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What Are We Really Talking About When We Talk About Israel-Palestine?

In Israel’s war in Gaza, words, no less than guns, are loaded

By Michael Oren

Oxford Languages defines synecdoche as “a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa, as in ‘Cleveland won by six runs’ (meaning Cleveland's baseball team)”. The same source defined metonymy as “the substitution of the name of an attribute or adjunct for that of the thing meant, for example suit for business executive, or the track for horse racing.”

The Middle East conflict and the Middle East peace process are synecdoches for the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians and the diplomatic efforts to resolve it. By contrast, words Israel and Palestine each convey a broad list of meanings—entire worldviews—all of them mutually incompatible. Not just the people, but the very metonymies are at war.

Israel, of course, is analogous with Zionism but also, as the Palestinians and their supporters hatefully remind us, the Jews. Colonialism, imperialism, racism—the list of synonyms linked to Israel by its critics is long and getting longer. For its supporters, though, Israel is a metonym for a muscular patriotism, respect for the past and a commitment to tradition, and a fierce attachment to the land. While priding itself on innovation—Waze and Mobileye and the startup mentality—Israel actually connotes a world order of governments which, while claiming to be liberal, uphold the status quo. Israel means meritocracy, it means both religion and dynamism and unabashed displays of strength. Israel means success.

Palestine, for its part, is a metonym for victimhood. It is a stand-in not only for the Palestinians’ powerlessness but for that of all oppressed people everywhere now and throughout history. Palestine evokes grievance; injustice is inherent in the word. Whether in Hamas’s Gaza or the Palestinian Authority’s West Bank, Palestinian society is unexceptionally conservative, fastidiously religious, misogynous, and homophobic. Nevertheless, for those protesting for it, Palestine means progressivism and secularism along with liberation, feminism, and full gender equality. Palestine, above all, means rage. 

The war of the metonymies is often rife with irony. Israel was founded, and to a significant extent remains, a socialist country with universal health care, robust national insurance, and safety nets for the needy. Palestinian leaders offer few if any of these services, neither in Gaza nor in the West Bank, yet Palestine is synonymous with socialism. Israel is particularist but Palestine is universal. Its advocates oppose all forms of nationalism except for Palestinian nationalism and demand the creation of a Palestinian state while at the same time rejecting the notion of nation-states. Unlike unfashionable Israel, Palestine is cool. For protestors who would cancel any non-Mexican daring to wear a sombrero, the keffiyeh traditionally worn only by Palestinian men has become universally chic. 

The metonymies Israel and Palestine are indeed at war, but so, too, are Israelis and Palestinians. In the battlegrounds of Gaza, Israel can either mean a furious democracy aroused yet still fighting with restraint, or a criminal entity lacking the legitimacy to exist much less to defend itself. Israeli military actions can either be morally imperative or, ipso facto, illegal. Palestine can signify total innocence, even when committing atrocities, or terrorism enthusiastically backed by the public. Depending on one's perspective, adjectives such as good and evil can be assigned to either Palestine or Israel.

The real war in Gaza, unlike the war between words, reveals the fundamental clash between Israel and Palestine. It is righteous defense vs violated innocence, restrained power vs unlimited suffering, avenging action vs vengeance seething passivity. Palestine for Israelis, means at most Judea, Samaria and Gaza; for the Palestinians it means, at least “from the river to the sea.” If it does not win, Israel loses. Palestine, merely by not losing, wins. 

There is only one metonym on which both Israelis and Palestinians agree. It is a word that denotes misery, hopelessness, and pain. Its mere mention spurs images of destruction and seemingly endless death. That one word, tragically, is Gaza. 

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