Anti-Israel Activist: BGU Yonatan Mendel


Editorial Note

Radical leftist media always looks for ”Useful Idiots,” a term associated with Lenin. This time they found Dr. Yonatan Mendel from the Department of Middle East Studies at BGU. His incessant anti-Israeli tenor was covered by IAM under the title “Pro-Palestinian Propagandists at Ben Gurion University: Yonatan Mendel as a Case in Point.”

Mendel’s latest article concerns how the last Israeli elections will affect the Palestinians.

Mendel completed his doctoral studies in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge. His thesis examined “the history of Arabic studies in Jewish schools in Palestine/Israel from 1935 to 1985, and focused on the politicization and securitization of the language. His research deals with topics such as language policy and war, security considerations and language planning, and the interrelationship between political conflict and foreign language studies in Israel/Palestine.” His book, The Creation of Israeli-Arabic: The Political History and Securitisation of Arabic Language Studies in Israeli-Jewish Society, is based on his thesis.  

Mendel was a fellow of the HRH Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University, as stated in the Annual Report of 2015/16. As well known, the billionaire prince spent a small fortune creating academic centers in prestigious Western universities to promote Muslim-Christian understanding. However, incidentally or not, some of the centers nurtured scholars whose animosity toward Israel has stood out.   

As an expert in Arabic, Mendel charges Israel with Orientalism, a term he borrowed from Edward Said. His views of Israel are incredibly dim, as seen in a video recording by the anti-Israel media outlet Middle East Eye.

Mendel’s scholarship is based on the assertion that Israel only uses Arabic for security reasons. This is fallacious. There are hundreds of Arabic teaching schools, including in Arab towns, for Israelis to learn. 

Mendel co-authored an article, “The Language of Jewish Nationalism: Street Signs and Linguistic Landscape in the Old City of Jerusalem,” published by Palestine Studies. Mendel co-edited a bookFrom the Arab Other to the Israeli Self: Palestinian Culture in the Making of Israeli National Identity, with Ronald Ranta. The book “sheds light on an important cultural and ideational diffusion that has occurred between the Zionist settlers – and later the Jewish-Israeli population – and the indigenous Arab-Palestinian people in Historical Palestine.” Mendel spoke in a radio program, “Foul Language: The Politicization of Arabic Teaching in Israeli Schools.”

He co-edited a book, Language, politics and society in the Middle East: essays in honour of Yasir Suleiman, with Abeer AlNajjar, published in 2018 in honor of their mentor Professor Yasir Suleiman. “This collection acknowledges his contribution to the field of language and society in general, and to that of language analysis of socio-political realities in the Middle East in particular.”  Suleiman, a Palestinian Arab, is the founding Director of the Centre of Islamic Studies at Cambridge University. He is the Sultan Qaboos Bin Sa’id Professor of Modern Arabic Studies.

Mendel came to aid the convicted Israeli-Arab poet Dareen Tatour, who posted on Facebook and YouTube a video of herself reading her poem titled “Resist, My People, Resist.” The video includes footage of masked Palestinian youths throwing stones and firebombs at IDF soldiers. It was published in October 2015 during the deadly Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis. She was arrested a few days later, and the prosecutors said her post was a call for violence. The judge delivered a 52-page verdict detailing a literary analysis of the text and video and the Arabic word “shahid” (“martyr”). Mendel, one of the experts, testifying in favor of Tatour, told the court in March 2017: 

“The Israeli hears ‘shahid’ and sees an aggressor. The Palestinian sees a victim. That’s a big difference. One sees an attacker blowing up a bus, the other sees a child shot by soldiers.” However, the judge ruled that “the aforementioned violent video does not include images of casualties and victims or legal protests. The video reflects only violent resistance/uprising throughout.”

Mendel has been rewarded by the London Review of Books (LRB), which published 23 of his articles. According to the group Just Journalism, LRB has a pronounced anti-Israel bias. Their report states: “The LRB consistently portrayed Israel as a bloodthirsty and genocidal regime out of all proportion to reality, while sympathetic portraits abounded of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and British government, such as Hamas and Hezbollah.”

Mendel is a good fit for LRB. While attacking Israel, he and his activist-academic peers have never had a bad word to say about the severe problems Palestinian society is experiencing, including honor killing, targeting of LGBTQ, and the skyrocketing crime in the Israeli-Arab sector. While bashing Israel is all the rage, these topics go undiscussed.  

Not surprisingly, Mendel is singing praises of the Department of Middle East Studies at BGU. In a short bio he posted on the Department’s website, he says that being employed there “feels as though I have won the lottery.” He is not the only one. A few years ago, Prof. Haggai Ram, a veteran member of the Department, wrote a book Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession.  He explains that Israel’s focus on Iran’s nuclear project is a diversion to cover up its real anxiety, the challenges that the Mizrahi and orthodox population pose to the hegemonic Ashkenazi elite. The Iranian media and radical-leftist groups in the West highly praised the book. 

The Just Journalism report created a storm when it was revealed the British taxpayers, through the Arts Council of England, supported the propaganda of the LRB. The public who funds Ben Gurion University deserves to know that their money supports anti-Israeli propaganda. 


Israel’s Straitjacket 


15 NOVEMBER 2022

First came the jokes. Black humour as a natural response to frustration and disappointment. ‘How was it yesterday?’ my Tel-Avivian neighbor, also a leftist, shouted from his balcony, wearing shorts and no shirt, sipping his morning coffee the day after the elections. ‘Not great’, I shouted back, continuing my brisk walk toward the kindergarten. ‘You should have had great fun voting’, he said, with a knowing emphasis on ‘great fun’. ‘Why is that?’, I asked. ‘Because’, he replied, delighted to have reached his punchline, ‘it was your last time!’ 

The Israeli elections of 1 November were indeed rather shocking. For the first time since its establishment in 1992, Meretz (the left-Zionist party) was ousted from parliament, as was Balad (an Arab-Palestinian party striving to make Israel ‘a state for all its citizens’). Simultaneously, we witnessed the spectacular rise of the national-religious list, composed of the Religious Zionism party led by Bezalel Smotrich (arrested in 2005 along with five other right-wing activists for plotting to ‘blow up cars on the Ayalon highway’, according to the Shin-Bet deputy chief) and the neo-fascist party Otzma Yehudit (‘Jewish Strength’) led by Itamar Ben-Gvir (convicted in 2007 of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization). Their joint platform was backed by almost 11% of Israeli voters and received 14 seats. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likkud party won 32 seats, while current PM Yair Lapid’s supposedly centrist outfit Yesh Atid picked up 24. The Labor Party – the leading political force during Israel’s first three decades, and a major player thereafter – came away with only 4.

