Can Normalized Language Make the Israeli-Palestinian Debate More Productive?

Writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a daunting task. Beyond the impassioned and divisive nature of the topic, the clash over its terminology is deep-rooted, extending as far back as the origins of the conflict itself. There have been several instances in recent memory when media outlets have utilized certain politically charged terms and received a flood of irate backlash from readers on both ends of the spectrum. In August 2013, Michael Oren, Israel’s then-ambassador to the United States, wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, chastising reporting from Jodi Rudoren that utilized terms like “settler” to construct a particular narrative about the conflict. Oren wrote, “While Palestinian protagonists are described in detail, their Israeli victims are largely dehumanized ‘settlers’ — no name, age or gender.” Ironically, the term “dehumanization” is at the cornerstone of Palestinian arguments against Israeli occupation. In another instance, BBC omitted the name of Israel’s capital in a country profile and received a flood of complaints from both Palestinian and Israeli critics. Though the profile was later altered and Jerusalem named Israel’s “seat of government,” they still added a disclaimer that “most foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv.” Both sides were dissatisfied with the updated assessment as well. Israeli authorities clearly state Jerusalem as the capital, while many Palestinians consider East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. The linguistic divide is stifling constructive debate, presenting major obstacles to meaningful investigative reporting on the region.

With less incendiary alternatives to common expressions, Use with Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict targets not only foreign journalists but also Palestinian and Israeli ones who are invested personally in the conflict.
In order to address the issue, the International Press Institute (IPI), a Vienna-based press freedom organization, has released a handbook of “appropriate terms” for journalists covering events in the region. With less incendiary alternatives to common expressions, the handbook targets not only foreign journalists but also Palestinian and Israeli ones who are affected personally by the conflict. And though the goals of the guide are certainly noble, there has been some criticism about how effectual it could be in dissuading people from using divisive rhetoric.

The guide is aptly named Use with Care: A Reporter’s Glossary of Loaded Language in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and it was put together by six Palestinian and Israeli journalists to help media figures understand “how the language they use shapes reality and how different audiences would receive it and why,” explains Naomi Hunt, the handbook’s editor. The IPI’s publication is intended to help promote balanced coverage and serves as a general guide for the media reporting on the conflict, providing helpful overarching advice, like using historical context and specific details to avoid factual errors when reporting. It instructs journalists to avoid phrases like “innocent ­civilians,” “cycle of violence,” and even “Middle East expert,” all considered cliché and devoid of substantive information.

Use with Care lays out the linguistic landscape of the conflict, providing a detailed list of around 75 controversial terms. It explains why they are problematic for either side and provides translations in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Often misused words are defined thoroughly with necessary historical and political context. “Occupation,” “siege,” “Nakba” and “martyr” are explained, and the publishers conclude that they are appropriate descriptions. Similarly, “Zionism” is described and accepted as a proper term, while “Zionist entity” is not. The guide explains why “security wall” and “apartheid wall” are respectively offensive to Palestinians and Israelis, recommending that journalists use “separation barrier” instead.

The terms in the handbook extend to the geographic landscape and how to describe specific areas in the region. It advises journalists not to call Israel a “Zionist entity,” nor to label the West Bank and Gaza Strip as “contested areas.” On the heated topic of the capital, it explains why it is problematic to say “united Jerusalem” and proposes the usage of “East Jerusalem” when talking about what Palestinians see as their future capital.

Alison Bethel McKenzie, the IPI’s executive director and publisher, says the book is useful for every journalist covering the conflict, no matter where they are from. “I think it is indeed possible for journalists in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories to embrace the idea of using language that is more fair, less inciting and, in most cases, neutral,” she says. “The very definition of a journalist contains the words ‘impartial’ and ‘objective’ and those who take their role seriously understand this ideal and strive for it.” Regardless, some have challenged the basis of this handbook, as well as its suggestion that the struggle between Palestinians and Israel is one “between two communities” and that “has been traumatic for both sides.” When it comes to journalists who are part of the conflict-ridden community, however, their outlook cannot but be informed by their prejudices. The Palestinian media caters to the needs of readers who are subject to structural violence and live at the mercy of Israeli authority. The Israeli media reflects the views of its audience, who see their legitimate right to security and peace and lament what they see as a glaring double standard in the international community.

A piece by Dalia Hatuqa, a journalist in the West Bank, decries the guidebook as a flawed and futile effort at normalizing an inevitably charged discourse, which constructs the façade of an equal platform for Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. Taking into account the process of making the book itself, she observes that sections by Israeli and Palestinian media experts were constructed separately and anonymously. This was done for various reasons, such as they “didn’t want to be seen as ‘approving’ editorial decisions that they disagreed with and expressed concerns that doing so could affect their jobs.” The piece also points out that using neutral language is not necessarily helpful to the process, nor does it remove bias. She poses the question: “Shouldn’t the use of language be influenced by the political landscape?” She also points to a quantitative analysis carried out in 2003 that found that even though The New York Times was using less “loaded words” than Ha’aretz, Israel’s oldest daily newspaper, it still statistically suggested more pro-Israel bias. The guidebook received scathing analysis from the other side of the spectrum as well; a Ha’aretz reporter, Anshel Pfeffer, makes a similar criticism that “[t]he language used by journalists covering the conflict is as visceral and bloody as the conflict itself. No handbook is going to change that fact.”

Though the IPI handbook is clearly idealistic, the handbook’s editors raise a critical point. They advocate that journalists “have a right to exercise their press freedoms by expressing their conscience and their own political ideologies, of course, but [that] journalists should understand that their daily choices are shaping the reality of this conflict.” In other words, language reflects worldview, but it also has the power to shape it. If the conflict vocabulary remains divided and inflammatory, meaningful conversations will remain elusive.