The Politician’s Speech (2)

In my previous post, I commented on Benjamin Netanyahu’s repeated use of the word “friend” during his speech to the US Congress. I tried to apply a hermeneutic of suspicion in order to reveal what is really going on when he says something like “Israel has no better friend than America, and America has no better friend than Israel.” I would now like to draw upon George Orwell’s work to further illuminate the Israeli Prime Minister’s use of the word “friend.”

In his classic essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), Orwell points out how certain kinds of words are “often used in a consciously dishonest way.” He explains that “the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.” As I continue to reflect on Netanyahu’s speech, it becomes apparent to me that Orwell’s insight is particularly helpful in reading that text. There are several keywords in the speech that Orwell would have recognized as “consciously dishonest” use of language, e.g., peace, democracy, terrorism, security, compromise, modernity. I intend to discuss each of these words, but for now I want to highlight that the word “friend” falls in the same Orwellian category. The Israeli Prime Minister has in his mind a very peculiar definition of “friend,” a definition that the vast majority of English speakers do not share with him, but most US Senators and Representatives do.

The common understanding of the concept “friend” necessarily involves the presence of goodwill, i.e., if a person is my friend, then, by definition, he or she desires my well-being. In other words, my friends would not want anything for me that, from their viewpoint, is likely to harm me; if they do, then they cannot be my friends. Consequently, if I was about to make a choice that, in the opinion of my friends, is bad or harmful for me, I fully expect them to do everything in their power to prevent me from making that choice. For instance, if I ask my friends for rat poison because I want to commit suicide, not only would they not comply with my request but they would also take other steps to keep me safe from myself. Similarly, if I ask my friends to lend me their handgun because I want to rob my neighbor, I will get the same reaction. On the other hand, it is possible to imagine scenarios in which they will actually fulfill my requests while still remaining my friends, i.e., if, for whatever reason, they sincerely believe that committing suicide by drinking rat poison is in my best interest, or that robbing my neighbor at gun point will enhance my well-being.

The lesson is clear. A commitment of unqualified support cannot be reconciled with the condition of goodwill towards the other that is inherent in the concept “friend.” If a person says to me that he or she will help me do anything that I choose to do, including acts that are immoral and/or criminal — acts that will harm me either immediately or in the long run — then that person cannot be my friend. In fact, it’s a good guess that such a person is my enemy.

In sharp contrast to the common understanding of “friend,” Netanyahu seems to believe that the United States is a friend of Israel if, and only if, it supports Israel in all its choices, including those that violate International Law. As evident by their cheers and applauses, the US Senators and Representatives are also operating with the same definition of “friend.”

Let’s look closely at a concrete example. During his speech to the US Congress, the Israeli Prime Minister made the following statement:

The vast majority of the 650,000 Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines reside in neighborhoods and suburbs of Jerusalem and Greater Tel Aviv. Now these areas are densely populated, but they’re geographically quite small. And under any realistic peace agreement, these areas, as well as other places of critical strategic and national importance, we’d — be incorporated into the final borders of Israel. (Applause.) . . . Israel will not return to the indefensible boundaries of 1967. (Cheers, applause.) So I want to be very clear on this point. Israel will be generous on the size of a Palestinian state but will be very firm on where we put the border with it. 

Notice the phrase “beyond the 1967 lines.” It’s a political euphemism that Netanyahu uses in place of the more accurate but politically inconvenient term, “occupied territories.” The purpose of such euphemisms is to avoid naming, and therefore confessing, one’s own crimes and misdeeds by giving them a neutral or pretty title, e.g., “enhanced interrogation techniques” instead of “torture.” In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell has a particularly scathing passage on the menace of political euphemisms. Orwell notes:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Countless instances of politically deceptive euphemisms can be found in pro-Israel texts, and, as expected, I found many brilliant gems in Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. Thus, when the Prime Minister says “Israelis who live beyond the 1967 lines,” what he is referring to are Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in East Jerusalem, and in the Golan Heights. These areas (along with Gaza Strip) were conquered by the Israeli military in the June 1967 war, and are considered “occupied territories” under International Law. Even more inconveniently, an international consensus exists on the illegality of these settlements since they are in brazen violation of the Fourth Geneva Conventions (1949), which include the following provision: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies” (Section III, Article 49). The settlements are also illegal according to the verdict of the International Court of Justice.

In the passage quoted above, Netanyahu’s true intention cannot be more explicit, even though he tries to soften the blow by introducing several euphemisms. He uses the vague word “incorporate” since the appropriate term “annex” will sound like an illegal and indefensible act — which is precisely what he is proposing. Similarly, the phrase “other places of critical and national importance” is meant to suggest an element of rational and scrupulous decision-making, but is really a respectable sounding substitute for “any areas we like.”

Allow me to translate Netanyahu’s Orwellian statement quoted above in straightforward English: Israel is going to annex most of the occupied areas in which it has built illegal settlements since 1967, as well as any other areas that it believes to be useful or desirable. Israel has a fully justified monopoly over deciding its own borders; it will not consider anyone else’s rights, needs, or demands in doing so. The Palestinians are welcome to establish a state in the areas that will be left over after Israel is completely satisfied with its own borders.

The problem, obviously, is that the intentions expressed here are in open violation of International Law. The annexation of occupied land is prohibited according to the Hague Conventions of 1907-09 as well as the United Nations Charter. Such annexation is categorically illegal according to the Fourth Geneva Conventions (Section III, Article 47):

Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.

There you have it. Israel has been violating the International Law at least since 1967, the same year in which the United States and Israel became each other’s best friends. On Thursday, the Israeli Prime Minister announced to the US Legislature that his country will commit even more egregious violations of the International Law, while also claiming that Israel has no better friend than the United States. Through their cheers and standing ovations, the US Senators and Representatives declared their unanimous and enthusiastic approval for Israel’s intention to further violate the International Law; and they too believe that the United States is the best friend that Israel has ever had. Neither the speaker nor his audience seemed to have recognized any irony in this whole affair–such as the fact that lawmakers are cheering for the lawbreakers.

What can we say about a friend who does nothing to stop you from committing immoral and criminal acts but actually supports you in violating the law? The very least we can say is that this is not how the vast majority of English speakers understand the word “friend.”

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