Note: Wherever there is conflict, language is a contentious issue. In my capacity writing about linguistics, I strive to limit myself strictly to that. If you think you detect any political message, I assure you that is never my intention here.
On October 11, BBC world affairs editor John Simpson published an article explaining “Why BBC doesn’t call Hamas militants ‘terrorists.’” He explains that “terrorism is a loaded word,” and that it is not the BBC’s job as an objective news service to take sides. This is a longstanding policy: even when reporting on their own country’s war with Hitler, they refused to label the Germans as “evil.”
Of course, the article immediately became a subject of heated dispute. Some pointed out that killing civilians to terrify people into accepting one’s political goal neatly fits the definition of “terrorism,” while others insisted that the word is a political weapon that automatically discredits the wider cause for which they are fighting. These arguments draw on different views of what words mean: do we focus strictly on dictionaries, or take into account how people in society understand and react to them?
“Terrorist” is not the only word in controversy. On the accusation that Israel is guilty of “apartheid,” the two sides’ semantic views are somewhat reversed. The Afrikaans word literally means “apartness,” and pro-Palestinian activists can point to Israeli actions (generally in the West Bank) that keep the two communities separate, with one of them bearing a brunt of poverty and repression. It is a dictionary definition. On the other hand, those who support Israel argue that this unfairly ignores historical and social context, which clearly separates Israel from Apartheid-era South Africa.
Another foreign word has drawn similar heat. Last week saw a battle between Met police chief Sir Mark Rowley and Home Secretary Suella Braverman over the former’s refusal to arrest London protesters for calling for “jihad.” Sir Mark insisted that the word can have several meanings, from holy war to the struggle for spiritual growth. Critics blasted this as naïve, since when Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad use the term, it is pretty clear which one they are talking about. Still, banning speech is tricky business (even in countries that do not match America’s constitutional commitment to freedom of expression), so perhaps thin ambiguity has more place in law enforcement than in general discourse.
Both “apartheid” and “jihad” are interesting examples of foreign words that we take directly into English, since translating them would strip much of their meaning. Cultural import matters, and both sides know this. Immediately after Hamas’ attacks in southern Israel, Israeli Defense Force spokesman Nir Dinar declared that October 7 was “Israel’s 9/11.” It was a strong message to their most important ally, intended both to arouse sympathy and to justify a military reaction that would inevitably get ugly.
On the other side, describing the Palestinians’ struggle against “colonialism” inspires similar sympathies, in the West and around the world. Anti-colonial struggles in Asia or Africa regularly involved horrific atrocities against Europeans. At the time, governments around the world labeled the African National Congress a terrorist group. But all this is now ignored or even celebrated because the political ends were just. Hamas would like everyone to view their struggle in the same light.
All this is contentious even in English. But the tragedy deepens when one considers that the people most involved in this war generally get their information from completely different media ecosystems. Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages — probably closer than English and German — but in spite of their daily contact, Israelis and Palestinians generally have little knowledge of the other.
Westerners who pay attention to this sort of thing are aware that Al Jazeera, a Qatari international news service, is notably more pro-Palestinian than its peers. If you spoke only Arabic, it would be difficult to find coverage telling Israel’s side of the story. Many Israelis do speak good English, but in a time of national crisis, one is probably less likely to hear out foreigners sympathetic to the enemy.
Even the same words conjure completely different meanings in people’s minds. A liberal Western diplomat might hear “free Palestine” as a reasonable call for a two-state solution. Some inhabitants of the West Bank might hear it as a message of hope simply to end IDF occupation of their home city, while others would hear a call for annihilation of the foreign state occupying their entire homeland. Today, the one thing the Israeli government and Hamas agree on is that it means the latter.
Last year, I wrote an article describing how different sides of many political debates talk past each other, because neither actually agrees on the basic meanings of the words they are both using. All the words explored above are excellent examples of this.
People inflamed with passion generally do not even realise that this is happening — it is much easier to think one’s opponent is insane or evil. But until we acknowledge and resolve issues of basic semantics, discourse is meaningless. It is worse than useless, because it can turn speech into rhetorical fuel for violence. When I wrote that article, I was mainly lamenting how such misfounded debate is counterproductive and acrimonious in Western democracies. In other contexts, it can be truly tragic.