Words used carefully have never mattered more. Jews and Arabs, for instance. Nothing makes the point like Hamas’s monstrous Oct. 7 onslaught and the relentless riposte by hardline Israeli politicians who shame Judaism.
There is no “both sides.” Yet hotheads across a tinderbox world target all “Jews.” Others who don’t know a kibbutz from a kibitz blindly defend “Israel,” laying all blame on “Arabs” and “Muslims.”
Many now assume a reporter is biased simply from a name. Since the 1960s, I’ve sent dispatches from land held holy by three brand-name religions under a Rosenblum byline. These days, I need a pseudonym. Maybe Omar Moshe O’Toole.
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In holiday mode, we can skip over the first 5,000 years of background. Today, inflammatory reactions risk wider war. And the American ex-president who dumped nitroglycerin on simmering embers may be back to replace the incumbent trying hard to douse the flames.
In a warp-speed world, generalized collective nouns and cognitive shortcuts blur the essential nuances at the root of most evils. People focus on fragments of perceived truth to fortify bias. For many, the historical continuum dates only to when they began to take notice.
Precise language has always been crucial. Consider Proverbs 25:11, attributed to wise old King Solomon: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.” And Proverbs 18:21: “Words kill and words give life. They’re either poison or fruit — you choose.”
Solomon is Suleiman to Muslims. Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch, is Ibrahim. Both are revered by Christians, also “People of the Book” — Ahl al-Kitab in Arabic. That book is not a bible, which comes from the Latin word for library. All variations, including the Quran, warn of Armageddon.
The last clear shot at peace was in 2000. Bill Clinton brought Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat to Camp David. Barak wanted a quick accord on borders, settlements and security. Arafat demurred, needing time to mollify extremist Palestinian factions.
For young people who tuned in after that, Israel has been dominated by Benjamin Netanyahu, who blocked serious negotiation. Now his ultra-Zionist partisans — hard right and dead wrong — want it all. As world reaction already makes plain, that could mean unthinkable consequences.
George W. Bush and Barack Obama held out hope for a two-state solution but did little to stem West Bank “settlements” — elaborate fenced-in suburbs — and new Jewish homes in East Jerusalem. Then Donald Trump encouraged Netanyahu’s apartheid, sparking violence.
Those much-vaunted Abraham Accords established economic ties with Arab states but left out the overriding issue: Palestinians’ attachment to their homes, land and autonomy.
Joe Biden walks a tightrope. He champions Israel and needs Jewish voters. But he pushes hard to blunt vengeful overkill in Gaza and open relief routes while insisting on a two-state outcome. He has sent warships to troubled waters off Lebanon and the Yemeni coast.
His tough talks with Netanyahu and Antony Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy are necessarily in private. As a result, many Democrats condemn what they call complicity with Israel, increasing the chance that Trump could win in the Electoral College and ignite a Middle East war.
Consider Michigan, a crucial swing state with 211,400 Arab Americans. Many are furious at Biden’s support for Israel and oppose his reelection. He won the state by 10,000 votes in 2020.
Plenty of firsthand reportage reveals what is happening. The U.N. World Food Program coordinator, barely suppressing anger, describes civilian “collateral damage,” hunger and suffering as worse than anything he has seen in a long career of disaster and conflict relief.
Among the most outraged are Israelis horrified at excesses that endanger not only hostages and the many Palestinians who want peaceful coexistence but also the very survival of the Jewish homeland that emerged after the Holocaust.
It is not as if Jews moved in without prior claim the way Americans displaced Indians or Europeans colonized Africa. Moses brought his people across the Red Sea two millennia before Jesus, a Jew, founded Christianity. Muhammad’s teachings came 600 years later.
Digging among my old books, I found a remarkably evenhanded 800-page tome, “A History of the Jews,” by an American rabbi-scholar with a familiar first name: Solomon Grayzel. It was published in 1947 as Israel was just taking shape in a tough neighborhood.
In 1917, as Britain was evicting Ottoman Turks from Palestine (remember Lawrence of Arabia?), the foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, promised Jews a homeland. He also assured “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the existing civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities.”
But it was only after 30 years and another world war that a young United Nations was able to force a reluctant Britain to cede its mandate. Its troops in Palestine protected the Suez Canal, the gateway to a shrinking empire on which the sun was starting to set.
Those early days were ugly. In 1945, Britain helped forge the Arab League, uniting the armies that invaded Israel when it became independent three years later. In 1946, a Jewish terrorist group blew up the King David Hotel, the British headquarters, killing 91 Britons, Arabs and Jews.
Grayzel ended his book with optimism. A new world order, he wrote, promises abundance, peace, justice and happiness. “If this challenge is met with wisdom, determination and vision,” he concluded, “Israel will continue to be a blessing among the peoples of the world.”