Of course, Israeli democracy was nothing to brag about before the latest elections. The country’s so-called ‘change government’, which lasted from June 2021 to November 2022, was largely comprised of parties from the centre and centre right, who united in opposition to Netanyahu and viewed his ongoing corruption trial as a national disgrace. Their coalition also included the last remnants of the Israeli left and, controversially, the United Arab List. Its domestic agenda revolved around good governance, stabilization of the political system and passing a state budget for the first time in three years. But when it came to the occupation, the siege of Gaza and the refusal to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, it was not much different to the previous Netanyahu administration. Israel’s Zionist straitjacket may allow some room for debate on internal issues, but its confines are clear.

The most reactionary Knesset in history will now be sworn in on November 15. Yet this should not be read as a fundamental shift to the right. It is rather the outcome of various strategic manoeuvres on Netanyahu’s part as well as long-term processes within Israeli society. Such factors can be elaborated by analyzing the recent history of two political groupings: the Jewish religious parties on the one hand, and the Arab-Palestinian parties on the other.

Starting with the former: Netanyahu will most likely form his government out of the following components: Likkud (32 seats), Religious Zionism (14 seats), Shas (the Sephardic orthodox party, 11 seats) and Yahadut Hatorah (the Ashkenazi ultraorthodox party, 7 seats). The incoming PM can easily assemble this 64-seat bloc, in a parliament of 120 members, with the automatic support of all three Jewish religious parties (representing Mizrahi and Ashkenazi alike), which are now considered ‘natural allies’ of the Zionist right. Yet this is by no means a natural situation. It is the result of Netanyahu’s long-term plan to bring religious, orthodox and even ultraorthodox parties – which are in large part non-Zionist – into his political project, by framing it as quintessentially ‘Jewish’. The old saying goes that ‘the Torah has seventy faces’, but Netanyahu and the hard-right have given it only one. For religious parties, the latter is now a close collaborator while centrists and leftists have become the ultimate anti-Jewish Other – which, in the long run, leaves little hope for another changing of the guard.

Secondly, and no less cannily, was Netanyahu’s strategy vis-à-vis the Arab parties and Palestinian citizens of Israel. During his previous time in office, he both deepened Israel’s divide-and-rule approach to the Palestinians – precipitating the total disintegration of the Arab Joint List – and succeeded in cementing a fanciful association between the Arab parties and terrorism, thereby discrediting their criticism of the occupation. After United Arab List joined Lapid’s fragile coalition, Netanyahu (and the right in general) endlessly reiterated the claim that the new government was ‘reliant on supporters of terror’. The effectiveness of this smear showed how entrenched the discourse of ‘terrorization’ had become, thanks in part to other Zionist political actors from the putative centre and left (Lapid, for example, is currently refusing to meet with the leaders of the Arab parties Hadash and Ta‘al). Through such rhetoric, Netanyahu established a comprehensive formula which meant that every Arab-Palestinian would be required to prove that he or she is not a terrorist. Such delegitimization had a clear strategic aim, making it almost impossible for Arab-Palestinians to voice their opinions, and destroying the conditions for a stable centrist or centre-left coalition.

In other words, by coding the religious parties as right wing, and the Arab parties as terrorists, Netanyahu has rendered any joint coalition of Jews and Arabs unthinkable. What makes this strategy so successful, and so dangerous, is its apparent irreversibility. Over the next four years, the government will take extraordinary steps to lock in its hegemony. It plans to introduce an ‘overriding clause’ that will enable the parliament to overturn Supreme Court rulings, effectively abolishing the separation of powers and ensuring that Netanyahu’s trial will end without conviction. Netanyahu will also exploit the impotence of international law, along with Israel’s warm relations with the new authoritarian right in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, to realize the dream of a de facto annexation of Area C in the West Bank.

Despite what my neighbour said, it is most likely that we will meet again at the ballot box once the new government has completed its term. But the question is what options we – let alone the Palestinians – will have, after four more years of Netanyahu and Religious Zionism.  

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘The House of Zion’, NLR 96.


Tue 17 Jun 2008 15.00 BST

Frozen out

This article is more than 14 years old

Yonatan Mendel

With Arabs still excluded from large parts of Israeli society, Said’s arguments are as relevant now as they ever were

Tue 17 Jun 2008 15.00 BST

The 30th anniversary of Orientalism has brought with it numerous publications aiming to weaken Edward Said’s project. As I see it they seek to disqualify the writer rather than engage with his arguments, and do not contribute to scholarly debate about his work. I would like to bring forward a contemporary political debate to remind us that Orientalism’s political arguments are still alive and kicking.

As a journalist in Israel, my home country, I frequently found Orientalism to be an effective tool for understanding Israeli discourse, knowledge-construction and the media’s work. In a society which gathers around the army as its focal point and which sees Judaism as a national identity, the Jewish-military discourse emerges almost naturally.

Within this discourse, which becomes the society’s common sense, certain (positive) behaviours are linked to the Jews, and certain (negative) behaviours are linked to the Arabs. Giving the media as an example, one needs to remember that within Israeli common sense, the themes of violence, aggressiveness, propaganda and incitement are Arab-oriented, while self-defence, response, restraint and morality are Jewish-Israeli-oriented, and rarely represent Arab behaviour or ways of thinking.

Following this, and in order to understand how a hegemonic Jewish discourse is being shaped in a country with 1.4 million Palestinian citizens (who can speak Hebrew and are educated in the state’s schools and universities), it is indeed helpful to come back to Orientalism. According to Said:

“In discussions of the orient, the orient is all absent, whereas one feels the orientalist and what he says as presence … We must not forget the orientalist’s presence is enabled by the orient’s effective absence”.

The process of producing sociopolitical knowledge about Arabs in Israel could prove the validity of this notion, mostly due to the fact that within the Israeli spheres where this knowledge is being made, Arabs are not allowed.

Despite the fact that one-fifth of Israeli citizens are Arabs, the establishment has always preferred to understand the region through Jewish-Zionists’ eyes and to assume the task of representing the same Arabs.

The prime ministers’ advisers for Arab affairs, emissaries dealing with Arab delegations, thinktanks seeking political solutions concerning the Palestinians, the media’s Arab affairs correspondents and Israeli-Arabic radio, television and newspapers outlets have practically been controlled, run and presented by Jews from the state of Israel’s very beginning.
Interestingly, due to the sensitivity (or even danger) of adding indigenous “Arab” knowledge and understanding to the Israeli-Jewish perception of “the Arabs”, the Palestinian citizens of Israel emerged as being more suited to “non-Arab” positions. For example, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Universities, there are no Palestinian citizens of Israel who are regular lecturers in the Middle East faculties, but, surprisingly, they can be found in the faculties of medicine, pharmacy, education, law, sociology and others. Taking high schools as another example for knowledge-construction, it is interesting to note that teachers of the Arabic language in Jewish-Israeli schools are rarely Arabs; an Arabic supervisor from Israel’s ministry of education explained their absence by saying that Arabic is the least suitable subject to be taught by Arabs.

