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(Image: Archi Banal)
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OPINIONSocietyNovember 7, 2023

The language double standard

(Image: Archi Banal)
(Image: Archi Banal)

We are facing a crisis of our very humanity in Palestine, writes Spinoff editor Madeleine Chapman, so why do we argue over the words to describe it?

All over the world, millions of people marching in solidarity with Palestine have chanted the same phrase: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” And all over the world (including now here in Aotearoa) there have been arguments over what that statement means.

Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick spoke at a rally in Auckland on Saturday and said it. Speakers at rallies in dozens of countries have spoken it. Those chanting it say that it is a cry for freedom, and an expression of will for Palestine to be free from oppression and for Palestinians to live in dignity and self-determination. Critics say it is noted in the Hamas charter and is therefore a call for the destruction of Israel and all Jews. Some say by not referencing Israel at all, it suggests Israel shouldn’t exist. The largest party in Israel’s parliament, Likud, has a very similar phrase in its own 1973 charter. “Between the Sea and the Jordan there will only be Israeli sovereignty.” For a full breakdown of the disagreement, here’s a handy explainer.

Demonstrators gather in Aotea Square in central Auckland on Saturday. (Photo: Marama Muru-Lanning/ Additional design: Archi Banal)

The phrase evidently makes some people uncomfortable. For that reason alone, there will be debate, and debating language is an age-old tradition. But what is particularly hard to swallow is that at the same time this debate is happening (and Swarbrick’s face is on every major news site today because of it), there’s another debate about language unfolding: whether or not Palestine and its allies can refer to the systematic bombardment and killing of thousands of civilians as “genocide”. 

It’s widely understood and agreed that Israel is bombing Gaza relentlessly, and that the vast majority of those being killed by its attacks are civilians, including thousands of children. It’s understood that the attacks are in retaliation to attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians on October 7. It’s understood that Israel is instructing Gazans to leave their homes, a “voluntary” displacement, in order to not be killed by the attacks. It’s known and understood that Israeli settlements have been popping up in Palestine for decades, displacing Palestinians and slowly taking over their land. Palestinians have been deprived of basic human necessities like food, water and power for weeks now, and UN experts have warned of “ethnic cleansing”. But is it genocide? That’s a big word to throw around.

Meanwhile, those chanting in support of Palestinian freedom and a humanitarian ceasefire are being told that they in fact are the ones inciting genocide. That the mere suggestion of a free Palestine is a wish for harm to others. While the New Zealand government continues its lukewarm response to the conflict, and every day more children are killed by bombs, instead we are arguing, from a great distance, about whether or not six words should have been said by an MP. Even then we argue in ways that don’t allow for a complete examination of all that has led us here, instead absorbing the offence second or third hand. 

It would be entirely possible for a new chant to be coined and yelled around the world. But I don’t think that’s what is really being argued here. 

Last week, Tova O’Brien dedicated an episode of her Stuff podcast to “The Endless War”, and spoke to a former CNN senior international correspondent and a former Israeli ambassador to the United States. It’s unclear whether they were intended to offer opposite perspectives but what resulted is a perfect encapsulation of the double standards of language when talking about oppression.

The correspondent, Arwa Damon, was interviewed first. She spoke in a measured tone about the disparities in reporting language. “Palestinians are not wrong when they say that the rhetoric being used when referring to Palestinians and Palestinians being killed is very different to the rhetoric that is being used when journalists are talking about what is happening on the Israeli side.”

Even as Damon implored western journalists to consider their own unconscious biases when reporting on Israel and Palestine, she made sure to also criticise Arab media for putting its own slant on the attacks of October 7, saying they downplayed the terror of those attacks and the lives lost. When she spoke of the Palestinian perspective (a view shared by millions around the world), she spoke of land being taken, illegal settlements, and collective punishment. She never used emotional adjectives or labels or even specified perpetrators beyond the Israeli governments. I could almost hear her walking a tightrope when she ended by outlining a terrifying reality without getting too specific. “If we continue down this trajectory of one country being able to act with impunity and this level of civilian casualties in the name of national security, it says a lot about the state of affairs of humanity as a whole.” 

After a short ad break, Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador, dialled in from Tel Aviv. He explained that he was in a bomb shelter with his children and grandchildren. That he had recently been to a funeral for a young woman killed by Hamas. He described her murder in gruesome and graphic detail. He described Hamas members as being lower than animals and “monsters”. He insisted that a ceasefire would not work and would be the end of the state of Israel. Why?

“I don’t know whether you have children but I don’t know whether you’d want to raise them in a country where down the road you have a force of tens of thousands of armed terrorists who are going to come into your house and take your kids and dismember them and burn them.” 

It was a shocking hypothetical image to paint. A far more shocking image than the not so dissimilar reality that Damon had painted moments earlier. As Oren described this terrifying ceasefire future, down the road, Palestinian parents searched the rubble of their destroyed homes for their children’s bodies after another night of Israeli airstrikes on civilian centres. 

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