In a recent article published in the academic journal Current Sociology, “Words don’t come easy,” Christopher Kyriakides, professor of Sociology at York University, Canada, deals with Al Jazeera’s 2015 decision to substitute “refugee” for “economic migrant” in its coverage of “the Mediterranean Migration Crisis.”
In academese, he writes that what happened was a “distancing of ‘migrant’ from ‘refugee’ in news content.” In other words, a media outlet intervened in a political, economic and diplomatic issue to contest a negative media representation. The broadcaster decided to override the language being used and substituted its own language, justifying the act as giving “a voice” to the people involved.
Kyriakides notes other media terms which have been the subject of academic critique, such as “the Arab” and “the Muslim” in the post-2001 era and, in general, media depictions of migrants, refugees and ethnic minority citizens. A “broadcaster’s self-professed ‘deorientalizing’ decision to ‘give voice’ by ‘challenging racism,’” he wrote, “is discursively delimited by the dominant European migration policy narrative.”
The decision to alter the semantics was deliberate. Al Jazeera’s English director of news, Salah Negm, decided not to “use the word ‘migrant’ any longer in this context. We will instead, where appropriate, say ‘refugee.’” As Barry Malone, online editor with Al Jazeera English explained, “at this network, we try hard through our journalism to be the voice of those people in our world who, for whatever reason, find themselves without one.”
Altering language to change a reality is standard practice. A newly formed and EU-funded organization, RespectWords, seeks to prevent Islamophobia in the media. In semi-Orwellian terms, its report, “Respect Words: Ethical Journalism Against Hate Speech,” suggests how to “rethink.”
It fears a “context-dehumanization” and seeks “the construction of new imagery.”
For example, in dealing with violence committed by some recent arrivals, the causes of it, the report suggests, include “colonialism, racism, [and] general social inequality” and there is “no structural connection between migration and terrorism.”
This paradigm is familiar and touches on a problem we have dealt with previously.
We would suggest that a parallel effort to RespectWords should be undertaken to review our situation here in Israel.
Consider, for example, the international terminology concerning the Western Wall. It is a section of the retaining wall to Herod’s enlargement of the Temple Mount.
For centuries it has been used by Jews from all over the world, for prayers, rejoicing, mourning and socializing. In Hebrew it is called “Hakotel Hama’aravi,” the Western Wall. It was also known as “Kotel Hadmaot,” the Wall of Tears, but Jews never called it “The Wailing Wall.” The poet Uri Tzvi Greenberg once wrote in a poem that “the Wall roars.”
Consider then The New York Times
. A search this week of its website for “Western Wall Jerusalem” gives 1,781 hits. For “Wailing Wall Jerusalem” one finds only 716. In The Wall Street Journal
the search gives 11 for “Western Wall Jerusalem” and none for “Wailing Wall Jerusalem.”
Is it just a coincidence that in Germany and Switzerland the ratio changes dramatically? At the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
one finds 434 entries for “Klagemauer Jerusalem” (“klagemauer” is the German version of “wailing”) but only 36 for “Westliche Mauer Jerusalem.” Similarly, for the Swiss Neue Zuericher Zeitung
, one finds respectively 81 and two entries. German speakers seemingly prefer to relate to our holy place of worship as a complaints department.
When one of us raised this issue with a German-speaking journalist, we were told that it is senseless to use “Westliche Mauer” since the editors will change it to “Klagemauer.”
Returning to Israel, a new complaint about “cruel employment practices” has been leveled against the prime minister’s wife Sarah Netanyahu. Yediot Aharonot
, no friend of the Netanyahus, decided to highlight the issue by describing the former employee as a “shifcha,” literally, a slave girl.
This appears to us to be low-level pandering, a nasty form of yellow journalism, especially as the woman’s request was to be reinstated. Did not the paper’s editor consider it curious that a “slave” would wish to return to her master? Shouldn’t he have avoided the term, or was he giving a voice to “those people in our world who, for whatever reason, find themselves without one”? Who is a traitor? In the aftermath of the November 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, it became politically incorrect to use the term “traitor” when discussing politicians.
But on October 27, Haaretz’
s Anshel Pfeffer published a piece titled, “How Netanyahu Has Betrayed the Jews,” asserting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had recently “betrayed” Austria’s and Hungary’s Jews since he did not display solidarity with their concerns regarding local antisemitism. That paper’s Chemi Shalev also unashamedly used the term when in January 2016 he accused American Jews of “abandoning... betraying Israel itself” in not protesting what he claimed was a loss of democracy here.
One way to delegitimize your political foes is by the use of damning language.
Consider coalition head MK David Bitan.
It is no secret that he is a staunch supporter of the prime minister. Although we might personally not support his tactics, there is nothing even morally wrong in supporting the head of your political party. But for some the goal in life is to remove Netanyahu from office. Chemi Shalev’s op-ed on October 30 described MK Bitan as Netanyahu’s “hired gun.”
On October 29, on TV Channel 10, the PR man representing the new plaintiff against Sara Netanyahu, Arik Rosenthal, referred to Netanyahu’s attorneys as “hired guns.”
The purpose is obvious: Netanyahu and family are implicitly described as mobsters, who use hired guns to carry out the necessary political assassinations. Repeated frequently, the negative image sticks, and who knows, might even lead to dethroning the “Papa.”
Or take how headlines are composed.
On the day following Israel’s October 30 bombing of a Gaza tunnel, Haaretz
published two stories. One, an analysis, was headlined “Israel’s Strike on Gaza Attack Tunnel Could Break Fragile Palestinian Status Quo.” The other was headlined, “Israel Destroys a Gaza Tunnel, Killing Militants.”
Of course we all know that the true headline should have been: “Israel Destroys Gaza Tunnel, Saving Israeli Lives.”
The tunnel in question was not built to provide Shabbat flowers to the Israelis living on the Gaza border. But when the aim of a newspaper is to delegitimize the State of Israel, anything goes.
Moreover, if Haaretz
runs such a headline, how can we complain about the Guardian’s headline, “Israel destroys tunnel from Gaza, killing seven Palestinians”? Or Al Jazeera’s “Seven Palestinians killed as Israel strikes Gaza tunnel”? The year 1984 is long gone, but Orwell’s lesson, that the “aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought,” is still relevant.The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imedia.org.il)