Reinventing the Middle East Lexicon

By Eric Walberg – Cairo

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (1871)

The lexicon of Israel and its Western lobbyists constantly needs parsing to know just what is meant. Most glaringly is the term “settlers”, which suggests peaceful pioneers wishing to integrate with the locals. In Israel, the word “settlers” is a loaded term, for they are “aggressive squatters, half a million of them in over 100 illegal colonies — ugly blots on an otherwise lovely landscape … who terrorise local villagers, vandalise their crops, pollute their land and harass their children,” as described by Stuart Littlewood. The Fourth Geneva Convention forbids that an occupying power transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

Most recently we saw casual reference to native Christian and Muslim Palestinians as an “invented people”. US Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich revived this insult, repeating Gold Meir’s quip in 1969 to The Sunday Times. At the time, Israel was basking in its devastating victory in the 1967 war, occupying all of Palestine and Sinai. The eternal Sinai Bedouin are fortunate that Meir didn’t have enough time — or gall — to claim that they too are a mere figment of some anti-Jewish schemer’s imagination. Their cousins in the Negev desert are now being expelled to make way for 10 Jewish settlements “to attract a new population to the Negev”.

Meir was extrapolating on her more famous phrase, also recorded in the same Sunday Times interview, that Palestine was “a land without a people for a people without a land”. Not only is this a cruel lie, one intended to justify theft of a people’s land, but it is a case of plagiarism, as it was Lord Shaftsbury, an early enthusiast of using a Jewish state in the Middle East as an imperial beachhead, who first used the phrase in 1839.

Meir surely knew this, just as she knew that it is not the Palestinians, a people who can trace their heritage back to the time of the Prophet Mohammed or further, but the Israeli people who are the “invented” ones. Israeli citizenship is barely 60 years old, and Israelis are a disparate lot, made up most of East European and Russian immigrants and Arab Jews, most of whom do not share a common language or even religious practice. The Russian immigrants, many of whom are not even Jewish, are defiantly secular.

Even worse than invented people are “unpeople”, a term George Orwell coined in 1984 (1948) to refer to the complete elimination of people by vaporising them, leaving no trace. Israel’s growing arsenal of nuclear and white phosphorus bombs actually bring this reality uncomfortably close for Palestinians and other Arab neighbours of Israel.

Noam Chomsky points out that in October, Western media applauded the release of IDF prisoner Gilad Shalit, kidnapped in 2006 — during an illegal Israel attack on Gaza — in exchange for a thousand Palestinians, kidnapped for, well, simply being unpeople in the wrong place at the wrong time. One almost thinks the Israelis like to randomly jail thousands of these unpeople as collateral to retrieve the few “real people” caught in criminal acts, and then pride themselves that one Jew is more precious than a 1000 Arabs.

What about the claim of the representative of the Arab Higher Committee to the United Nations in May 1947, who said “‘Palestine’ was part of the province of Syria” and that, “politically, the Arabs of Israel were not independent in the sense of forming a separate political entity.” Yes, the very notion of a nation state is a 19th century concept, and arose only as a result of imperialism spreading around the world, with the result that there are two kinds of nationalism — the empire’s, built on racism and exploitation of the Third World (hence “Rule Britannia” and “the Jewish State”) and the national liberation movements in the periphery (hence Palestine). So, when it comes down to it, we are all invented peoples, one way or another.

Another lexical sleight-of-hand that Palestinians have to fight is the now standard reference to “Jews versus Arabs”, which should be “Jews versus Muslims and Christians” or rather “diaspora Jewish colonisers versus native colonial subjects”, as many Jews are of Arab origin and “Jewish” in the first place refers to a religious affiliation. There is no Jewish nationality, despite Stalin’s decision to create one in the 1930s, just as there is no Muslim or Christian nationality, but rather a Jewish faith.

Even many Western Jewish critics of Israel such as Independent Jewish Voices say one thing and mean another. For them, fighting anti-Semitism is the primary goal. Jews for Justice for Palestinians (JfJfP) state that they “extend support to Palestinians trapped in the spiral of violence and repression” because they “believe that such actions are important in countering anti-Semitism”. In other words, even as they use words critical of Israeli atrocities, they effectively condone Israeli actions (as long as they are not too atrocious). Given that these critics are a tiny group, they act “to vindicate the Jewish people of crimes committed by the Jewish State in the name of the Jewish people”.

