The war in Gaza and Israel enters its fourth week, and the news is as bad as ever. Ceasefires fade into memory, and Israeli and Hamas munitions both continue to find their targets.
Meanwhile, on computer and tablet screens across the world, missiles of another kind home in on virtual targets. Welcome to war in the age of Twitter. In support or defiance of one side or another, would-be war correspondents write pointed attack pieces, often training their fire on strangers. If civilians have always been inevitable casualties of war, so now, too, is civility.
It's fitting, then, that the Jewish scriptural cycle brings us this week to the book of Deuteronomy. As Moses prepares to die, he makes one long speech, an impassioned plea to uphold out dearest principles, parashat D'varim. "D'varim" means "words." As a Hebrew speaker can tell you, it also means "things."
Words, then, are also things. They have weight and substance. They are real and tangible. But that doesn't mean we understand them. By now, it's cliché to criticize an opponent's argument by referencing Humpty Dumpty's semantic disclaimer, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean." But this war has brought out the Humpty Dumpty in all of us. And so the conversation becomes harder, because it hardly seems we're part of the same conversation.
At the very least, let's be honest about it. Here, then, is my list, a glossary of words of my choosing, with definitions and annotations I've devised. If something here makes you angry, or outraged, if you find that you are filled with hate at my very typing on this very keyboard, I sincerely extend you my sympathy. I know the feeling. I only ask that you resist the urge to tell me about it. Why not pretend I never wrote it, shut off your screen, and go hug someone you love? The world could use some more love right now. I know Israel could. I know Gaza could. I know I could.
Anti-Semitism: A term used colloquially to refer to the hatred of Jews just for being Jews. Some have protested the use of the term, claiming that Arabs too are Semitic people. This makes perfect sense, as the term is a pseudoscientific nonsense word created by 19th-century Jew-hating Germans to put a fancy gloss on the fact that they hated Jews. If you think that disagreeing with Israeli government policy makes it acceptable to attack the persons and property of Jews in Paris, and London, and Brussels, and southern California, and God knows where else, I'm happy to eschew the term "anti-Semite" and simply call you a loathsome, disgusting Jew-hater.
Apartheid: A structure of oppression enforced by the government of South Africa in the 20th century, after Dutch invaders had conquered the majority-black inhabitants of the land and denied them basic political and civil rights. Supporters of Palestinian rights like to use this term to refer to Israeli actions in the West Bank and Gaza. Though effective as a rhetorical tool, the use of the term in this context is problematic, as (unlike the Dutch) both Jews and Palestinians have historical claims to the land. On the other hand, if birth rates continue along current demographic trends, an Israel that maintains control of Palestinian land will find itself a Jewish minority government in charge of a majority-Arab population, and in your heart, do you really feel good about that?
Argument: Reasoned statements and rebuttals used to establish and defend a particular viewpoint. Jews are known for reasoned debate and love to engage in spirited argument... unless the issue is Israel, in which case Jews who disagree with Israeli government actions are told to keep your damn mouth shut, isn't it just so easy to criticize from the comfort of a cushy American suburb, and I can't believe you'd actually defend Hamas.
Choice: The ability to weigh options and select one course of action over another. In the book of Deuteronomy, God demands that the Israelites "choose life, that you may live!" A basic principle of the religion, Judaism refuses to believe in a doctrine of predetermination, allowing for moral agency for every human... unless Hamas shoots rockets at Israel, and in that case, what should Israel do, there's no other option, and what choice do we have, and we have no choice.
Colonialism: The exploitation of an indigenous people by an invading and uninvited foreign power. Supporters of Palestinian rights sometimes call the existence of the state of Israel colonialism, since many Jews who settled the modern state of Israel came from Europe. This conveniently ignores (1) the continued, multi-millennial presence of Jews in what is today called Israel, and (2) the main reason Jews went to Europe to begin with is that they were kicked out of Israel by Jew-haters. (See also: Anti-Semitism)
Genocide: A coordinated and systematic effort to completely destroy a people or ethnic group. Whatever you think of Israeli actions in Gaza, they do not constitute genocide. And if you still maintain that they do, you must really be upset by the 180,000 Syrians killed by the Assad regime. And if not, you might ask yourself why only the Israeli government has earned your scorn for its "genocide." (See also: Anti-Semitism, Talking Point)
God: The Creator and Force of Holiness and Justice in the Universe. God often gets blamed for the current hostilities, but last time I checked, God taught of the divinity of all humans and didn't cynically build a political career at the expense of innocent lives.
