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Understanding Middle East History II

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Understanding Middle East Events and History II:

What's in a Word?

The Israel-Palestinian Conflict and the World of Words

The area of Israel and Palestine is not rich in resources. We have our famous conflict. It is our conflict, and we are happy to export it. It is our second greatest export.

What is our greatest export? It is not oil, as there is no petroleum here to export. But we have words, and have had words since words first created civilization in the middle east.  The middle east is famous for exporting words. The Old Testament, the New Testament, the propaganda of two sides in the conflict, and fittingly enough, software, are our greatest exports in all history. For the Bible and the propaganda are programs for humans, and people and history are "programmed" by them, as well as by that other great program for the human computer, the Qur'an.

The Word told Abraham to go to Canaan, and the Word told the Hebrews that Canaan is theirs. The words were written down in a book, and the book was the Old Testament and it became holy to the Jews, who built a kingdom in Jerusalem.

Then there were more Words, and the Words said that Muhamed is the prophet of Allah, and that Mohamed had made Jerusalem holy to Islam. The Christians received words too. Bishop Eusebius of Caesaria wrote that the Jews were cursed and could not rebuild Jerusalem. It was against the will of God.

History was written like a television series from the old days. "Unfortunate minorities" got bad parts - cleaning people, servants, Christ killers and money lenders. The Jews were written out of the coming episodes entirely. "A world without Jews," wrote Marx. Every culture and people would have its own home - self determination, but the Jews were to be written out of modern history. They didn't play well. "A moribund civilization," wrote Arnold Toynbee.

The Jews for their part, kept repeating the words "Next Year in Jerusalem" each year, and asking God to return them to their home each day. The words became a program for action. Theodore Herzl wrote a book, a nineteenth century utopia in the style of nineteenth century utopias, impossible places. The book was called The Jewish State. A very little book, a pamphlet, by a powerless man. Herzl organized a congress in Basle. More words, and a tiny resolution. He wrote in his diary in 1897, "...at Basle I founded the Jewish State... if not in 5 years then in 50..."  The Zionists tended to write the Arabs out of the action. They didn't fit, didn't play well, and spoiled the plot.

The words of the powerless man became flesh. Here is one way of telling about it:

Europeans came to colonize Palestine in the 19th century.

Here is another way:

Jews returned to the Land of Israel after 2,000 years.

Which one is true? It is the same fact, but it leads to different conclusions about "why," and it leads to a different way of programming people. 

Arthur Balfour wrote a small letter, the Balfour Declaration, in 1917. Palestine became a homeland for the Jews. Thirty years later, in 1947, the UN wrote another document, General Assembly Resolution 181, partitioning Palestine, and Herzl's words came true.

Words and symbols are taken seriously here. A right-wing Zionist tract explains the reason that justifies the bloodshed: "Jews pray facing Jerusalem, Muslims pray with their backs to Jerusalem." It is not written in jest. Gulliver, in all his travels in Swiftian satire, never found a more exotic reason for killing people.

Never mind what the fact is, it depends what it is called. Is it "legitimate?" If the Palestinian house is "illegal," then you can demolish it. If the settlement is "illegal" then you can blow up the children who live in it. 

A man loses his brother to the enemy. He detonates an explosive charge in a crowded bus stop in Jerusalem, killing himself and a dozen others. Is he a "terrorist?" a "militant?,"  a "freedom fighter?" or a "martyr?" Is the suicide attack "terror" or "resistance?" If the suicide attack is in Manhattan, is it also "resistance?"  A tank destroys a house with children in it, because the house also includes people set to explode themselves in a suicide attack. Is it "conducting a defensive operation" or a "war crime?" Is a leader a "partner for peace" or a "terrorist?" If we add "war criminal" to his name and repeat it consistently, does it change the facts? Are the Zionists or the Palestinians just regular folks, or are they the same as the Nazis? Does it change the facts of what people did in history? Perhaps not, but it changes the actions we will take; it changes what people will do in the history they are making now.  

The words are also used to redraw history. Nowhere else is it more true that  the pen is mightier than the sword. Nowhere is "creative writing" more "creative." Partisans, intent on stirring up hate, crank out fraudulent interviews with Ariel Sharon, in which he states that he wants his soldiers to rape Palestinian girls and kill more Palestinians. A bit of satire by an Israeli writer is turned into a fact. The excuse given for the lie is, "There is no doubt, that what has been expressed in  the interview is the kind of dangerous thinking shared by Sharon and showing through in his policies." Reality is shaped by art. First the reality is reinvented, then it is acted upon. We are acting out a trashy historical novel, a comic book version of reality.  

What is not told, is as important as what is told. The pen of the Jewish extremist makes the massacre of Deir Yassin disappear - over a hundred dead people are banished to nowhere. The pen of the Palestinian partisan erases the siege of Jerusalem and the Arab invasion of 1948. A writer in the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, waves his magic pen and the Holocaust disappears.  None of it happened. The Jewish extremist erases the Palestinian refugees. Reality is rearranged for the convenience and needs of our ever-present defense mechanisms.

Time and again, words create reality and program actions. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic forgery of the Czarist secret police, is enshrined in the charter of the Hamas, and propels Muslim extremists to their death. Osama Bin Laden wrote his Fatwas against America, and the words toppled mighty buildings. The Mufti of Jerusalem said "The Jews are destroying the holy Mosque of Al Aqsa" and the riots of 1929 began. The same rumor started bloodier riots in 1997, and again in September 2000 it created the "Martyrs of Al-Aqsa."  

At this moment, as is usual in our area, a battle is raging. The words are fighting alongside the tanks and the bombs. Partisans are busy rewriting history. Suicide bombers are being written out by one side, civilian casualties are being written out by the other. They do not play well. They will not sell. Words are changing history, and people are being programmed to act on the words, never mind what happened. So the words help to create reality.

The words are not meant to be aesthetic. They are tired, grating, writing. The same adjectives and pejorative words appear a dozen times in thousands of places. For some reason, the hacks cannot write "Arafat" without writing "terrorist" and they cannot write "Ariel Sharon" in less than four words: "War Criminal Ariel Sharon." The words are meant to program violence in human computers. Computer programs do not make good reading. They are bad literature. It is worse reality. The words programmed all these impossible things we see before us, good and bad. Can we use the words to "program" Israel and Palestine for peace?

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