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*This essay is an excerpt from The Holocausts We All Deny.
A classic Sherlock Holmes story tells of a winning racehorse that is taken in the night and its owner killed.
In his investigation, Holmes draws attention to “the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.” But his interlocutor interjects, “the dog did nothing in the nighttime.” To which Holmes replies, “that was the curious incident.”
Sometimes, it is the dogs who do not bark that are the real story.
When the watchdog press repeatedly fails to bark on a major issue, we would do well to ask why. Thousands of demonstrators on the Gaza border are shot by Israeli sharpshooters with live ammunition, over the course of the summer, with several young children among the murdered. Unicef releases a report condemning Israel for kidnapping Palestinian children in the night and beating them in an effort to turn them into informers. Human Rights Watch releases a report accusing Israel of using Palestinian children as human shields, and all the while, the watchdog press is silent.
It is enough to make one ask what tail is wagging these quiet dogs. But while supporters of Israel are well positioned to censor the truth about the occupation, and while many journalists like myself have tales to tell of their work on Israel being suppressed, it may be the case that the dogs have simply had their attention diverted. The language through which Israel’s actions are framed may be the real story of the dogs that didn’t bark.
Language shapes experience, it directs our attention, and tells us what is important. According to the cognitive scientist, George Lakoff, our ideas of the world are built up through cognitive frames. Frames shape perception through subtle metaphors concerning the way the world is ordered. When development is conceived of through the metaphor “higher,” and higher is equated with “better,” this is not an ethical argument but rather a set of frames.
It allows a person to jump from the argument that something is more developed to the argument that it is more moral without actually making a moral argument. This is dangerous because more developed nations are not always more moral. But this is precisely what supporters of Israel suggest, forgetting their own tragic history with a pathologically developed Germany.
There are countless frames distorting our perceptions of the issue. News sources tend to speak of a Middle East “conflict.” But the word conflict is a frame that perverts our understanding. There must be at least two sides to every conflict, but if there are two sides, then each deserves an equal hearing, and must take equal responsibility. Where there is conflict, fair-minded people listen and tell both sides, because when both sides are heard, conflicts can be resolved, and this leads to peace.
But the occupation of Palestinian territories is arguably more like a case of theft. Israeli courts have long recognized their state as engaged in an occupation. The occupation involves the theft of Palestinian groundwater and prime real estate. And according to a report issued by the Israeli Sharon administration, a third of the land that Israel’s so-called “settlements” have been built upon was actually stolen outright from Palestinian deed holders.
The idea of a settlement is another curious frame. To settle something is to resolve it and therefore calm the situation. Settling also refers to bringing civilization to a wilderness. But far from being unsettled, the Palestinian city of Jericho has been continually inhabited for 9,000 years, and Palestinian East Jerusalem is the cradle of the three Abrahamic faiths. Hence, the settlements are actually colonies, which far from calming the situation, have rather ignited one of the world’s longest standing “conflicts.”
But while theft involves conflict we do not tend to frame it as such. For doing so puts the thief on an equal footing with his victim. And this fails to capture what’s most important about theft. What is important in a case of theft is not peace but rather restitution. If the family of a thief were to begin speaking of the “conflict” with his victim, we would recognize at once that our perception of the situation is being manipulated. And since framing thefts as conflicts makes it easier for thieves to get away with their crimes, doing so only perpetuates their abuses.
The occupation is inherently abusive, as military occupations tend to be. Among other things, it involves arresting children, killing protesters, and searching civilians at checkpoints, as do most occupations. While cases of abuse are also conflicts, we do not tend to frame them as such. For framing abuse as conflict favors the abuser. A woman may struggle against her rapist, but we do not tend to call this conflict, for doing so would suggest a sort of moral equality between victim and perpetrator, and that would be unjust.
There is a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but it is a conflict that is perpetuated not through a failure to understand the other side but rather through theft and abuse. The failure to highlight this abuse distorts the nature of the relationship in the minds of onlookers.
Supporters of Israel often demand “balance” in discussing the issue but this is also a metaphor, which suggests two sides that need to be weighed equally in the scales of justice. However, giving equal weight to the arguments of an abuser is unjust, for it casts blame on the victim while allowing the perpetrator to get away with their crimes.
Giving equal weight to both sides might seem comprehensive, but when one side is lying, it is simply delusional. There are not two sides to be heard but rather a reality to be comprehended. Sometimes, this means listening to both sides, sometimes many, sometimes neutral fact-checkers. But in most cases, the voices of the oppressed will need to be sought out, for a substantial portion of oppression lies in the censorship of their side of the story. And failing that is neither just nor good but rather just ignorant.
Confucius was once asked what he would do if he were to rule China. He answered that he would begin by calling things by their true names. When things are called by their true names, the dogs can hear the criminals approaching and bark when the time is right. But up to now, our attention has been diverted with noise. It is time we take it upon ourselves to frame Israel—to catch them in the act by naming their actions more accurately.
We need to catch them at the scene of the crime and call their crimes by their true names.
*This essay is an excerpt from The Holocausts We All Deny.
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