Grief: A sharp and painful experience of loss and regret, often as the result of the death of a person or group of people. Professions of grief can be powerful and cathartic... unless they are followed by a phrase beginning with the word "but" (e.g., "I grieve for those three Israeli boys, but weren't they asking for it, studying in a settlement?" or, "I grieve for the loss of life in Gaza, but what do you expect when Hamas uses civilians as human shields?") In this case, what you are expressing may not be grief but a talking point. (See also: Talking Point).
Hamas: The ruling political force in Gaza, known primarily for launching attacks into Israel targeting civilians, firing rockets from densely populated residential areas, explicitly and repeatedly denying the reality of the Holocaust, violating the civil rights of Gazans, and torturing political opponents. Supporting Palestinian rights and independence does not mean supporting Hamas, and if you think it does, you might not support human rights as much as you think you do.
Indigenous people: A people who have a historic and cultural tie to a particular land. Both Jews and Palestinians are indigenous peoples in regard to the area now known as Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.
Israel: A modern state that embodies the dreams and hopes of Jews throughout history. Some people claim that Israel is a contemporary political fiction created in the 19th century, but arguments like that ignore the fact that the idea of the nation-state is in itself a modern conception, and they show no regard for the long history of the people in the land. (See also: Palestine)
Missile: A ballistic projectile designed to inflict damage and death on its intended target. More missiles have reached their targets in Gaza than in Israel, due in large part to (1) the resources and know-how that Israel utilized in creating its Iron Dome defense system, and (2) the staging of Hamas attacks from civilian areas. If you find yourself minimizing or explaining away the trauma and destruction caused by missiles aimed at either side, go lie down for awhile. You might be part of the problem.
Binyamin Netanyahu: The current prime minister of the state of Israel. In the last Israeli elections, Netanyahu and his party received only received 23 percent of the vote but maintained their power due to the vagaries of Israeli parliamentary law. According to writer JJ Goldberg, Netanyahu hid from the Israeli public the fact that the three kidnapped Israeli teenagers were, in reality, known to be dead. Goldberg claims that the information was withheld "as a pretext to dismantle Hamas' West Bank operations." And then things, as they often do in the Middle East, got out of hand. If Goldberg is correct, Netanyahu's lie is responsible for untold misery in both Israel and Gaza, not to mention the resuscitation of Hamas as a relevant political force -- a conversation we really need to have. (See also: Argument)
Palestine: A modern state that embodies the dreams and hopes of Palestinians throughout history. Some people claim that Palestine is a contemporary political fiction created in the 19th century, but arguments like that ignore the fact that the idea of the nation-state is in itself a modern conception, and they show no regard for the long history of the people in the land. (See also: Israel)
Talking Point: A statement crafted by political operatives to support a particular viewpoint or campaign. Talking points are not the same as statesmanship, thoughtfulness, wisdom, righteousness, or holiness.
United Kingdom: The source of much critical writing about the conflict, especially criticism of Israeli and Palestinian actions. This is ironic, as it was the UK that controlled this region in the early 20th century, promised the land to both Jews and Palestinians, and then abandoned the land once the situation became seemingly intractable... much as they did in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the Middle East. In the words of former UK foreign secretary Jack Straw, "The Balfour declaration and the contradictory assurances which were being given to Palestinians in private at the same time as they were being given to the Israelis -- again, an interesting history for us, but not an honourable one." (See also: Colonialism)
Zionism: The belief that the Jewish people are entitled to an independent state on some portion of their historic homeland. Being a Zionist is not the same as being a right-winger, an Arab-hater, a war-monger, a settler, or an otherwise unpleasant person. Being a Zionist means wanting a Jewish homeland in Israel and loving that land deeply and passionately. Sometimes it means loving Israel so much that you want it to be better, more just, a land of righteousness and love. Sometimes being a Zionist means praying and working for a land that represents the most profound and cherished values of our people. And that's nothing to be ashamed of. (See also: God)