These examples show that knowledge about the other was constructed in Israel not only by ignoring it geographically or politically, but also personally. This assisted with the creation and preservation of a discourse which was and still is Jewish and Zionist-oriented, and that immunises Jewish society from being challenged by different or opposing ideas.

The discourse described here cannot explain all processes in Israeli society, but deals with “big practices” that are the general themes in Israeli society. Indeed, out of 160 participants in the 2007 Herzliya conference, addressing Israel’s strategic challenges in the region, one could find two Palestinian citizens of Israel; in the department of Arabic at the Hebrew University there has been one permanent academic staff member who was an Arab during its 82 year history; and Israeli Channel 2 actually has one Arab correspondent in Gaza.

However, these exceptions prove the rule since this hybridity, of Palestinians who penetrate Jewish-controlled spheres, is essentially a western-Jewish notion that emerges from its own complexity, understanding and limits. At the end of the day, the minimal presence of the Arab-east in western-Jewish hegemonic discourse in Israel does not make it any less absent.


[Marxism] Divide and divide and divide and rule

(In my review of “Ruins of Lifta”, I mentioned that historian Hillel Cohen was among those interviewed and alluded to his book “1929: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict” that appears to be an important contribution to “revisionist” literature.)

LRB, Vol. 38 No. 19 · 6 October 2016
Divide and divide and divide and rule
by Yonatan Mendel

1929: Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict by Hillel Cohen, translation by Haim Watzman
Brandeis, 312 pp, £20.00, November 2015, ISBN 978 1 61168 811 5

Ten minutes into Elia Suleiman’s film The Time That Remains, the Palestinian city of Nazareth officially surrenders to Israeli military forces on 16 July 1948. In the town hall, the Israeli commander reads out the bill of surrender to the gathered Arab-Palestinian notables. It’s in Hebrew and they don’t understand a word. The commander tells the mayor to sign the document, and then to join his soldiers for a ‘historic photo’. A military cameraman points his camera at the soldiers. But when the black and white photo appears on screen it isn’t the soldiers we see: it’s the puzzled group of Arab-Palestinian figures at the other end of the room, ordinary people, onlookers. They, and others like them, are central figures in the work of Hillel Cohen. Neither the conventional ‘winners’ nor the stereotypical ‘losers’, they play a part in the grand political story which, though crucial, is often overlooked.

Cohen was born in 1961 into a National Religious family; his father was of Jewish Afghan origin, his mother of Jewish Polish descent. As a teenager he lived in a settlement in the West Bank. He left school at 16 and began to explore the neighbouring Palestinian villages. He made friends, learned Arabic, and by being there found out about the lives of Palestinians under the occupation. He worked as a floorer before beginning his academic career. He reads the Bible but no longer considers himself ‘religious’. He goes ‘more often to Hebron than to Tel Aviv and more often to Bethlehem than to Haifa’. He believes in a one-state solution (at least in the long term) and supports Israeli human rights organisations such as Anarchists against the Wall and Hamoked, which works with Palestinians in the Occupied Territories whose rights have been violated by Israeli policies. He writes in Hebrew – unusually for an academic, he doesn’t have an international audience primarily in mind. In half a dozen scholarly books covering the history of Palestine and Israel from 1929 to 1967 and beyond, he has consistently written about ordinary people, something no other Israeli historian has managed to do.

Cohen identifies 1929 as the year that gave birth ‘to the Zionist military ethos’. The Arab-Israeli conflict probably doesn’t have a ‘year zero’ – its roots go back at least as far as the 19th century – but 1929 should certainly be seen as a landmark. Between 23 and 29 August that year, 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed. Hundreds more were injured. The worst violence was in the Old City of Jerusalem and near the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Cohen shows how the violence was connected to the threat – real or imagined – of a change in the status of a religious site that served as a symbol of political hegemony. In the 1920s, the Western Wall in Jerusalem was a Jewish prayer site in an Arab area where ‘Jews were allowed to pray … on the condition that they not disturb the residents of the neighbourhood, and on the understanding that they not claim title to the site.’

On 15 August 1929, following months of tension, Jewish demonstrators marched to the Wall, raised the Zionist flag, sang the Zionist anthem and claimed ownership of the site. The effect on relations between Jews and Arabs was dramatic. There was an Arab counter-demonstration the next day, which within a week had escalated into full-blown anti-Jewish riots. (More recent violence in Jerusalem has also been a consequence of Israeli attempts to change the status of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount site. The Second Intifada was sparked in 2000 by Ariel Sharon’s decision to visit the site to prove Israeli sovereignty; and the latest cycle of violence in Jerusalem follows 15 meetings at which the Interior Committee of the Knesset discussed changing the site’s status to allow Jews to pray there.)

Drawing on a wide range of sources, in Hebrew, Arabic and English, Cohen argues that neither side includes in the history it tells itself the massacres and murders committed by its own members. He juxtaposes Hebrew and Arabic accounts of particular incidents – for example, the murder of the Palestinian ‘Awn family in Abu Kabir village by a Jewish policeman named Simha Hinkis – and shows how Jews and Arabs described them at the time, and how they have been remembered, and forgotten, since. In Biladuna Filastin (‘Our Homeland Palestine’) Mustafa Dabbagh describes the murders of the ‘Awn family and the way Hinkis mutilated their bodies: Jewish newspapers didn’t report the crime at all, and when they covered the trial referred to the murder as the ‘Hinkis incident’.

The division between the two communities – Jewish Zionists on one side and Arab Palestinians on the other – ‘grew ever more salient’, Cohen argues, ‘as national identity grew stronger’. At the beginning of the 20th century, many of the Jews in Palestine, not to mention the wider Middle East, had no Zionist national aspirations. The riots of 1929 changed that. ‘No other factor was more influential in bringing the established Jewish communities in Palestine and the new Zionist community together under a single political roof.’

After 1929 tension was no longer between the indigenous population (Arab Palestinians, including Jews) and European Zionist immigrants, but between Arabs and Jews. In Israel today, descendants of Mizrahi Jews (or Arab Jews) tend to have more anti-Arab views than the rest of the Jewish population. This has a lot to do with the narrow range of identities ‘allowed’ by Zionist European ideologies, according to which an Arab cannot be a Jew and a Jew cannot be an Arab. The 1929 attacks on Mizrahi Jews, who spoke Arabic and dressed in Arab clothes, marked a moment of dramatic change.

