The notion that language defines the modalities (if not the limits) of thought is an old and controversial one. Even if we reject the word “defines” as excessively deterministic, we can all agree that language informs and modifies the patterns of our thinking. During the Cold War, the Warsaw Treaty Organization was pointedly dubbed “the Warsaw Pact” in an effort to “inform and modify” the Western public’s view of it: a pact is usually made with the devil.
 
This brings me to an email I recently received in which the words “colonialist” and “conquest” are used to describe the reestablishment of the Jewish state. While the email to me was private, I thought the use of these two terms warranted a public parsing. 
 
Was there a Zionist conquest?  The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a conquest is “the subjugation and assumption of control of a place or people by military force”. The Spanish conquest of the Aztecs is cited as an example. The 7th century Arab conquest of the Levant is the one that comes to my mind. 
 
Now, can we successfully apply the OED definition to the Bilu Olim who in 1882 joined earlier immigrants in Rishon LeZion, only to succumb to illness and water shortages a few months later? 
 
Can we regard as conquistadors the despised and impoverished Jerusalem and Jaffa Jews who in 1910, 1919, and again in 1920 lived in fear for their lives as they were clubbed and knifed to death by Muslims? 
 
Were the Jews of Hebron, both natives and immigrants, who in 1929 were massacred by their Muslim neighbors, the vanguard of a conquering army? 

None of these Jews, individually or collectively, had the will or the means for conquest. For a long time, they possessed no force of any kind - legal, economic, or military. The only thing that brought them back to the miserable Ottoman province was the centrality of that land to their faith.

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Later on, military force was in fact used to “subjugate” and “assume control”. That took the form however, not of imperial legions, but of a militia of lightly armed civilians with its back to the sea. But even that only happened after decades of Arab terror were capped by a war of extermination that the Arab leadership declared on a besieged Yishuv. Conquest? Hardly!

That was in 1948. Let’s move to 1967. Can anyone call a territory acquired or recovered in a defensive war of survival a conquest, especially if its international legal status was at the time indeterminate? Can we speak of the Polish conquest of Gdansk in 1944? Or the French conquest of Alsace-Lorraine that same year? The usual term used for these events is liberation. 

Next post, we’ll see if the word “colonialist” fares any better.

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