Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

Corrupt Language Breeds Bad History and Bad Policy

by Bruce S. Thornton

Advancing a Free Society

As the history of communism and fascism both illustrate, modern political tyranny has relied on fabricated history to legitimize its claims and actions, and such history in turn relies on the debasement of language. Nowhere is this axiom more evident than in the conflict between Israel and the Arabs — so much so that, as Obama’s recent remarks about Israel show, the false history and its false vocabulary are now taken for reality and made the basis of policy.

Start with the use of “borders” to describe what is in fact the armistice line marking the farthest advance of the five Arab armies that invaded Israel in 1948. That line is not an international “border” in the strict sense of a line dividing one sovereign state from another. The territory in question was never a state. Once a state is established, then the international border will be settled by negotiations. As Israeli ambassador Dore Gold points out, UN resolution 242, as well as later agreements such as the 1993 Oslo Accords, preserves this “flexibility for creating new borders.”

Then there’s “occupation,” used to describe the Israeli presence in the West Bank, itself a misleading term that obscures the historical fact that this region is Judea and Samaria, the heartland of the ancient Jewish state. Aside from that, using “occupation” to describe Israel’s control over a disputed territory whose final status will be determined by negotiation evokes misleading analogies with historical events like the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, or the Soviet occupation of the Eastern bloc during the Cold War. But that analogy is false: Germany and Russia invaded and then occupied sovereign nations defined by international borders. Israel ended up in the West Bank territories as the result of a defensive war against aggressors. Israel’s continuing control is a defensive necessity, just as after World War I the traditional launching pad for German aggression against France, the Rhineland, was demilitarized and subject to Allied military control. Indeed, the Allied decision to evacuate their forces from the Rhineland was one of many mistakes that led to World War II. Given that central Israel is only 9 miles wide from the Mediterranean to the West Bank, it is understandable that it is cautious about losing control over the traditional Arab launching pad for invasion.

“Palestinian homeland” is another particularly loaded and historically false phrase. “Palestine” was the name of a multi-ethnic Roman, Byzantine, Arab, and Ottoman province, not a people. The name itself reflects Rome’s attempt to alter historical reality with language. After the destruction of Israel as a political entity and the scattering of its people in the 2nd century AD, the Romans renamed the territory “Palestine” after the Philistines, a people that once lived in the region but had been absorbed into other groups for centuries. Thus the Romans subjected the Jews to a collective damnatio memoriae, the practice of erasing all public mention or record of an enemy to the Roman state — exactly what the Arabs have been trying to do to Israel for the last 60 years by denying its historical ties to the land.

Likewise, just as the Romans named the land after a people that no longer existed, so too calling the current Arab inhabitants “Palestinians” perpetuates a similar historical fraud. What constitutes a people are a shared language, culture, customs, traditions, and history distinct enough to set them apart from others. By these criteria, there is no such thing as “Palestinians.” The average Arab living in Israel or the West Bank is no more significantly distinct from one living in Syria, Jordan, or Egypt than a resident from California is significantly distinct from a resident of Arizona or Nevada. Whatever differences that do exist do not trump the more important similarities, and reflect rather the refusal of surrounding Arab nations to integrate their Arab brothers into their own countries, instead constructing a Palestinian identity based on victimhood, humiliation, and failure.

That’s why before 1967, no one talked about “Palestinians” as a distinct people deserving a homeland, and the Jordanians did not create a Palestinian state when they controlled the West Bank. That notion of a “Palestinian state” arose after the Arab defeats in the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Once those debacles made it clear the Arabs could not destroy Israel by force, the tactic shifted to making the issue one of national self-determination as a way of chipping away at Israel’s territorial integrity and international support.

Finally, the claim that the territory inhabited by Israel is the traditional “homeland” of those whom we call Palestinians is false. The majority of Arabs who have lived or are living in Israel and the West Bank are there as the descendants of conquerors, colonizers, and immigrants. Many of them came after Zionists began in the 19th century to develop a mostly desolate, neglected land and to create economic opportunities. History and archaeology tell us that the territory comprising Israel and the West Bank is the traditional homeland of the Jewish people, not a mythical Palestinian people.

The misleading and false language used to describe the conflict between Israel and the countries that have tried to destroy it obscures the actual causes of Arab hatred of Israel, which in turn creates bad policies pursuing false solutions. A Palestinian state will not bring peace to the region, for the simple reason that a critical mass of Arabs does not want Israel to exist.

©2011 Bruce S. Thornton

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture.

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