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'Crying terrorism': Israel's political use cheapens the term

In characterizing all non-violent Palestinian measures as terrorism, Israel insults the memory of victims of real acts of terror.

By Lara Friedman

Yesterday was Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Remembrance Day. Every year on this day Israelis stop to remember their fellow citizens who have given their lives for the sake of Israel, whether in wars or at the hands of terrorists.

On this day, Israelis think a lot about terrorism. Israelis have a uniquely personal and painful understanding of what the word means.  Exploding packages and buses leave an indelible mark on any person possessing the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the tiniest modicum of compassion to feel the pain of the families whose loves ones are lost and wounded.

U.S. law defines “terrorism” in two places (here and here). Common to these definitions is violence or the threat of violence – instilling in innocent people genuine terror for the lives and safety of themselves and loved ones. Israel, of all countries in the world, knows what this terror feels like, having experienced such violence at home and abroad. Israelis know terrorism for what it is – the depraved, immoral face of an enemy that has no human compassion for Israelis, seeing them not as human beings but only as targets.

It is in this context that the current trend of devaluing the term “terrorism” is so appalling. The term “terrorism” (or its cousin, “warfare”), in the mouths of some Israeli spokesmen and hasbaraniks, increasingly seems capable of expanding to include any action that is perceived as hostile to the policies and ideological proclivities of the current Israeli government and its hard-line supporters.

Thus, we’ve seen Land Day protests denounced by Israeli officials as “political terrorism”; Palestinian efforts to seek recognition from the UN and other nations termed “diplomatic terrorism”; efforts by Palestinians and others in the international community to use the courts to challenge Israeli actions and policies denounced as “lawfare”; settler leaders denounce boycotts of settlements as “economic terrorism”; academic boycotts denounced as “academic terrorism”; and in general, non-violent Palestinian efforts to fight Israeli policies  are increasingly viewed as “non-violent warfare.”

And this week, only a few days before Yom Hazikaron, we heard an Israeli official describe a “60 Minutes” report by a prominent American Jewish journalist as a “strategic terror attack.”

Recently, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike.  If they start dying, will this be condemned as a new form of Palestinian “suicide terror”?  Will the Israeli spokesperson sound like the U.S. official who characterized the alleged suicides of a number of detainees at Gitmo as “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us”?

Can we look forward to new terms – like “demographic terror” to describe the Palestinian birthrates (it’s already been used on one settler website)?  What about “journalistic terrorism” to describe press coverage unfriendly to the current Israeli government?  Or will Israeli officials start vilifying as “linguistic terrorists” those of us who insist on using the terms “occupied,” “settlements,” and “West Bank” in lieu of “disputed,” “communities,” and “Judea and Samaria”?

Israelis enjoy tremendous sympathy and support from around the world for genuine terrorism it has faced.  They threaten to weaken this support and sympathy – and sorely test the patience of even their closest friends – when they “cry wolf”, or in this case, “cry terrorism.”  Conflating non-violent actions with terrorism isn’t going to work, regardless of whether members of the intended audience endorse or reject some of the tactics adopted by those challenging Israeli policies. People know the difference between a bus blowing up in Jerusalem and a demonstration of unarmed protesters in Bil’in.  They can distinguish between a suicide attack and a diplomatic initiative.  They know that appealing to the courts, even for malicious reasons, is not the same as hijacking a plane, and that boycotts, whether you agree with them or not, aren’t terrorism.

Terrorism is terrorism.  When Israelis try to manipulate the term for political purposes, it only makes them seem desperate and cynical – prepared, for their own political purposes, to cheapen the memory of every victim of terror, to insult the pain of the victims’ families, and to deliver a slap in the face to every Israeli and every person who has ever faced the real fear that terrorism breeds.

Lara Friedman is Director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now.

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    1. aristeides

      More victimizing tears. All about the terror that poor, innocent Israelis suffer, and none about the terror they inflict, daily, on the occupied population.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Piotr Berman

      “instilling in innocent people genuine terror for the lives and safety of themselves and loved ones”

      Terror is the most vague word possible. The definition is impossible: who is innocent? Aren’t we all sinners? So it is extended to something a bit more reasonable, and extended again, and again. Driving at highly excessive speed can cause genuine fear, haranguing on a sidewalk “Repent! The End is Near” is aimed to instill fear etc.

      At its inception, “terror” and “terrorism” were somewhat technical terms without any moral connotation. Terrorist were good, bad and “we do not care about them”. In Central America bad terrorists were opposed with good military massacres and good death squads but there were also good terrorists, Contras. In those time talking about “legal terrorism” or “bicycle terrorism” would be pointless. But 9/11 “changed everything”, USA noticed that terror is bad, so making some faint noises in material support of terrorism can now lead to 15 years in prison, or more if broadcast across state lines or something. That required a heavy redefinion of “terrorism” and “material” etc.

      Reply to Comment
    3. RichardL

      Your hyper-links give plenty of use of the word but I could find no definition in them. Was that your point?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Kolumn9

      Hmm. I actually agree with an article on 972mag. This feels weird. Am I sick?

      More seriously, I agree. Often the way the word terrorism is used is problematic and makes me cringe. It is way too overused and really should be reserved for the Palestinian violence against Israeli civilians. There is enough of that to go around to paint the Palestinians as terrorists so there really is no reason to cheapen the term.

      I take issue with lumping ‘lawfare’ into this article. It is a perfectly valid description of the Palestinian resort to various international courts as means of aggressive diplomacy. As a term it also seems to be a fairly effective means of dismissing such cases.

      Reply to Comment
    5. State generalization of the word “terror” is an attempt to preclude debate on what the generalization covers. “Terror” becomes anything which harms Israeli policy, in any manner, including labels applied to State acts. We are to conform or shut up. Once, to criticize the Crown was treason. Istraeli policy is regressing to the Middle Ages on this.
      Kolumn9, do you actually think every Palestinian thinks alike? They are all terrorists?

      Reply to Comment
    6. aristeides

      Kolumn isn’t saying that all Palestinians are terrorists, although he may believe this, he’s saying that ONLY Palestinians are terrorists. He wants to define terrorism in terms of Palestinians. Which is to say, he’s totally full of it.

      Reply to Comment
    7. caden

      No, there are plenty of other Moslem terrorists who aren’t palestinian

      Reply to Comment
    8. Japya

      In a situation where an attitude towards Israel and Israelis based on objective evaluation and analysis does not exist, where the whole world is always prepared to blame Israel and Israelis for everything, your attempt, Lora, to limit the legitimate usage of the word terrorism to only openly barbaric manifestations of it, objectively does not serve any other purpose than alleviating the terrorists’ moral responsibility, „cheapening« the significance of their crimes in the world’s mind. It is not for nothing that the criminals’ state of mind, what they want to achieve is one of the most important qualifying elements of the crime. Do not help to get the perpetrators off the hook.

      Reply to Comment
    9. David T.

      I have another one for you: “cultural terror”. (Shuki Weiss, Israeli concert promoter while struggling with the increasing Israel boycott of foreign artists.)

      Reply to Comment
    10. Kolumn9

      No idea how my statement was interpreted as saying that all Palestinians are terrorists or that only Palestinians are terrorists. You guys really need more logic and reading comprehension skills and the context is rather specific to Israeli PR. I basically said there are sufficient numbers of Palestinian attacks against civilians (aka classic terrorism) that for PR purposes it is possible to not have to resort to coming up with stupid new ways to use the ‘terrorism’ label.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Daniel

      Soon the whole world will be crying terrorism. And will continue cry terrorism in an ever increasing crescendo until we end it.

      Reply to Comment