12:47 AM

Don't forget the 'settlement' of Tel Aviv

Also important to mention the distance created by terms like "settlers" helps alleviate feelings of remorse when "a small settlement" is destroyed. After all, only a handful of "settlers" lost their homes.

It is a lot harder to look those parents, and children, in the eyes and justify why it is OK to destroy everything they hold dear to their hearts and valuable in the world.

It is much easier to destroy the homes of "settlers."

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Jun 12, 2009 1:25:01 AM

I was speaking to a friend of mine (you know him, he lives down the street from you)who lives in Efrat two days ago. The subject of Obama's speech came up. He said, it was interesting that Obama claims to want to help the Palestinians' and yet by telling Israel to stop building he is putting the Arabs out of work. Who does he think are building the homes?!
Now THAT is interesting, the very people who want to wipe Israel off the face of the earth are building her. You gotta love the Middle East.
Shabbot Shalom

Posted by: Beth | Jun 12, 2009 5:20:21 AM

I am still waiting for someone to define what a settlement really is. Is it a couple of trailers or a city of 30,000. Beats the hell out of me.

Posted by: Jack | Jun 12, 2009 10:09:52 AM

Efrat is a town. Ginot Shomron is a town. Etc, etc. Let's stop using the "S" word and see if it catches on...

Posted by: Marsha in Englewood | Jun 12, 2009 4:41:46 PM


Here's Dry Bones' view . .

Posted by: Michael | Jun 14, 2009 7:54:16 AM

Could you please write Mr. Obama and give HIM the 50-cent tour? Because he really seems to have no clue.

He does read at least some of his mail. Couldn't hurt.

Posted by: uberimma | Jun 14, 2009 9:06:56 AM

Here's an idea: How about every country who blithely advises Israel to give up its settlements should be forced to "dismantle" a "settlement" or two of their own?

I mean, every city in the US (or the Americas for that matter, except for Mexico City and one or two others) were originally settlements of Europeans encroaching on Native American lands. No?

And weren't London and Paris originally Roman settlements? Wasn't Moscow a settlement of Russic Vikings in traditionally Slavic lands? (Or something like that.)

Oh, you say, we can't destroy these cities - they're thousands of years old! And what about all the culture? Well, don't y'see, there's no statute of limitations on this sort of thing. Those Romans were creating "facts on the ground" to further their empire - can't allow that! And who cares about Western imperialistic culture when it grinds the indigenous regional cultures into the ground? Let Paris burn, say I! Retrieve your heart from San Francisco and knock it down! So there!

OK, I'll shut up now.

Posted by: psachya | Jun 15, 2009 6:16:34 PM

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