Mazal Cohen was a Jewish woman murdered in Safed on 29 August 1929. Her brother spoke at her funeral:

For a quarter of a century I have spoken their language, perused their books, learned their way of life, observed their ways and manners, yet I did not know them … Who injected into your inner beings this twisted spirit, to stride with drawn swords at the head of a bloodthirsty throng and to lend a hand to murdering innocent people who lived with you securely for generations, who just yesterday were your companions and friends? … You always said that you considered native-born Jews to be your brothers, that you would love them, that you would respect them, because you share a single language and way of talking with them, and that you bore a grudge only against those who came anew … And how is it that you, the murderers of Safed, beset like beasts of prey solely those inhabitants of the city who have been integrated there for generations, turning their homes to heaps of ruins, mercilessly killing women and the old and the weak, who never did you any harm, taking the lives of people whose mother tongue is your language, and whose way of life is yours, different from you only in religion? … I have lived among you for a quarter of a century, I have been your guest, I have attended to your confidences and thoughts, and I did not know you.

This was the moment at which the possibility of a unified Arab-Jewish identity, or even a shared Arab-Jewish life, disappeared, perhaps for ever. The Zionist movement had succeeded in associating itself with all Jews, no matter whether they were European or Mizrahi, supportive of Zionism, indifferent or opposed to it. From now on Jews would see Arabs, all Arabs, as their enemy, and vice versa.

Theodor Herzl envisaged Israel as a ‘rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilisation against barbarism’. In the 1930s, some 57 Jewish settlements were established in a project called ‘Homa u-Migdal’ (‘A Wall and a Watchtower’), in which new villages were built in Palestine with two prescribed features: they were surrounded by a fence, and there was a guard tower in the middle. Jewish Israeli society still sees itself and its position in the world through the prism of security. Ehud Barak used to call Israel a ‘villa in the jungle’. Benjamin Netanyahu has said: ‘We need to secure our villa, the State of Israel, with fences and barriers from all sides, to protect it from the wild beasts that surround us.’ Military service is compulsory, and generally regarded as the highest contribution to the ‘common good’. The security establishment is also key to the Israeli economy: Israel, with a population of only eight million people, is the world’s seventh biggest arms exporter.

Cohen is less interested in the militarisation of Israeli society than in the practices that have shaped the relationship between Jews and Arabs. In Army of Shadows: Palestinian Collaboration with Zionism 1917-48 (2008) and Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs 1948-67 (2010), he explores the way that the security apparatus gradually became Israel’s main means of interacting with and controlling the Palestinian community. Intelligence work – especially the recruitment and running of collaborators – has deepened Israeli penetration of Palestinian society, which served not only to strengthen Israel militarily but also to dilute Palestinians’ sense of national identity, their political commitment and above all their social solidarity. Over the years, and especially under martial law between 1948 and 1966, it became clear to some that working with the Israeli security forces was a way to ensure their survival, and to others that it could bring material gain.

By looking at the security apparatus as a ‘bond’ between Jews and Arabs and examining the role played by Palestinian collaborators, Cohen exposes a crucial – and ongoing – aspect of history that nobody else wants to talk about. Much of what’s written on the conflict is confined within the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ frameworks. Cohen’s angle makes both sides uncomfortable. From a ‘pro-Israel’ point of view, his work raises serious moral questions about the underhand methods used by the Zionist movement and Israel against the Palestinians, as well as making plain that the hands of Jewish decision-makers have not been held out in peace. From a ‘pro-Palestinian’ point of view, his research seems liable to undermine the unity of the Palestinian national movement if only by showing the historic depth of ‘betrayal’ in the Palestinian community in the 1930s and 1940.

In 1920 Chaim Weizmann, then president of the Zionist Movement, called for the ‘provocation of dissension between Christians and Muslims’. Chaim Margaliot Kalvarisky, head of the Zionist Executive’s Arab Department, created the Muslim National Association with the purpose of widening divisions between Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians. These were the early seeds of a Zionist divide and rule strategy that prevailed after 1929. Following another wave of clashes in the 1930s the dominant institutions of the Zionist movement’s security establishment began to take shape (Irgun was established in 1931, the Arab department of the Hagana in 1937, the Stern Gang in 1940 and so on). A Jewish ‘collaboration doctrine’ was formulated, based on the assumption that every Jewish-Arab relationship, however friendly and peaceful, would be subordinated to a ‘higher cause’: the needs of the Zionist movement. This is how Ezra Danin, one of the first intelligence co-ordinators in the Jewish community in Palestine, saw the situation in 1936:

There is always bad blood in a village and sometimes there are murders and then a chain of reprisals. In many cases of this sort, the murderer emigrates to another settlement, where he receives protection under Muslim custom. You can always get information from such a pursued, protected man in need of succour. The refusal to give a girl to a given man can lead to harsh conflicts. A man who asks the hand of a girl and is refused by her parents feels himself abused, especially if he is the girl’s cousin. Types generally exploitable for intelligence work are rebellious sons, thieves who have brought disgrace on their families, rapists who have acted on their passions and fled the avengers of tainted honour. An intelligence agent with open eyes and ready ears will always be able to make use of these personal circumstances and exploit them for his own needs.


‘Rebellious sons’ are still available for exploitation today. Mos’ab Hassan Yousef, son of a Hamas leader in the West Bank, collaborated with Israeli intelligence from 1997 to 2007. His story made it into bookshops (Son of Hamas) and cinemas (The Green Prince). Human rights organisations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip report evidence of Palestinians killed, tortured or jailed, by both official and unofficial Palestinian bodies, for collaborating with Israel. When I worked at Physicians for Human Rights, there were many stories of Palestinians from the West Bank being stopped by Israeli intelligence officers on their way to Jordan to get medical treatment. ‘They told me, if you want to save the life of your daughter, you have to work with us,’ a Palestinian father said. ‘I refused and came back home.’ The next day he tried again, and was allowed to go to Jordan. He told me after his return to Palestine that those who are first refused and then allowed to leave the country, or are allowed through in the first place, will always be suspected of being collaborators. In other words, any contact that Palestinians have with Israeli officials involves the threat of being made to collaborate, or of being labelled a collaborator. For Israeli security it’s doubly useful: it brings in information and deepens mistrust.

The earliest murder of an Arab collaborator that Cohen has discovered took place in 1929; the earliest murder of an Arab land dealer who arranged a sale of land from Arabs to Jews occurred in 1934; in 1938, at the height of the Great Arab Revolt, of 900 Palestinians killed, 498 were killed by fellow Palestinians on suspicion of either collaborating with the Zionists or selling land to Jews. As the circle of khawana (‘traitors’), real or suspected, grew, so did the violence. In such circumstances it was almost impossible to create a united Palestinian front. In 1948, Cohen says, there was not only a general unwillingness among Palestinians to fight, but even active resistance to the Arab fighters. The Zionist intelligence services were working overtime to create the impression that everybody in Palestine was betraying everybody else.

