My Word: Defining experience

Every time someone mentions the need for original thinking to solve the Palestinian- Israeli problem you can rest assured that the next sentence will contain a cliché like “window of opportunity.”

By
September 7, 2013 21:41
East is east and West is west, except in Jerusalem, where nothing is as it seems.

Batman skates in Jerusalem 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Platitudes might be thoughtless, but repeat them enough and both truisms and lies can change the way people think. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily for the better.

I try to avoid clichés like the plague but last week I shared a compilation with Facebook friends. It was a blog posted by Teju Cole in The New Yorker headed “In place of thought: A New Dictionary of Received Ideas.”

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It was all I could do to stop myself adapting the title to “New and improved.”

Cole wrote: “In 1913, a compilation of Gustave Flaubert’s satirical definitions was posthumously published as Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (“The Dictionary of Received Ideas”). Flaubert hated cliché, a hatred that expressed itself not only in the pristine prose of Madame Bovary but also in his letters and notes on the thoughtless platitudes of the day. “The Dictionary of Received Ideas” is a complaint against automatic thinking. What galls Flaubert most is the inevitability, given an action, of a certain standard reaction. We could learn from his impatience: there are too many standard formulations in our language.
They stand in place of thought, but we proclaim them each time – due to laziness, prejudice or hypocrisy – as though they were fresh insight.”

Flaubert’s “Dictionary” inspired Cole to try something similar, on Twitter. “I think, also, there was the influence of Ambrose Bierce and his cynical Devil’s Dictionary, Samuel Johnson’s mostly serious but occasionally coruscating Dictionary of the English Language, and Gelett Burgess’s now-forgotten send-up of platitudes, Are You a Bromide?” he wrote. “What the entries in these books have in common, in addition to compression and wit, is an intolerance of stupidity. As I wrote my modern cognates, I was struck at how close some of them came to the uninterrogated platitudes in my own head. Stupidity stalks us all.”

Cole’s strangely enlightening list starts with:

AFRICA. A country. Poor but happy. Rising.



ALMOND. All eyes are almond-shaped.

AMERICAN. With the prefix all, a blonde.


It goes through the alphabet poking fun at our stereotypes and stultified thought ending with:

VALUES. “We must do whatever it takes to preserve our values.” Said as a prelude to destroying them.

VIRGINITY. An obsession in Iran and in the olive-oil industry. It can be lost, like a wallet.

YEATS. Author of two quotations.

ZIZEK. Observe he’s made some good points, but.


THE LIST got me thinking (really, not just figuratively). I decided the Middle East merits a compilation of its own. Every time someone mentions the need for original thinking to solve the Palestinian- Israeli problem you can rest assured that the next sentence will contain a cliché like “window of opportunity.”

The window of opportunity permanently threatens to slam shut but I suspect it might actually be stuck, leaving “room for hope,” at least for the “cautiously optimistic” on a certain side of the political map or window.

In the Middle East “America” signifies all that’s good as in “American kitchen” or “American standard,” unless of course it happens to have anything to do with US diplomatic policy. There are few things on which Israelis and Arabs agree: One is that humous is an essential food (preferably dressed with virgin olive oil); another is that even those Americans who can find Israel, Syria, Iran and Egypt on a map haven’t got a clue about how this region works.

Apartheid is an “A” category word that has undergone a particularly strange metamorphosis. From referring to the South African regime in which there was such strict segregation people could not even drink at the same water fountains, in certain circles it has come to exclusively refer to Israel. Israeli Arab parliamentarians are particularly fond of it. The irony obviously got lost in translation.

“Confidence-building measure” is another overworked term. Just whose confidence is built by the release of hosts of convicted terrorists is questionable, but we have all heard, endlessly, that “peace is made between enemies, not friends.”

A confidence-building measure has a twin sister: a gesture of goodwill.

Such gestures have come to include the demand for a “settlement freeze.”

A settlement is a Jewish community anywhere over the so-called Green Line, the pre-1967 borders. All settlements are “obstacles to peace.”

If it’s a community where Palestinians or Beduin live it is not a settlement and not an obstacle to peace, no matter where it is.

Rawabi, on the outskirts of Ramallah, for example, is being marketed as “the first Palestinian planned city.” Ma’aleh Adumim and Ariel cannot be described as cities at all in polite, politically correct circles.

The geographic region comprising the Middle East is itself open to interpretation, stretching to include Indonesia, but never reaching suburbs of London, Paris or Stockholm in the other direction.

Altogether, the Middle East is geographically challenging, and nowhere more so than Jerusalem. It is possibly the only capital city in the world housing the parliament, supreme court and president’s residence but not officially recognized by those who know better.

It is also probably the only capital city where the neighborhoods marked on maps as “East” are mainly found in the North and South. Most Arab neighborhoods are villages; most Jewish ones are settlements.

Gaza, like Jerusalem, is a confusing entity in a class of its own. You cannot mention Gaza without making a comment about its population density. To be politically correct (although factually wrong), you might want to add something about it being a “ghetto” “prison” or “under siege.” It is not polite to point out that Gaza shares a border with Egypt.

All Israeli journalists are either Leftists or Rightists. (I’m regularly accused of being both, proving in my opinion that I’m stuck in the middle.) Israeli politicians are political animals, or, more precisely, political birds: They can all be described as either “dovish” or “a hawk.”

Israel is the only country whose social protests were known as “tent protests.”

This is because had we called them the Occupy movement, like the rest of the world, the UN would have been so busy discussing the obstacle to peace that it wouldn’t have had time to deal with problems like human rights in places like Syria or the nuclear threat in Iran.

As it is, Israel has taken up so much of the UN’s time that it hasn’t had a chance to solve the problems anywhere else around the globe.

Feel free to add your own definitions to the list: The difference between a wall, security barrier or fence is a good starting point. The words militant and terrorist can also provide a defining experience.

Start-up Nation is a term of which we are rightly proud. The country is a hitech wonder. Nano-technology is President Shimon Peres’s middle name.

Israeli brains can come up with solutions for the most complicated technological challenges; they just can’t solve the problem of who should be governor of the Bank of Israel.

Unlike the citizens of the Start-up Nation, all Palestinians should be described as poor, regardless of income, education or position.

All IDF soldiers are Jewish fighters, including the Beduin, Circassians and Druse.

The “Z” word is Zionist, an epithet one stage above “settler.” Israeli soldiers are Zionists.

Last week, my faith in humankind was partially restored with a YouTube video of Israeli troops and a Zionist dog.

The hapless hound had somehow got stuck at the top of the fence along the Israeli-Egyptian border. The soldiers stopped their jeep and one guy carefully climbed between the barbed wire, reached up, and turned the dog into an illegal, but welcome, immigrant.

Events like that defy all standard descriptions but on that positive note, may I take this window of opportunity to wish all readers a Happy New Year.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

liat@jpost.com

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