Understanding Palestinian language

Daniel Gordis wrote,

An honest American broker would no longer ignore blatant Palestinian myopia. Just this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared Jerusalem a Muslim and Christian city, insisting that there will be no peace until the Jewish occupiers depart. The Jews, he said, wish to “destroy the Al Aqsa mosque and build the alleged Jewish temple.”

Gordis is  correct of course, although I would not use the word ‘myopia’, which implies a defect of vision, a handicap. The Palestinians talk like this deliberately, because they use language to create reality.

Their concept of truth is not what the philosophy teachers call a ‘correspondence’ theory. Rather, it is an ideological one. It doesn’t matter if in fact there was a Jewish Temple, because the concept of an objective historical fact is meaningless to them. If a proposition supports Islamic or Palestinian national objectives, then it is only right that people should believe it, that contrary archaeological evidence should be destroyed, that friendly academics should write books and articles repeating it.

When Palestinians say ‘there was no Jewish Temple in Jerusalem’ it is not a proposition that can be true or false in the usual sense, it is an action — a verbal act of jihad, as it were. It is a seizure of the historical narrative.

They are not even lying. Is it a lie to tell your enemy to go to hell?

This is something that most Westerners don’t understand. It isn’t that Arabs are stupid, uneducated or ‘myopic’. They are simply using language in a wholly different way than what we think of as discourse about history.

But there’s more. Gordis continues,

In Palestinian discourse, even the Temple is “alleged.” Compare that stance to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politically risky acknowledgement of Palestinian rights to a sovereign national homeland.

Let’s indeed compare them.

If the Palestinian position is an act of verbal jihad, Netanyahu’s is an act of verbal submission. To Western ears the Palestinians are simply ignorant, while Netanyahu’s position comes across as  reasonable, willing to compromise, to honor everyone’s rights, etc. A laudable statement made from a position of strength. But an Arab hears weakness and lack of resolve.

Palestinians are often reported to be ‘frustrated’. Maybe some of the frustration comes from the mixed message they receive from Israel. Israelis speak submissively, but then they don’t submit!

We are not going to adopt their theory of truth, but we need to understand the “performative” subtexts of both sides’ statements, respond clearly to theirs and make ours unambiguous.

In the case of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, for example, Israel should both make policy statements and take concrete actions to strengthen Jewish sovereignty there.

The so-called ‘peace process’, in which Israel makes successively more submissive statements in response to Palestinian aggression — verbal and physical — needs to end.

Here, Israel can follow the example of former US Secretary of State James Baker: give the Palestinians Netanyahu’s phone number, with instructions to call when they are prepared to accept the legitimacy of a Jewish state.

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One Response to “Understanding Palestinian language”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    The Palestinian utterances are a number of things at once. They are deliberate ignoring of the historical record. They are performative utterances meant to bring about the reality they would like to have obtain. They are propaganda aimed at convincing others and themselves of what they themselves would like to be true. They are failures of recognition of the reality of the ‘other’.
    They certainly are not an indication that the Palestinians are in any way interested in Peace with Israel.
    Netanyahu’s utterances are at this stage anyway efforts at warding off the criticism of others, showing Israel to be reasonable and eager for the compromise perceived as necessary to attain Peace.
    However it does not help to rationally ‘win the argument’ when no one is really listening to anything other than their own prejudices and biases.