|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
11 - 17 April 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Calling the shots
Children in the playground have always been aware of the power of words. Contemptuous and cruel nicknames stick to their victims for years, and sometimes forever. The Jews, who in past centuries have so often been at the receiving end of ugly slurs, have learnt a precious lesson and become past masters in the use of speech to impose their own views on the world.
Their first successes were the terms "anti-Semitism" and "Holocaust," which they appropriated in such a way that they now designate acts against Jews, to the exclusion of all others. Yet the word Holocaust, according to Harraps Standard Dictionary (1939), originally meant "burnt offering, sacrifice," while Semitic (from Sem, one of Noah's sons) refers to different ethnic groups who originated in Western Asia. Arabs are classified in the same category; yet being anti-Semitic has come to only mean Jew- hater.
These semantic gains are charged with such emotional impact that the world, impressed, knows it must use them with care. Hating Arabs, Italians, Germans or even Americans is a sign of ignorance or provinciality; being anti-Semitic is tantamount to a crime (indeed, is a crime in some countries) -- something few people are indifferent to. How did this come to pass? With the able help of the Zionist lobby. It took time and hard work. It took patience too, knowledge of the international political scene and the ability to seize opportunities as they came. Men and women devoted their lives to disseminating the message, modifying it according to circumstances. For example, the Holocaust only became fashionable after Nasser's nationalisation of the Suez Canal, when the Western powers felt cheated by the Arabs. In his edifying little tome The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, Norman Finkelstein documents the mechanics of the Holocaust's sanctification and transformation into an ideology bordering on the sacred.
The anger of the Western powers, and their belated guilt toward the Jews because they had chosen to look the other way while the slaughter was taking place, endowed the horrifying slaughter with almost mythical elements of exceptionality. The Armenians had been victims of genocide before the Jews, but little had been made of it; Africa, too, witnessed mass exterminations, but those who had looked on passively while the Jews were massacred now brooked no comparisons. Only the Jewish Holocaust was unique, only compassion for the Jews is kosher.
Having wrenched Palestine out of Arab hands, the new Israelis feared for their gains. They needed to hide the monumental injustice they had perpetrated, and found it at once: "Look how small we are," they cried in self-pity. "Tiny Israel is about to be engulfed by the formidable Arab armies -- help!" they wailed. Tiny Israel received armour worthy of a scorpion to protect itself, not to mention floods of military and financial aid. All the Israelis had to do was scream for help and it came pouring in: more weapons and more money. What were a few lethal bombs, helicopters and tanks when weighed against the injustices the Germans had perpetrated against this poor, helpless people? They only wanted a small piece of land in which to seek refuge from the Goliaths of the world. That what the least one could do for them, especially when the land belonged not to the powers that were bestowing it with such largesse but to wretched Arabs, who could go rot in the desert: By giving Palestine away, the Western powers could be rid of the Jews and feel good about it.
Now only a few-well chosen words sufficed to demonise the dispossessed Arabs and reparation was complete, from the Western point of view. The Jews, endowed with a country, were allowed to become a nation and make their religion into a nationality. But poor little Israel had grander plans. Armed to the teeth, its territorial ambitions had grown accordingly. The rest is history, but freshly minted words are still flowing into the public domain, especially now that coming up with neologisms is a favourite pastime for the speechwriters of the White House's newest warmonger.
To be honest, neither the Zionist lobby nor Bush can be credited with the different meanings the word terrorist has accrued since 11 September. It is now synonymous with "whoever is not with us" -- the US president's mantra, which he repeats spastically, echoed excitedly by the butcher of Sabra and Shatila. The implication is that condemning the destruction two psychopaths are wreaking on innocent populations makes one a terrorist. The word has also been extended to cover freedom fighters, and those who struggle to free their country from occupation -- whom the French have always called résistants.
Amidst this mudslinging, Ariel Sharon has received a green light to treat the Palestinians as Hitler did the Jews (without being described as a full-fledged Nazi, however). I hope that the Europeans and Americans, as they stand back and watch, will remember that their forebears behaved in much the same way when the Holocaust was taking place. Unfortunately, this time around the media are transmitting the massacre live, so no one will be able to claim ignorance after it is done.
The most important lessons are taught through pain and suffering. The time will come when Sharon and his like meet the fate they deserve. The Arabs, however, should begin working seriously on their image: it seems that it does not matter who you are or what you do, provided you can find the right words to glorify your deeds.
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