Often when discussing matters of Mid East peace, I encounter people who reply to some point or the other by saying, ‘That’s just semantics.’ I have a canned response to these people: ‘Don’t be anti-semantic.’
But the use of language, and its evolution, colors our every view of these conflicts. In print, as in conversation, words are how we express realities. Take, for example, the recent tensions between Israel and the U.S. over settlement construction in East Jerusalem.
Today we have an article from the Associated Press about the latest flare up of these tensions: the Israeli announcement, coming just ahead of meetings between Netanyahu and President Obama, giving final approval to construction of 20 settlement apartments in the Arab neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
It’s painful to read nearly 400 words — halfway through the article — before there is any mention of the word “settlement” or any of its derivations. Finally, however, we get to the source of the funding for the construction project:
The project — funded by Jewish American millionaire Irving Moskowitz, a longtime patron of Jewish settler groups — calls for tearing down part of an old hotel, the Shepherd, and building 20 apartments and a three-level underground parking lot instead.
Of course, The Shepherd Hotel as the site of a Jewish settlement is not made explicit, but merely hinted at by pointing out the funding comes from settlement “patron” Irving Moskowitz. (And remember, this is not Ramat Shlomo — which Israel at least wrongly contends was build on a “no man’s land” — but rather an obvious attempt to Judaize an Arab neighborhood.)
Similarly, no mention is made of the fact that these settlements — both in annexed East Jerusalem and the West Bank — are considered “illegal” by the international community and treaties, including the Geneva Conventions (which Israel ratified in 1951).
Rather, AP feeds up constructions that obfuscate international standards on the issue, including the aforementioned binding international laws (my emphasis):
The U.S. views Israeli building in east Jerusalem […] as disruptive to Mideast peacemaking. Israel, which captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, insists the city cannot be divided and says it has the right to build anywhere.
And another similar construction later in the story:
The international community sees Jewish neighborhoods in east Jerusalem as no different from settlements in the West Bank.
The task of speaking about uncontroversial international norms, after this reprehensible imprecision, is left to often-quoted Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ekerat who
condemned the plan, and said it damaged Israel’s credibility as a peace partner.
“There is growing international frustration with Israel over the actions and decisions it is taking,” Erekat said. “Israel is digging itself into a hole that it will have to climb out of if it is serious about peace. There is overwhelming international consensus on the illegality of Israel’s settlements, including in east Jerusalem, and the damage they are doing to the two-state solution.”
I’m in an ongoing discussion with many journalists friends about what I feel is a disingenuous voice of objectivity in mainstream journalism. Even many who line up against me in that conversation would, I think, agree that this AP story goes out of its way to muddle up a matter which is actually quite clear.