With the creation of the Israeli state, Palestinians became ‘Arab Israelis’ overnight while Israel did its best – with the help of Palestinian collaborators – to create satellite political parties that were friendly to Israel as a way of impeding the creation of an authentic Palestinian leadership. Many Arab members of the Knesset had been collaborators before 1948. As far as Israel was concerned, there were ‘bad Arabs’ (politically aware Palestinian citizens of Israel who wanted to connect to the Arab world, called for equal rights and demanded the return of refugees) and ‘good Arabs’ (Palestinian citizens of Israel who co-operated with the state and showed loyalty to its principles).

Investigating the daily lives of Palestinians between 1948 and 1967, Cohen looks at the school system, and traces letters from informers denouncing teachers who didn’t toe the Zionist line, or tried to remain apolitical. He enters into the political debates between the Communist Party (the Jewish Arab List) and MKs associated with Zionist parties, especially David Ben Gurion’s Labour. He looks at wedding songs to trace the different streams of Palestinian political behaviour. He finds informers who snitched on their neighbours and on people they saw in the village shop or on the city bus; who reported things they heard when they went to have a pee in an olive grove or as they were walking past the house of the head of the village. With the help of informers, the Israeli government ‘was able to obtain information about what was going on in Palestinian communities and what was said in private’, Cohen writes, and ‘even when informers were unable to obtain information, they were able to make their fellow Arabs think they knew.’ As Napoleon III’s chief of police put it, ‘I don’t need one out of every three Parisians chatting on the streets to be my informer, all I need is for each of the three to think that one of the others is an informer.’ Israel made the Palestinian community the first inspector, and the first supervisor, of its own members.

The strategy’s success is at times hard to believe. ‘Good Arabs’ were often as Zionist and anti-Arab as the Israeli establishment, perhaps convincing themselves that they were helping to secure the existence of the Arab community in Israel, or simply for personal gain: rewards ranged from land to public status, from local power to protection. After the 1956 massacre in Kafr Qasim – Israeli border police shot dead 47 men, women and children – Arab community leaders expressed their understanding of the ‘special considerations’ that led to the killings, and rejected the idea of building a memorial in the village. In 1964, Arab MKs chose to celebrate the establishment of Karmiel – a Jewish city built as part of the ‘Judaisation of the Galilee’ – instead of attending a memorial ceremony in Kafr Qasim. And when, on several occasions in the 1960s, the Knesset debated whether to continue with martial law in Arab areas, some Arab MKs voted with the government against dismantling the military regime imposed on their own communities.

The principle of divide and rule governs many walks of life. One significant example given by Cohen was the decision to recruit the Druze into the Israeli army, to cut them off both from the Arab Palestinian community in Israel and from the Druze communities in Lebanon and Syria. Cohen quotes Avraham Akhituv, the former head of Shin Bet: ‘We need to continue our efforts to increase the uniqueness of the Druze and their separateness – that of the young Druze generation especially – from the general Arab population.’ The prime minister’s adviser on Arab affairs said that ‘the individuality of each and every separate community should be consolidated.’ Breaking the Arab community up into smaller communities of Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins not only forced each group to deal with the state separately, Cohen argues, but helped to change the conflict from a conflict between a Jewish community and an Arab community into one between a Jewish majority and Arab minorities, with the singular and plural forms echoing the power relations established by Israel.

Cohen also records Palestinian acts of resistance, organised and unorganised, collective and individual. He has unearthed a police report, for example, on a wedding in the village of Tur’an in the 1960s. After the regular shouts of ‘long live the prime minister of Israel and long live the military governor,’ one of the guests shouted: ‘long live Abu Khaled [Nasser], long live Ben Bella, long live Amin al-Hafez’ – the leaders of Algeria and Syria respectively. In 1958, the Communist Party called on Palestinian citizens not to celebrate Israel’s tenth anniversary:

Will we dance on the day of mourning for the destruction of our villages? Will we dance on the graves of our martyrs who fell in the many massacres, like the ones at Dir Yasin and Kafr Qasim? Will we celebrate while a million of our compatriots are dispersed in exile and prevented from returning to their homes and their homeland? Will we celebrate when we are stripped of national rights and live under a military regime and national repression? No, we will not celebrate. We are part of a huge nation that is today raising its head everywhere, in Algeria, Oman, Aden and Lebanon, against the imperialists and their lackeys, and we will pay them back double.

When the head of the village of Jish refused to celebrate Israeli Independence Day, he lost his position at the Ministry of Health. A customer in a crowded café in a village in the Galilee told the owner not to turn the radio off when it began broadcasting a speech of Nasser’s. ‘I am not afraid of collaborators,’ he said. In Acre in the late 1950s, the Israeli authorities decided that the renovation of Al-Jazzar mosque would be celebrated together with Israel’s Independence Day. Elias Kousa, a prominent lawyer and activist, wrote to the mosque committee:

The Israeli government took Arab land and put it in Jewish hands, so the Jews can live in prosperity while the Arabs live in poverty … This government … chained your freedom as if you were dogs, humiliated you, hurt your dignity and made you a people without respect or pride. It also hurt our education, progress and success … Are you going, after all that, to celebrate a national day we have nothing to do with?

Cohen studies the tension between national feeling, on the one hand, and the need to survive and feed a family, on the other, without judging those who chose either way. Yet the reality he describes makes it clear why the Palestinians couldn’t put the catastrophe of 1948, the Nakba, out of their minds: not because Israeli attempts at re-education weren’t powerful enough but, on the contrary, because Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians was a constant reminder.

The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem, published in Hebrew in 2007 and in English in 2011, predicts the most recent wave of violence to have hit Jerusalem: the so-called knife intifada, which began in October 2015 and mostly involved attacks by Palestinians from the West Bank on Israeli soldiers positioned around the Muslim Quarter in East Jerusalem. Cohen shows that Israeli attempts to erase any Palestinian political claim to Jerusalem – next year Israeli schools will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its ‘unification’ – and the destruction of Palestinian institutions in the city during the Second Intifada has led to a situation in which Palestinians are still discriminated against, East Jerusalem is still occupied, house demolitions there continue, and the Palestinian national leadership has been taken away from the city. This is the context for the latest round of Palestinian violence. By giving Palestinian Jerusalemites ‘special status’ and building a seven-metre concrete wall between Jerusalem and the West Bank, Israel has continued to divide and rule. Not only have Muslims, Christians, Druze and Bedouins been separated from each other, but so have Palestinian Jerusalem, Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Divide and divide and divide and rule.

