When I joined Reuters News Agency as a very young, very green reporter in Tel Aviv in 1980, I soon noticed that many of my stories were picked up in the Arab press - with one important change. Wherever I wrote the word "Israel," newspapers in Syria, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere would change it to "the Zionist regime" or '"the Zionist entity."
I was upset by these changes, which appeared under my byline, and asked my bureau chief if we could complain. He shrugged and said it wasn't worth it. Newspapers paid good money to receive the service and could do whatever they liked to the stories they received.Until recently, I hadn't thought about this for years. Arab governments, even those with no relations with Israel, have long since stopped referring to it as "the Zionist regime." For example, in his speech last year to the United Nations General Assembly, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Alfaisal stated:
"The Arab Peace Initiative, which is still on the table, constitutes a collective comprehensive proposal to end the conflict with Israel and conclude a peace agreement that would ensure security, recognition and normalization of relations for all the States of the region."
Arab leaders may be harshly critical of Israel but no longer deny its existence. This alone creates the hope that one day there can be peace and reconciliation. It tells Israelis, "We may have differences -- wide differences -- but we do not insist on your disappearance from the map."
But there is one leader who relentlessly uses the term -- who has in fact given it new life, and who refuses to allow the word "Israel" ever to pass his lips. I'm referring of course to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
There's something chilling about this -- especially combined by his denial of the Holocaust and his country's relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons. This is a man who deeply wants to destroy the hated "Zionist regime" and who may soon have the means to do so.
Let's go back for a moment to the origins of the name "Israel" which first appears in the Book of Genesis, chapter 32, verses 24-28. It is night at a particularly tense time in Jacob's life. He goes out from his camp and meets a mysterious stranger.
"Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob's thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the dawn is breaking." But he said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." He said, "Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed."
Jacob was the progenitor of the 12 tribes who left bondage in Egypt -- "the children of Israel." They wandered in the Sinai for 40 years and eventually settled in "the land of Israel." The word "Israel" therefore denotes both a geographical space and a people -- the Jewish people. The most basic prayer in Judaism, recited every morning and every night, begins, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one."
Refusing even to say the word "Israel" therefore negates thousands of years of Jewish history and identity. It is deeply offensive.
Now, let's look at the second half of the phrase -- the word "regime." It's a word that has come to denote a dictatorial form of government. But Israel from its very first day has been a democracy. It has held 18 elections, all of them free and fair, offering the right to a secret ballot to all citizens of all religions and ethnicities.As Israel's U.S. ambassador Michael Oren recently noted,
"At 62 years old, Israel's democracy is older than more than half of the democratic governments in the world, which, in turn, account for less than half of the world's existing nations. Israel is one of the handful of democracies that has never succumbed to periods of undemocratic rule. And Israel has achieved this extraordinary record in spite of the fact that it is the only democracy never to know a nanosecond of peace and which has endured pressures that would have crushed most other democracies long ago. In a region inhospitable -- even fatal -- to government by and of the people, Israel's democracy thrives."
Iran, by contrast, is truly ruled by a regime headed by an unelected "Supreme Leader" who controls all the most important organs of government and the media. The president, who is subservient to this Supreme Leader, is elected in theory. However the most recent election last year was highly questionable at best. When millions of Iranians took to the streets to protest what they saw as a "stolen election," they were brutally suppressed. One could truthfully describe Iran as "the Islamic regime" - but what would be the point? Better to ground one's criticisms in specifics without using words to demean or diminish.
In the greater scheme of things, I suppose that Ahmadinejad's misuse of language is not that big a deal. But language matters. Words matter. By refusing to say the word "Israel," Ahmadinejad denies the existence of a people as well as a place.
Whether he likes it or not, there is a country called Israel; it is the homeland of the Jewish people. He cannot write it out of history and he will not wipe it off the map.
Ahmadinejad is scary but we should remember Jacob who became Israel. He strove with God and with men and prevailed.