Israel-Palestinian Debate Distorted by Media’s Misleading Language

Renewed by the tensions between Netanyahu and Obama, the media are adopting misleading language in the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Michael Medved on why words can be as powerful as bullets.

Careless language, reflexively recycled from Palestinian propaganda, contributes to contemporary confusion about the stalled Middle East peace process. In the wake of Bibi Netanyahu’s tense sit-down with President Obama, it’s worth examining how certain words and phrases distort the debate.

Major media, for instance, regularly cite Israel’s “creation” in 1948—as if the Jewish state came into existence like an oddball lab experiment—through a sudden, arbitrary top-down process, rather than emerging through gradual, bottom-up development, like every other new nation.

Commentators also frequently mention the “displacement” or “uprooting” of Palestinians, suggesting that the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland resulted in ethnic cleansing of the indigenous inhabitants—rather than recognizing the dramatic increases in the area’s Arab population due to the economic development and improved living standards that the new Jewish immigrants brought with them.

Both these mindless distortions appeared in the same sentence of an Associated Press report about bloody demonstrations on Israel’s borders on the weekend of May 15, described as “a sign of rising tensions on the eve of Palestinian commemoration of their uprooting during Israel’s 1948 creation” (italics added).

In truth, Israel was no more “created” in 1948 than the United States was created in 1776. The patriots who gathered in Philadelphia represented a robust, fully functional society with its own economic, political, educational, and even military institutions. They hardly assembled their new nation out of nothing, but looked back to a courageous history of growth, development, and self-defense that, for the oldest colonies, stretched back more than 150 years.

By the same token, when Israeli leaders declared their own independence in 1948, it represented a culmination of their nation-building efforts, not their initiation. More than 650,000 Jews already lived in a vibrant, dynamic, surprisingly cohesive civilization spread through several major cities (including the new metropolis of Tel Aviv, constructed on empty sand dunes in 1909) and scores of agricultural communities built on previously unoccupied land purchased from absentee owners. Intensive Jewish immigration began in the 1880s, more than two generations before independence, and produced distinctive political parties, labor unions, universities, newspapers, theater companies, and even symphony orchestras. This nation in formation also managed to defend itself against murderous Arab riots in 1921, 1929, 1936, and 1939, giving rise to the Haganah (“The Defense” in Hebrew), a militia that averaged 30,000 members over 30 years pre-independence, ultimately developing into the Israel Defense Forces. Like the Minutemen who gave rise to the Continental Army, these citizen soldiers fought a bloody struggle after formal independence, combating formidable foes determined to exterminate their new nation.

Greater care and clarity in describing the history of the conflict will encourage policymakers and the public to grasp its essential contours, and to recognize the absence of any real equivalence in the goals or strategies of the two sides.

Israel, in other words, wasn’t created by the U.N., the U.S. (which observed an arms embargo and provided no aid during the War of Independence), or any other outside agency. The nation grew from the patient, incremental, organic efforts of the Halutzim (pioneers) who risked everything to build a homeland for themselves and their posterity.

Nor did these efforts in any way “uproot” or “displace” Palestinian society. During the years of intensive immigration between World War I and World War II, the Jewish population west of the Jordan increased by 470,000 while the non-Jewish population swelled by 588,000. According to respected British census figures, the number of Palestinian Arabs exploded on the eve of Israeli independence, increasing 120 percent between 1922 and 1947. These figures prove that the rise of the Jewish state (with its greatly heightened economic development) drew more Palestinians into the area, rather than driving them away.

Palestinians became refugees only after fighting began in the War of Independence, especially after five Arab states with well-equipped armies invaded the fledgling Jewish state, pledged to achieve its total annihilation. Even then, in the midst of massive bloodshed and widespread violence, the Palestinian Arab population increased, rather than declining. In 1941, before Israeli independence and the claimed “uprooting” of Palestinians, 1,111,398 Arabs lived in what later became Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Nine years later, after the turmoil of war and dislocation, that number had risen (slightly) to 1,162,100. By 1980 (with Israel controlling all territory west of the Jordan), the Palestinian numbers had nearly doubled, and they more than doubled again by 2005. Most recent figures show that the Palestinian population of Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank has increased by more than fivefold since independence and the flight of the famous refugees—hardly evidence of some ruthless program of ethnic cleansing.

Unfortunately, anti-Israel propagandists choose to ignore these facts and to distort history with misleading and manipulative language. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently wrote in The New York Times about the 1947 U.N. vote to partition the British Mandate into two states, one Israeli and one Palestinian. “Minutes after the State of Israel was established on May 14, 1948,” he notes, “the United States granted it recognition. Our Palestinian state, however, remains a promise unfulfilled.”

He neglects to mention that the Palestinian leaders themselves (led by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, a close Hitler ally during the war) rejected the U.N. partition and made no effort to set up a Palestinian state, either before or after the War of Independence. Between 1949 and 1967, Arabs (the Egyptians and Jordanians) controlled every inch of territory that Abbas now seeks for his new state—all of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. They could have established a Palestinian homeland at any point during those 18 years and, incidentally, continued denying Jews any access to their holy sites. With scant protest from Palestinians, the Arab states made no effort to “fulfill the promise” because they concentrated all their attention and effort on destroying Israel rather than building Palestine. They cared far more about expelling Jews than they did about re-settling Palestinians.

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To this day, major Palestinian factions (like the unreconstructed terrorists of Hamas) ignore the challenges of nation-building to focus on the bloody dream of nation-destroying. Sloppy terminology serves to mask the core contrast between the Israeli agenda (peace and security) and announced Palestinian aims (replacing the world’s only Jewish state with a 23rd Arab Muslim state). The success of propagandistic distortions leads to odd reactions from the West, which saw Israeli housing projects in Jerusalem as a greater threat to peace than Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza, worrying far more about Jewish building than about Arab bombing.

Greater care and clarity in describing the history of the conflict will encourage policymakers and the public to grasp its essential contours, and to recognize the absence of any real equivalence in the goals or strategies of the two sides. Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz formulated the contrast in stark but accurate terms: If the Palestinians put down their arms, there would be peace tomorrow. But if the Israelis lay down their arms, there would be genocide tomorrow.

Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio talk show heard by more than 4 million listeners. He is also the author of 12 nonfiction books, most recently The 5 Big Lies About American Business.