Cohen doesn’t try to portray the connection that Palestinians have to Jerusalem as stronger or weaker than that of the Jews. Rather, he wishes to revive the possibility of sharing the city. How many Jewish Israelis know that the Palestinians made Jerusalem their capital before Israel did? And how many know that the founding convention of the PLO was held in the Intercontinental Hotel in Jerusalem? And how many Palestinians know about the place of Jerusalem in Jewish literature, religious ceremonies and thought? When Cohen speaks about Jerusalem he means both Palestinian and Jewish Jerusalem, and when he speaks about ‘Jerusalemites’ he includes the Palestinians; Yerushalmim in Hebrew usually refers only to Jewish Israeli residents.

We are in a period of despair. Israel has an extreme right-wing government and a spineless opposition; its prime minister refers cynically to the evacuation of illegal settlements as ‘ethnic cleansing’; its minister of education approves of a wounded, prostrate Palestinian being shot through the head; a majority of Israeli MKs pass a bill that allows them to dismiss fellow members – that’s to say, Arab members – if they feel inclined to do so. Meanwhile, the historic municipal elections that were to take place in Gaza and the West Bank this month were cancelled, probably because the Palestinian Authority feared Hamas would have a resounding victory; the occupation will be half a century old next year and the siege of Gaza will mark its tenth anniversary. Cohen’s work is a valuable resource in these horrendous times. Neither ‘pro-Israeli’ nor ‘pro-Palestinian’, it is impossible to requisition, which may, in part, explain why he was never elevated to the rank of Israel’s ‘new historians’. He writes critically about Zionism and sympathetically about Jews who ran to Palestine for their lives; he writes with great honesty about Palestinians who were forced to co-operate with Israel, and those who chose to fight. He has a rich, dialectical understanding of the Jewish-Arab relationship, and though he would never compare the occupier to the occupied, his writing will make Jewish and Palestinian readers equally uncomfortable.