So it is hardly any wonder that Egyptians are looking closely these days at the meaning of the word “peace”, as in “peace between Israel and Egypt”. An important part of the 1979 Peace Treaty was the clause that guaranteed “full autonomy” for the Palestinians within five years. For 27 years, Israel has been violating this clause. Instead of “full autonomy”, three decades on, the Palestinians are being called an “invented people”, and the US patron of this treaty is winking as Israeli leaders prepare to ethnically cleanse this imaginary people.

Following Egypt’s revolution last year, the treaty immediately became a political football, with just about all politicians talking about revising or cancelling it. The alarm bells rang in Washington and Tel Aviv and there are ongoing secret negotiations between the US and the Egyptian military demanding ironclad assurances that the treaty will remain in force before the generals hand over power to a civilian government. This was confirmed last week by Egypt’s most respected statesman and presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, who told the Iranian news agency Fars, “The negotiations were completely secret and confidential … I believe that the Americans wanted to ensure that the deals signed between Egypt and Israel will remain intact if Islamists ascend to power.”

No Egyptians want a US-backed military coup in Egypt, especially the Islamists. Hence, Salafist Al-Nour Party spokesman Yousry Hammad was quick to tell Israeli radio that “the treaty is binding because Egypt has signed it,” while explaining that the Egyptian people want to amend certain articles to enable Egypt to better control Sinai, “and that we must be able to send aid to our Palestinian brothers in Gaza without problems.”

Interestingly, the Muslim Brotherhood is more nuanced in its political platform, referring to criteria for examining international agreements based on Sharia law and the degree of Israel’s compliance with the agreement. Re-examining the treaty is embedded in the Freedom and Justice Party’s (FJP) platform and calls for any decision on the treaty by the new parliament to be put to a referendum. Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Rashad Al-Bayoumi says, “We weren’t party to the peace treaty; it was signed away from the Egyptian people and thus the people must have their say.” FJP Secretary-General Mohamed Saad El-Kataany reaffirmed last week that the FJP respects all international treaties as long as they achieve their goals. Which of course leaves the fate of the Camp David Accords of 1979 very much in question, given Israel’s violation of it for the past 27 years.

Nobel Peace Prize winner ElBaradei is dismissed by some Egyptians as a liberal who served the US world order as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, though in fact he has called for former President George W Bush and his cabinet to be tried by the International Criminal Court for war crimes for the “shame of a needless war” on Iraq. We must do this, he writes in his memoirs The Age of Deception: Nuclear Diplomacy in Treacherous Times, to answer the question, “Do we, as a community of nations, have the wisdom and courage to take the corrective measures needed, to ensure that such a tragedy will never happen again?” ElBaradei also warned Israel in April that as president he would consider taking the ultimate “corrective measure”: “If Israel attacked Gaza we would declare war against the Zionist regime.”

If this liberal Egyptian politician is to be believed, then a Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist dominated parliament will most certainly support him, as would virtually all Egyptians. So all the US intriguing with the military behind Egyptians’ backs will not save Israel’s bacon. Nor will all the lexical sleights-of-hand about “settlers”, “invented people” and even soft Zionist criticism of Israel. And when the imperial project of colonising Palestine by the invented Israeli people inevitably ends, many of the latter will decide to dust off their European and American passports, brush up on their French, Russian or American slang, and rediscover their ethnic roots in the lands of their forefathers.

No less an Israeli icon that Theodore Herzl wanted just that. Herzl’s original idea about ending anti-Semitism is found in his diaries in a letter he wrote the pope offering to arrange a mass conversion of Jews in Hungary as the beginning of a total conversion to Christianity and complete assimilation of Jews into European secular society. When this didn’t pan out, he then turned to mass migration to Palestine as the fall back solution.

For all the lexical gymnastics employed by Israel lobbyists, Israel is really just the latest manifestation of the Jewish diaspora, a colony, the brainchild of British empire and Jewish dreamers, and is fated to remain so until it disowns its imperial origins and learns to speak the local lingo, which just happens to be Arabic, not reinvented Hebrew. Recall Humpty Dumpty’s fate, despite his clever use of words in the pursuit of power.

– Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly You can reach him at His Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games is available at He contributed this article to

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