When language fails us

Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, the European Union Representative, and Thomas White, Director of UNRWA visit the Shati Refugee Camp in Gaza City, August 16, 2022 (Ashraf Amra - APA Images)

Ivar Ekeland

Mondoweiss  /  August 16, 2022

Words seem to lose their meaning among Western leaders when it comes to Palestine.

There are times when I wonder whether I still understand French.  Israel launched an air offensive “as a preventive measure” against Gaza, causing 46 deaths, including 16 children.  Preventive?  Really? For weeks there had not been any attacks in Israel, nor had any rockets been fired against its territory. Meanwhile, Israel has multiplied its incursions in the occupied Palestinian territory; the latest, in Jenin refugee camp, resulting in the death of a 16-year old adolescent and the arrest of Bassam al-Saadi, a Palestinian activist.

The official communiqué of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not condemn the aerial bombardment of the civilian population, but rather the “rocket fire against Israeli territory” that were fired in retaliation, and recalled its “unconditional commitment to the security of Israel.” The security of Israel? Really? For the last 15 years, with the complicity of Egypt and the western powers, Israel has maintained over two million people under a strict blockade, going so far as to measure the food rations to which they are entitled.  Gaza is an open-air prison, Israeli snipers fire without warning on anyone who approaches the bars of their cage, and Israeli drones fly over Gaza at all times. The Israeli army has entered the cage five times, sowing death and destruction, and it’s the security of Israel that is threatened?

I’m not the only one who is having trouble with language. What could have Emmanuel Macron’s local hosts have thought upon hearing the French president scold them as “hypocrites” during his official visit to Cameroon, for not knowing, unlike the western powers, “what name to give a war, that is a war, and not being able to say who started it”?  It’s true that he was speaking, not of Gaza, but of Ukraine! No doubt they were thinking he would be off to a good start by cleaning up his own backyard. And when I read that Nancy Pelosi, disembarking in Taiwan in an unprecedented show of air and sea military force, declared upon arrival that she came as  a messenger of peace, I ask myself whether I might have trouble understanding English as well.

History repeats itself. As Goethe wrote in Faust, “auch hier geschieht, was längst geschah,” here too is happening what has happened long ago.  Perversion of the language was already denounced by Karl Kraus at the beginning of the 20th century, and in that perversion he had seen the basis for the wars that would cover the world in blood and precipitate the decline of Europe. Words are no more than the drumrolls that accompany the assault, their purpose is to cover the noise of shots and explosions.  They no longer mean anything, people no longer try to convince one another, much less to understand; to quote the immortal words of Manuel Valls, our former Prime Minister, “to explain is to already justify.”

Words are simple epithets one uses to signal detestation or approbation, the traffic lights one places in roadways to indicate whether or not one can move forward. Palestinians — by definition — are “terrorists,” from the biggest to the smallest; this means, not that they have done anything but rather that one has to mistrust them and they are best kept under lock and key.

And the state of Israel — by definition — is “democratic”; this means only that it cannot be guilty of apartheid, even if its Constitution stipulates that only Jews have the right to self-determination. Whoever finds this upsetting, like the French MPs who submitted a proposed resolution to condemn Israeli apartheid is — by definition —  “antisemitic,” as the Justice Minister, up to his neck in conflicts of interest, dared to insinuate.

The state of Israel may also well have nuclear weapons, spyware, and the unconditional support of the world’s only empire; it is nevertheless “threatened,” and if its air force bombs a population that has only rifles and rockets to defend itself, it’s necessarily for the sake of its survival.

All this is so well-oiled that it would be comical if it didn’t serve to justify increasingly violent abuses against millions of increasingly desperate human beings, and for increasingly futile motives: it seems that if the Israeli government sent its planes to bomb Gaza, it is a part of its preparations for the coming elections, where each faction wants to prove its intransigence with regard to Palestinians. Are children dying in Gaza so that Israelis will cast the right votes? 

The loss of meaning, the death of words so to speak, is the war of all against all. According to an old legal truism, one binds oxen by their horns and humans by words.  If humans are deprived of words, all that remains is force. Restoring meaning to words advances the incomparable duo, peace and justice. That’s why the fight for Palestine is so important:  it’s not just a matter of the fate of the millions of inhabitants of that land, Muslims, Jews, or Christians; it’s also a matter of giving meaning to important words — like terrorism, democracy, colonization, antisemitism — that are used in other contexts, and much closer to home.

But for the moment the priority is elsewhere: the blockade of Gaza and the continued building of settlements in Palestine must be stopped. What was done for Ukraine shows that Europe can act. The EU sanctioned Russia for an aggression that has lasted six months and that threatens to turn into an annexation; why doesn’t it sanction Israel for a colonization that has been going on for 55 years? Crime doesn’t disappear with the passage of time; it rather takes root and becomes more difficult to root out, and that much more energy is needed to combat it.

 Ivar Ekeland is the President of AURDIP – Association of Academics for the Respect of International Law in Palestine