Yonatan Mendel, ‘The Politics of Non-Translation: On Israeli Translations
of Intifada, Shahid, Hudna and Islamic Movements’, Cambridge
Literary Review, I/3 (Easter, 2010), pp. 179–206.
Copyright Info
All contents are copyright © 2010 by Cambridge Literary Review.
Rightsvert to authors on publication.
Yonatan Mendel
The Politics of Non-Translation: On Israeli
Translations of Intifada, Shahid, Hudna and
Islamic Movements
Iremember rubbing my eyes with amazement. It was about ten
years ago, while I was reading a book by renowned Israeli sociologist,
Baruch Kimmerling. He mentioned “the popular uprising of the
Palestinians in 1987”, using the Hebrew word hitkomemut for “uprising”.
This word has straightforward positive associations in Hebrew as being
an act of resistance against occupying force. “How come I have never
heard of this historical event?” I pondered. “Did it happen before or
after the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada?” (the word used in Arabic
and Hebrew to depict the Palestinian riots which began in December
1987 in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank). It took me several more
pages before I understood what Kimmerling was referring to. “In 2000,”
he wrote, “clashes took place between Palestinians and Israeli police
forces next to Al-Aqsa Mosque… and signalled the beginning of the
Palestinian armed uprising.”
On the one hand I was relieved to learn that I had not missed any significant
political events that had taken place in Israel/Palestine: when using
“uprising” Kimmerling was referring to the two intifadas that broke out
in 1987 and then in 2000 (which was known as Intifadat Al-Aqsa). On
the other hand, it was then that I learned how little I knew about these
events. In most Hebrew texts, the word intifada, which is the Arabic
word used to depict these two uprisings, is not translated, and as an
unexplained expression it maintains rather intimidating, demonic and
violent connotations. For me, intifada was equivalent to rioters, terrorism,
Molotov cocktails, stone throwing, burning tires, blood and clashes.
I was amazed to see how a word could change the lens through which
I viewed political events; even more so when I hurried to the nearest
Arabic-Hebrew dictionary and found that Arabic intifada literally
translates into Hebrew hitkomemut.
It is not a coincidence that, in addition to Israeli scholars, the Israeli
media also chooses to keep intifada un-translated. By doing so, two
goals are achieved: ‘loyalty’ to the word’s meaning is seen to be kept
due to the use of this ‘authentic’ version, and simultaneously the word’s
genuine meaning is emptied due to the lack of appropriate translation.
That is to say, the word’s meaning is being re-filled with Israeli-Jewish
political content, context and understanding, which is so ‘natural’ and
obvious that it need not even be explained. This is how intifada, which
is basically a responsive and defensive concept, came to be—at least in
the Israeli-Jewish context—an offensive and violent notion, as distant
as possible from its initial reactive nature, and is detached from the
ongoing Israeli occupation.
This results in a rather surrealistic Hebrew use of the word. Since
intifada appeared to have a negative connotation, disconnected from
the context of oppression and resistance against it, it was made available
to be used in internal Israeli contexts as criticism of the ‘irrational’
and ‘violent’ behaviour of different groups against the legitimacy of the
establishment. When the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jewish community
in Jerusalem demonstrated against the Gay Pride Parade, vandalising
street signs and burning rubbish bins, the Israeli media depicted them
as fanatic extremists, who will bring about a Haredi Intifada. When
the Israeli army decided to evacuate a house of Jewish settlers in the
Palestinian city of Hebron, the settlers started attacking Palestinians
in the city. The Israeli media then brought forward the ‘illegitimate’
nature of their reaction and reported on “riots of Jewish settlers against
Palestinians” warning of the dangers of a “Jewish settlers’ intifada in
Hebron”. When the lecture of the Israeli Ambassador to the US was
stopped repeatedly by pro-Palestinian demonstrators, Israeli media
titled it as a violent act of “Academic Intifada”.
The term intifada has became so prevalent in Israeli-Hebrew discourse
that all connotations of the Palestinian struggle for independence—
or their desire to shake off Israeli checkpoints and control over their
lives—are now secondary. Muhammad Barakeh, a Palestinian member
of the Israeli parliament, said in 2000 that “We appreciate and respect
the intifada and believe that this is the right response [to the Israeli
occupation].” Barakeh meant that the Palestinians living in the West
Bank should support the mass uprising against Israeli occupation, and
the resistance to its continuation. Israeli authorities understood it differently.
The Attorney General said that the use of the term intifada
demands an “investigation into Barakeh’s violation of Israeli law against
the incitement to terrorism”.
The case of the shahid is no different. This word, meaning ‘witness’
in Arabic, is used by Muslims to depict ‘martyrs’. In the Palestinian
political context it mostly refers to those who died as a result of or as a
response to the Israeli occupation. The word shahid is cognate with the
term shahada, which is the Muslim declaration of belief in the oneness
of God and in the prophet Muhammad. According to the tradition,
Muslim believers who die in the name of a moral cause (one political
example might be the Palestinian struggle for independence) are
reported to say the shahada before they die, and are believed to become
martyrs living in paradise with God.
Israeli Orientalists and media perceive this concept of shahid or shahada
as alien to Israeli/Jewish society, and definitely inhuman. The idea of
valuing one’s death over one’s life is seen as a kind of backward Islamic
concept only confirming what ‘we’ already ‘know’ about Islam, Muslims
and Palestinians. Prof. Yoav Gelber from Haifa University summarised
this in his book, History, Memory, Propaganda: The Historical Discipline
in Israel and in the World (published in 2007, in Hebrew): “there are
cultural differences between the Christian culture of confession, and
the Jewish self-accusation culture, and the ‘everyone should be blamed
but me’ Palestinian-Arab culture… [There are differences] between a
culture which places the sacredness of life in the centre [ Judaism] and a
culture that encourages suicides and shahids [Islam]…” (my translation).
A publication of the Israeli General Security System (Shabak) highlights
that in Palestinian summer camps, the children are exposed to
photos of shahids that are placed in their rooms. The Israeli Intelligence
and Terrorism Information Center dedicate part of its report to the
“culture of praising shahids among Palestinians” and give the following
as an example: “Palestinian children are being taught that a good
way to celebrate the Palestinian Day of Independence is by visiting
families of shahids.” The fact that Palestinians do not celebrate a Day
of Independence—since they are still occupied and this is what they are
fighting for—is not the most disturbing misconception of this report.
More important is that the so-called ‘alien’ culture of praising dead
fighters and placing them in the centre of school life, religious belief or
historical education, is definitely not different to another social group
living not far away: Israeli-Jewish society.
Firstly, Judaism definitely has a comparable concept to shahid and it is
called Kiddush ha-Shem (‘Sanctification of the name of God’). This concept,
which is much closer to the Islamic shahid than the Christian ‘martyr’,
praises the deaths of those who died while sacrificing their lives for the
sake of their Jewish community or Jewish religion. When this happens,
the person who is going to die needs to say the Shema Yisrael prayer, which
is the Jewish declaration of belief in the oneness of God. In the Torah,
two letters of the Shema Yisrael are emboldened—’Ayin and Dalet—which
together makes the word ’ed, meaning, in Hebrew, a witness.
Secondly, there is a constant disregard of the parallel social repercussions
that this concept has in Israeli society, and the similarity between these
Jewish and Muslim concepts is not even debated within the Israeli-
Jewish community. The fact that Israeli society dedicates gardens, lecture
rooms, parks, nature reserves, schools etc. to Israeli-Jewish soldiers who
died is deemed acceptable, and is not seen as alien. Also the fact that
Israeli children, in their Day of Independence, remember the fallen soldiers
and visit their families seems perfectly natural. The Masada Site
is merely one example of that. This site, which has become a place of
education for Israeli schoolchildren and soldiers, was selected due to
its ‘heroic’ historical/Jewish importance: it was there, in 73 AD, that a
Jewish mass suicide of men, women and children took place, justified by
Kiddush ha-Shem, in order not to surrender to the Romans.
The Israeli-Jewish foreignization of the term shahid, by keeping it in
Arabic, and not linking and connecting it to concepts pervasive within
Jewish belief and Israeli society, assists with the general demonization of
Palestinian people and their culture. By keeping the term shahid disconnected
from Palestinian resistance, and while maintaining the praising
of shahids as detached from Palestinian struggle or life under continuous
oppression, the Israeli discourse enables its own preservation as the
antithesis of the Palestinian one. If this did not happen, Israeli-Jewish
children might wake up from a nightmare one night, covered with cold
sweat, realising that Shimshon ha-Gibor (Samson) was the first shahid in
the history of mankind.
Another method of dealing with Arabic/Islamic concepts within the
Israeli discourse is relegating them to a one-dimensional and unchanging
religious context. Hence, the shahid is always a person who
dies while killing others, allegedly unlike the Jewish concept, according
to which a person can also die over Kiddush ha-Shem when defending
others, or when preferring to die rather than converting to another
religion. The idea that shahid can be a person who died while seeking
knowledge, or a mother who dies during childbirth, are not part of the
Israeli discussion, nor—as Prof. Sasson Somekh put it—that there is
also ‘A Shahid of Love’.
