James Zogby: Definitions Matter

Dr. James J. Zogby, Arab American Institute, NOVEMBER 27, 2023

Almost two months into this monstrous conflict in Gaza and it is clear that the war is being fought not only on a battlefield but over the very terms that can be used to speak about it. Pope Francis discovered this last week when he described what was unfolding in Gaza as “going beyond war, this is terrorism,” and reportedly noted that “terrorism should not be used to justify terror.” According to some Palestinians who met with Pope Francis before he made his public comments, he spoke about the absence of water, fuel, and medicine in Gaza, referring to what was taking place as “genocide.” 

Major Jewish organizations roundly condemned the pope’s words, some accusing him of a “blood libel” against the Jewish people. They demanded retraction or clarification, with some questioning the value of years of Christian-Jewish dialogue. One might reasonably be inclined to question what criticism of Israel’s behavior in Gaza has to do with the dialogue between two religious traditions, but we’re not dealing with reason. This is about power and the use of power to insist on the definition of words. 

For decades now, major Jewish organizations have sought to define criticism of Israel as antisemitism. With the conflict in Gaza, that effort is in full swing. 

Before turning to more recent additions to what are now being insisted upon as acceptable definitions of terms, let’s look at a few past examples: 

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• “Undivided Jerusalem is the ‘eternal capital of Israel.’” Fair enough in a theological sense but adding “undivided” into the mix complicates the matter. In 1968 Israel annexed 28 Palestinian villages to the north, east, and south of Jerusalem unilaterally defining it as “Greater Jerusalem” and demanding recognition of this, in its entirety, as its undivided capital. 

• Israelis insist that the Nakba never occurred. Palestinians were not expelled. They say that Palestinians willingly complied with Arab leaders’ demand that they leave to be out of harm’s way when Arab armies attacked Israel—a complete fabrication. In any case, Israelis insist that what ultimately occurred was a simple “population transfer”—with Jews leaving Arab countries to settle in Israel and Arabs leaving Palestine to settle in Arab states. 

• “Israel has a right to exist.” It does exist, and Palestinian leadership (Hamas, excepted) have recognized it. What Palestinians question isn’t Israel’s existence. What they balk at is the demand that they recognize Israel as it defines itself: as “a state in which only the Jewish people have the right to self-determination.” 

• Terms that may not be used: “apartheid,” “ethnic cleansing,” and even “occupation.” 

The first two are well-defined in international law. “Apartheid” refers to a system of governance in which the controlling power has two sets of laws and practice that privilege one group over another. That Israel has ruled over Palestinians in this manner has been well-documented by leading internationally respected human rights organizations as well as Israeli human rights groups. “Ethnic cleansing” involves the forceable displacement of one subordinate group to serve the purposes of the dominant group. This is precisely what Israel did in 1948 and after, when they seized the land and properties of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, demolished their villages and turned the land over to new Jewish settlers. That practice was continued after 1967 resulting in over 750,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. “Occupation” should be the least controversial term, but it is not. Israel insists either that the territories occupied in the 1967 are their biblical inheritance or that no one has any legitimate claim to them and that, therefore, the areas in question are at best “disputed territories.” It is worth noting that neither the Democratic nor Republican parties have ever allowed use of the word “occupation” to appear in their platforms. 

These are only a few of the examples the meaning of terms that supporters of Israel have insisted be accepted. The conflict in Gaza has added more: 

• As Pope Francis has learned, according to pro-Israel groups it is unacceptable to refer to what Israel is doing in Gaza as “genocide” or “terrorism,” as if there were better terms to use to describe: 

• the indiscriminate bombing of heavily populated areas that so far has taken the lives of over 15,000 and reduced to rubble over one-half of the structures of northern Gaza;

• the mass dislocation of 1.5 million people after ordering the population of northern Gaza to leave their homes (and now forbidding them to return); and

• denying the population water, fuel, power, and medicine for prolonged periods.  

To add insult to injury, not only do these groups insist on the words that cannot be used and acceptance of their definition of these words, but they also now accuse as antisemitic those who insist on using them as accurate descriptors of what is happening—which brings us back to where this discussion began. 

As Pope Francis made clear, it is both necessary and correct to demonstrate compassion and concern for the safety and security of Israelis and Palestinians who are at risk in this deadly conflict. And it is equally correct to condemn both what Hamas has done to target civilians and what Israel is doing to carpet-bomb Gaza. For both Israelis and Palestinians to find a future in which both live and prosper, it is imperative to break through the stranglehold of imposed definitions and demand peace with justice. 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Arab American Institute. The Arab American Institute is a non-profit, nonpartisan national leadership organization that does not endorse candidates.

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