“The Middle East Conflict”: Mind your language!

It is inaccurate, distorting, even misleading, to call the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis the “Middle East conflict” or the “Arab Israeli conflict.” At a minimum, the Middle East includes Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE. Other definitions may go further to include Libya, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but even if we stick to the smaller set of countries, the usage of this term can be problematic.

Jordan and Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994, they maintain diplomatic relations, and even before the peace treaties, relations between the governments of Jordan and Israel were friendly. As far as Iraq is concerned, it is true that historically, Saddam’s Iraq had been in conflict with Israel. Iraq also supported the Palestinian resistance movements financially and politically. But since that time, and especially after 2003, Iraq has been too occupied with its own problems to have an actual conflict with Israel.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain and UAE don’t enjoy formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but neither have they engaged in actual conflict. The practical life of the average citizen in any of those countries is not in the slightest impacted by Israel (or vice versa). The only other countries in the Middle East that have a palpable problem with Israel today are Lebanon and Syria. On any average day, the life of a Lebanese or a Syrian is nowhere impacted by Israel, though. Existentially, it is the Palestinian’s day-to-day life, particularly in the West Bank and Gaza, that is made unnecessarily so much more difficult, if not unbearable, by the Jewish State.

Referring to this situation as the “Middle East Conflict” exaggerates the scope of the conflict, making it appear that twelve countries are at war with Israel, though only three are involved, and at best partially. The term works to draw sympathy towards the Jewish State, a lone country surrounded by hostile Arabs, where in reality Israel wields so much power that it can choose to bomb sites in other sovereign countries like it did in Iraq in 1982, and Syria in 2008, actions that amount to acts of war, without seemingly worrying about reprisals.

Naming it the “Middle East Conflict” has the added effect of diluting the Palestinians’ stake in the discord, the specificity of their suffering, and the uniqueness of their plight to protect their precarious identity.

The term “Arab Israeli Conflict” is also misleading. Again, it serves the purpose of exaggerating the discord, insinuating that all of the Arabs are out to get Israel. There are 350 million people defined as Arab. While most of them, just like many other citizens in the world, may oppose Israel because of its human rights abuses and violations of International Law, not a mere 2% of them are “officially” in conflict with Israel.

To the surprise of many in the U.S., many Jews are Arab themselves, including Egyptian, Iraqi, Yamani, Moroccan, Lebanese, Syrian and Tunisian. These Arab Jews, known as Mizrahi, mostly live in Israel today, while some also live in the U.S., some still in Syria, and many in Morocco. These Arabs are definitely not in conflict with Israel. In Israel, they have full rights, unlike the non-Jewish, Palestinian citizens of Israel.

According to Ella Habiba Shohat, an Iraqi Jew and Professor of Cultural Studies and Women’s Studies at New York University, the story of Israel and Jews only takes the European narrative into consideration, most notably the Holocaust, and assumes it for the collective memory and experience of all Jews. This story excludes the experience of Arab Jews.

Mizrahis spoke more Arabic than Yiddish, ate and looked more like Middle Easterners than Europeans, and were immersed in some of the Arab traditions. They had more in common with Muslim and Christian Arabs than with Polish or German Jews. Mizrahis largely lived in harmony (though there were times of tension) with the non-Jewish Arab communities, contrary to what some Israelis would have us believe.

According to Shohat,

“In Egypt, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia, Jews became members of legislatures, of municipal councils, of the judiciary, and even occupied high economic positions. (The finance minister of Iraq in the ’40s was Ishak Sasson, and in Egypt, Jamas Sanua–higher positions, ironically, than those our community had generally achieved within the Jewish state until the 1990s!)”

The different communities that once co-existed were not so consumed by their religious affiliations.

Terming the Palestinian-Israeli conflict an “Arab Israeli conflict” unnecessarily invites more people to join, politicizes and segregates people further, and emphasizes our differences instead of our similarities. It pushes us to identify ourselves in terms of binarism, us versus them, good versus evil (how good and evil are determined is another story), instead of acknowledging that we are the same people and that we all demand to be treated with respect and dignity.

What if Christian Arabs formed a state and called it “X,” brought European Christians to live in it and suppressed the indigenous non-Christian population in that state? Would they call the ensuing conflict the Arab-X conflict?

Again, this naming serves to obfuscate the idea of a Palestinian identity. The main distinguishing factor is whether a citizen in Israel is Jewish or not, not if he or she is Arab or not, just as in the example of the Iraqi, Yemeni and Egyptian Jew living in Israel. The whole burden of this racist design falls crushingly on the shoulder of the Palestinian. The “Arab-Israeli” is none other than a Palestinian, hence he or she should be called a Palestinian-Israeli. Similar to the Palestinian living in Israel proper, the one in Gaza and the West Bank happens to be a Muslim or a Christian, not a Jew. Hence, the Palestinian feels the wrath of the Israeli suppression machine.

At the core of it, this conflict is about a universal fight for human rights and social justice, an oppressed-versus-oppressor conflict. This is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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  1. John
    Posted December 3, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    You make a good point. However, the US press would never acknowledge this. It may be a free press, but it is biased. I often detect how they report issues in the Middle East with omissions that maybe unfavorable. John Stewart had an Arab man and Israeli woman on his show talking about their movement to bring reconciliation between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In her comments
    she said Israel was in violation of hundreds of UN resolutions of human rights abuses. The interview was longer
    than the normal 12 minutes. So they had to delete some of it. Her comments on the UN were deleted( actually bleeped).
    However, the full interview was available on the Stewart WEB site.
    Another misconception is that the conflict has been going on for thousands of years. I think the present situation is mostly related to the break up
    of the Ottoman Empire and WWII.

    Israel has a long term or a short term solution to the the problem. Unfortunately they are on the short term path. It may work for a few more decades, but not last for the long run. The population demographics are running against them. I think they need to draw up realistic boundaries and redistribute their population so each state is totally Arab and totally Jewish.

    However, never having been there I don’t know if my solution is viable and what the human impact would be. However, partition has worked in the past.

    If you look at history from Sumer, Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Phoenicia, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Arabia, Turkey, Britain, France, the USA and on. I left out some of the players, just too many. One thing is certain, change will come.

    Of course if they run out of water, the whole set of dynamics changes.

  2. Posted December 12, 2009 at 9:52 pm | Permalink

    this is one lovely article! I also want to add that in Arab Spain one of jews was the adviser of the Arabian head of the country. And our cultures have much in common!