The same applies in the case of the term hudna. When explaining
this term in Israel, the emphasis is that it is a ‘ceasefire’ but
not a real one. Rather, it is a ‘ceasefire’ but a temporary one, following
which battles will be renewed in one stage or another by the ‘vicious’,
‘unreliable’, Palestinian ‘other’. This is the notion spread in Israel when
a Palestinian party, such as Hamas, proposes a hudna—a cessation of
fire from both sides. According to Prof. Jacob Lassner and Ilan Troen
from Ben Gurion University, the hudna is an arrangement that may last
for years “but the battle must be resumed when the calculus of power
favours the faithful”.
This description has its roots in the Islamic precedent of hudna, which
was the basis of the Hudaybiyya agreement in 628 AD, signed by the
Prophet Muhammad and tribe of Quraysh. This agreement was made
redundant in 630 when the Prophet Muhammad and his followers
conquered Mecca. However, this is only one narrative related to hudna,
and 1382 years of developments—including interpretations, re-interpretations,
new historical case studies, and the emergence of different
approaches—separate it from now. The historical evidence indicates
that Prophet Muhammad did not plan to violate the conditions of the
hudna when signing them. But this is not even the debate. Since 628
AD the hudna has served in many situations as a bridge toward Sulh
(reconciliation agreement) as a first stage of permanent peace solutions
and as a basis of peace treaties, such as the 1860 Moroccan-Spanish
agreement following the war in Tatouan. Israelis need not even explore
the tradition in great depth to understand that hudna was traditionally
a straightforward, nonviolent concept. In 1979, the peace treaty signed
between Israel and Egypt, the first ever recognition of Israel by an Arab
state, was achieved after Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat received
a religious authorisation justifying the peaceful agreement in the precedent
of the hudna.
The idea that Jewish religious concepts evolve and change with time,
and have been interpreted and re-interpreted, is taken to be natural and
obvious within Israeli-Jewish discourse. However, the Islamic texts, and
the related concepts, are perceived as frozen in time, kept unchanged
through the generations, incapable of any development whatsoever.
One can argue that Israel is not really ready to end its occupation or to
acknowledge the Palestinian nakba (the establishment of Israel through
the forced expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians during the 1948
War) and therefore the expected ‘collapse’ of the ceasefire agreement
is—in a very distorted way—Israeli wishful thinking. So hudna continues
to be explained as an unreliable, deceitful agreement, incapable of
longevity. When the elected Hamas Prime Minister Isma’il Haniyyeh
tried to reach a hudna agreement with Israel in 2007, President Shimon
Peres said that “this is a pathetic attempt aiming [not at a ceasefire] but
at diverting the debate from the crimes committed by Hamas”. “Hudna
is just a deceit”, wrote the military correspondent of Ha’aretz newspaper.
In May 2008 Ehud Barak rejected a proposal for a hudna made
by Hamas, justifying his decision on the same grounds.
The Israeli refusal to translate hudna as ‘ceasefire’, and the insistence
on keeping it in Arabic—explained as some kind of an Islamic archaic
and deceitful version of ‘ceasefire’—corresponds with the general view
of Israeli ‘experts’ toward Palestinians. The Israeli grip on explanations
such as, “Palestinians just try to steal time through the hudna”, or “the
hudna is a mere deception”, stems from the disbelief that Palestinians
can genuinely speak the truth, or desire a peaceful life. Tzvi Yehezkely,
perhaps the most popular commentator on Arab Affairs in Israeli television,
explains this phenomenon cogently. According to him, “There is
a proverb in Arabic which says: ‘do you want the truth or its brother’…
and the Arabs usually prefer its brother.” The fact that this kind of view is
expressed by an ‘expert’ on Arabic language and Middle Eastern Affairs,
or in other cases even by ‘experts’ in academia, not only allows for wide
dissemination of these ideas, but arguably also reflects an Israeli general
attitude towards its ultimate ‘other’: the Arab. The emphasis put on the
‘Arab mind’—as a different, deceitful, and frozen concept, which some
hoped would disappear following Edward Said’s Orientalism—seems to
play as strong a role within Israeli society today as ever.
Demonising or negative values are also attached to concepts
when non-translating them is not the chosen technique.
Sometimes, the translation itself can help achieve exactly the same aims.
Take, for example, the Islamic movement which has operated in Israel
since the 1970s, first headed by Sheikh ’Abdalla Nimr Darwish. In its
early days it was called in Hebrew ha-Tnua’a ha-Islamit (lit.‘The Islamic
Movement’). In 1996, in light of the upcoming elections for the Israeli
parliament, a division took place within the movement’s leadership
regarding the question of participation in the elections. The movement
then split into two: those who supported participation in the elections
followed Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsour, and those who opposed it—and
represented a more radical stand—followed Sheikh Ra’ed Salah. Since
then, a split has also taken place between the Arabic and the Hebrew
terminology. Perhaps due to increased tensions within Israel between
Palestinians and Israeli-Jews, or the general political deterioration in
those years (just before the Palestinian uprising of 2000) the Israeli
media did not follow the Palestinian and Arabic terminology as “the
Islamic movement headed by Sheikh Sarsour” and “the Islamic movement
headed by Sheikh Salah”, and instead called them “The Northern
Faction” and “The Southern Faction”.
The word ‘faction’ in Hebrew is translated as peleg and has a mostly
political connotation of a faction in war or conflict. It was not chosen
arbitrarily. The fact that only 60 kilometres separate the office of the
“The Northern Faction” (in Umm Al-Fahm) and that of “The Southern
Faction” (in Kufr Qassim) indicate that this terminology was chosen in
order to create a threatening ‘north vs. south’ division, and did not stem
from a genuine division between two geographic regions, which is altogether
ridiculous in such a small country.
Consider the following headlines, which were published in Israeli newspapers:
“Minister of Internal Security Blamed the Islamic Movement’s
Northern Faction for the Clashes in the Old City in Jerusalem”; “Al-
Aqsa Institution, which is Affiliated with the Northern Faction of the
Islamic Movement Accused Israel for Illegal Archaeological Works”;
“The Leader of the Northern Faction was Arrested”; and “Israeli Court
Rejected the Appeal of the Southern Faction”. This terminology is
embedded with intimidating components for their Israeli readers, which
on the one hand increases the sales of newspapers and on the other eases
the demonization of a political ‘Other’.
Israeli understanding of Palestinian politics is being forged through
the mediation of Israeli ‘experts’ who recruit words and terminology
to their side. The mission of these ‘experts’ is not really difficult: Israel
has experienced conflicts with Arab states and Arab military movements
from its very beginning; Israeli-Jews do not read Arabic and
by and large alienate the language, its sounds, its speakers and their
culture. By using words in Arabic, the field of expertise not only uses the
already-hostile Zionist discourse towards Arabic language and sounds,
but brings non-experts to the turf of the experts. Then the loading of
Arabic words with explanations and contexts which are intimidating or
that can serve as a future justification for the renewal of battles, is an
easy task.
The same mission can be accomplished by translating a certain expression
in a distorted military- or negatively-oriented way. The reader, or
the receiver, does not have alternative sources of information, certainly
not the Arabic press or foreign academic resources, as these, too, are
not considered as reliable and objective as the Israeli-Jewish sources.
Through this process the writer writes what the reader is willing and
capable to read, and the expert interprets and comments within the
already embedded and limited political understanding of the listener
and of the Israeli-Jewish institution which produces this knowledge.
Peter Berger wrote once about the “danger of meaninglessness”. Perhaps
this concept can be borrowed and help us understand—even partially—
the dominance of a one-dimensional, one-sided, analysis that has prevailed
in the Israeli field of Middle Eastern Studies and ‘expertise’ since
its very beginning.
One cannot say what would have happened if Israelis were to consume
information from experts and commentators who were not discursively
part of the establishment, or psychologically entrenched in the ‘Other-
Arab’ paradigm. We should ask ourselves how we react to the following
statements: “the culture of shahids is an inherent part of the Islamic
belief ”, “Palestinians threaten with another intifada”, “The Northern
Faction will demonstrate in Jerusalem”, and “Hamas’s pathetic proposal
for a temporary unreliable hudna”. Or what do we make of these
more accurate equivalents: “the Palestinians’ concept of Jewish Kiddush
ha-Shem is part of the Islamic belief ”, “the Palestinian people will continue
their uprising in light of the continuous occupation”, “the Israeli
Islamic movement will demonstrate in Jerusalem” and “Hamas suggests
to Israel a genuine promising ceasefire”.
The Israeli hatred of the Palestinian ‘Other’, to its political affiliations,
military decisions, and actual ‘Otherness’, is to a certain degree a linguistic
invention. It has recruited to the battlefield morphological structures,
concepts of translation and even the humble soldiers of transliteration.
Language has been revealed by Israelis to be a meaningful reinforcement
in its battles against the Palestinians. One can argue that it is a
fifth column much more than anything else.
Author Info
Yonatan Mendel is an Israeli PhD student at Queens’ College in the
University of Cambridge. His PhD, which studies the connection between
the Arabic language and security in Israel, is being conducted at
the Department of Middle Eastern Studies. He formally worked as a
journalist in Israel, and is currently a contributor to the London Review
of Books.

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