January 23, 2006

Revenant is Relevant

Posted in Uncategorized at 2:13 pm by yisraelmedad

The American writer Carolyn Wells, who died 60 years ago, asserted, “actions lie louder than words”.  Be that as it may, words still play an important part in the craft of fooling people.  This is especially so in the Arab-Israel conflict. 

To take one example, the proper nomenclature for the Jewish civilian residential areas in the disputed territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, as even William Safire has indicated, should be communities rather than the pejorative and negatively connotative “settlements”.  Jews live in communities or, for that matter, in cities, towns and villages.  They do not live in “settlements”.
In his August 5, 2001 column, On Language, in the New York Times Weekend Magazine, Safire has written: “Words have connotations. In the disputed territory known as the West Bank, an Israeli village is called a settlement, implying fresh intrusion; a small Palestinian town, even one recently settled, is called a village, implying permanence.”  Of course, his use of “disputed” rather than “occupied”, or for that matter, “liberated”, in another example of the importance of how one calls an act or a situation.
This phenomenon, of harnessing language to political ideology, is not exceptional nor is it new.  In a volume discussing political geography, Richard Muir deals with an “image system” whereby a subjective perception of reality is promoted via language so as to achieve superiority either at negotiations or other actions that will help establishing borders to territories.  The use of “occupied” and of “settlements” and “settlers” is a projection of a desired reality.  That Israel’s official state institutions such as the Foreign Ministry’s information services and their employees continue to use these very terms is unfortunate, to say the least.
Incidentally, I am sure that a very good case could be made supporting the proposition that, semantically, Yasser Arafat himself is an “occupier” of the local Palestinian Arab population.  He need not be technically foreign to the area but his policies indeed form an occupation of Areas A and B and do oppress the local population.
But what should we term the Jews who live in the territories?  A substitute for the word “settlers” has been hard to come by.  I once introduced myself to a British Foreign Office Official at an appointment I had arranged at its London’s King Charles Street complex as a “Jewish civilian resident of a community located in Samaria”.  Puzzled momentarily, he quickly interjected “but I thought I was to converse with a settler”.  True, that was too many words, and therein is the problem.  I think, though, that a more accurate noun perhaps has been found, one that is more relevant to the reality.
It is revenant.
According the American Heritage Dictionary, a revenant is one who returns after a lengthy absence.  A revenant can be any person who shows up after a long absence such as those who come back to their ancestral home after years of political exile.  This is the classic definition although Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel the Fair Maid, to denote a ghost.  It stems from the French “revenir,” which means simply “to return”.  
Jews lived in the hills of Judea and Samaria for over 3500 years, as nomads, as tribal chieftains and as kings, priests and prophets.  They were dispersed once and returned.  They were exiled and returned.  Despite foreign conquerors, they persisted in returning under the most difficult of political, religious and economic conditions.  Their civilization was created in the area as was their literature.  Their three most important cities are there.  The Torah and the New Testament use the terms Judea, Samaria and Gaza.  The Quran records God’s command that the Jews should live in the Promised Land.  Eighty years ago, the world recognized unabashedly and with no disagreement the right of Jews to reestablish their historic homeland as a political entity.  And following a brief 19 year long hiatus, Jews are once again living there.
This, then, may be the word we need to employ.  One word, of course, does not a victory make.  Terminology is never terminal.  Nevertheless, a major part of Israel’s Hasbara problem, especially in the medium of the electronic media and in academic and other political forums is its lack of ability to create a neutral space for discourse.  Once the term “occupied” is tossed out in any gathering, any adequate response forces the speaker to deal with eighty years of detailed history, intricacies of international law and the interpretation of this or that Convention.  If one is referred to as a settler, immediately the audience is disposed to consider the object as a near-monster, an oppressor, one who doesn’t belong and so forth.   The person described as a “settler’ loses his humanity.  He is a stereotype.  Those who contend that Jews possess no rights in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, what should be called properly Yesha, have an easier task if they talk about a “settler”.  A revenant, on the other hand, belongs.  He has rights to the land, both his personal location and the collective geography.
If one needs a humorous moment in the debate, the religious residents of Yesha could be referred to as reverent revenants.  There are also irreverent revenants.  Other residents could be irrelevant to the situation.
Good linguistic advice is that to own a word, one should use it ten times.  I have employed it seven times in this article.  Perhaps you will join with me in multiplying its use?
Appeared September 29, 2002 in the Jerusalem Post


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