When I started watching, that was no impossible dream. David had kicked the crap out of Goliath in 1948, beating back Arab armies under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Then Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956. Israel invaded, backed by Britain and France.
President Dwight Eisenhower forced British troops to back off, imposing a pax americana that lasted during the decade I evolved from an inattentive kid studying for bar mitzvah to a fledgling foreign correspondent reporting on the 1967 Six-Day War.
After the first intifada, in the 1990s, my mother made the mistake of asking me to speak at Temple Emanu-El in Tucson. In slightly kinder terms, I said the lunch money I used to drop in a little blue box was to plant trees in Israel, not for bulldozers that uprooted olive groves.
Those trees in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem date back to Jesus and the Romans. The miracle of Hannukah is that menorah lights burned for eight days. That was olive oil, not chicken fat. Writing a book on olives, I found West Bank oil was among the best anywhere.
Israeli troops now double down on an old collective-punishment practice. If kids throw rocks from behind an olive tree, they knock over groves that have sustained families for generations. No one on either side misses the message that delivers.
On one trip I found Ahmad Nasser, 38, an electrical engineer from Warren, Ohio, who had moved his family to Nablus. He shied away from politics until we talked about trees. “The olive has deep, deep roots in the ground, and we feel our roots are that deep,” he said. “The Israelis know this…(and) we get punished for a thousand years.”
Now trees are the least of it. At the far right, one cabinet minister suggested clearing Gaza with a nuclear bomb. Others want to arm settlers with heavy weapons to evict Palestinians from the West Bank. Netanyahu shrugs off American objections to civilian slaughter.
But Israeli journalists and activists are the best sources about atrocities. Haaretz, a mainstream daily, is must reading for detail and deep analysis. Independent reporting reveals drastically reduced restraints to protect civilians. Most Israelis want Netanyahu gone after the Gaza war.
Words matter. This is needless mass killing. But genocide connotes organized, intentional extermination. Ethnic cleansing, which includes forceable removal, is closer to what some ultra-Zionists want. Still, Jews and Arabs are both Semites, and there is much more to it.
The calculating politician at the top, who faces corruption charges, and fundamentalist factions that support him hardly define Judaism. With neither a pope nor a hierarchy, Jews fall into three broad movements anchored by the Five Books of Moses — the Torah.
Orthodox Jews observe the sabbath, keep kosher and study ancient texts. Conservative Jews, less so. And the Reform, like Omar Moshe O’Toole Rosenblum, often skip the religious part but respect their cultural heritage and shared past travails. All three, like Muslims, are supposed to be charitable to strangers.
Israel is still a homeland for Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe and Sephardic Jews who spread from Iberia into North Africa and the Middle East. A fifth of its 9.8 million inhabitants are Arab, with a liberal assortment of others, including Russian mafia money launderers.
You’ve got to see it to get of a sense of it — even then, that depends on where you go, with whom and where you’ve come from.
Once I walked across the Allenby Bridge from Jordan. From hard experience, I avoid zealous young agents who rattle new arrivals with irritating questions designed to reveal suspicious purposes. I headed for a gray-haired matronly woman in the row of immigration booths.
She paged through my passport stamps from Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and such. “Mr. Rosenblum,” she said in my grandmother’s Yiddish accent, “you’ve been in all the wrong places.” Smiling, she stamped a visa on separate paper so Arab states would not turn me away, or worse.
My last peace-time trip was exhilarating: windsurfing off Tel Aviv, souk-prowling in Jerusalem, raucous meals with Jewish and Arab friends who saw beyond stereotypes, soulful moments high atop ancient stone walls.
But drinking coffee at a hole-in-the-wall café in Jerusalem, I talked with a guy in a black hat and long curling sideburns. “Palestinians are like children,” he said, “and you have to be tough with them.” The conversation went downhill from there.
Finally, he snarled, “You’re a self-hating Jew.” That hoary old trope. “No,” I replied, fixing him with a hard gaze, “I’m not the Jew I hate.”
That’s when I realized I’d had enough of Israel, and it probably had enough of me.
This all seems a long way from that “Santa Clause rally.” But it’s not.
For a small book I wrote on reporting, I sat down with Alison Smale and a magnum of good wine. She was an Associated Press colleague I admired, later a correspondent and then ranking editor at The New York Times. She caught the essence.
Languages evolve so people can describe subtleties and essential fine points in human societies. Specific words provide shades of meaning.
“I’m not against the new methods we have to amplify and add to the language,” Alison said. “But if we lose the old forms of communication, we will gradually lose what distinguishes us from animals.”
Global Geneva contributing editor Mort Rosenblum is a renowned American journalist, editor and author currently based in France and Tucson, Arizona. He has travelled and reported the world more years than he can remember. His regular column, The MortReport, is available online and by email. Also see Mort’s most recent book: Saving the World from Trump.