Israel and the semantics of propaganda

Israel and the semantics of propaganda

by Louis Allday*

“The value of propaganda has no relationship to the degree of its truth, only with its credibility to the section of people at which it is aimed” — Paul Bowles, “The Spider’s House”
Mainstream news sources in the United States and the United Kingdom that are considered by many to be “leftist” or “liberal” or “impartial” are not guilty of producing the vile and blatant pro-Israeli propaganda of many of their peers. Nevertheless, their reportage on issues concerning Israel is frequently framed according to the narrative that is propagated by the Israeli government’s public relations machine and perpetuates an entirely distorted and misleading image of the conflict.

Israel’s actions are subtly legitimized through the choice of words that are utilized to describe them. This is particularly so when compared to those words chosen to describe the actions of others — notably the Palestinians and Hezbollah. This manipulative use of language conditions the mainstream public to understand the conflict in an utterly warped and damaging fashion even if they manage to retain a level of sympathy for the Palestinian cause. The same is true of many journalists, who internalize this warped understanding and continue its propagation despite professing their sympathies with the Palestinians’ suffering.

If one consults only mainstream media for information on the conflict in Palestine, what is immediately striking is that Israel appears to be in a permanent state of “retaliation” — a phrase which immediately confers at least a modicum of legitimacy or justification upon the act to which it refers. Israel is never presented as the aggressor and however much its actions are condemned — which they are by some mainstream sources — they are invariably portrayed as a reaction to some form of provocation. Conversely, missiles launched from the Gaza Strip or southern Lebanon are habitually portrayed as “attacks” — never “retaliations,” even if Israel has launched a devastating missile strike immediately prior to the event — as so often is the case. The public is subliminally conditioned to understand that Israel is a permanent victim that on occasion is forced to lash out in response to the irrational and unruly aggression of illegitimate non-state actors that encircle it.

In this vein, one frequently reads or hears reports of “militants” who have been killed in the Gaza Strip — a description which automatically implies violence and aggression on behalf of the victims, not the killers themselves. It also robs the victim of the legitimacy that the word “soldier” inherently lends to an individual — to hear of “Israel Defense Forces [IDF] militants” would appear completely oxymoronic to someone conditioned to view the conflict through the prism which the mainstream US/UK media has developed.

According to the mainstream narrative, the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 was caused by Hezbollah’s “kidnapping” of Israeli soldiers — the immediate context of these events was almost entirely ignored, as was the inconvenient fact that during its brutal and decades-long occupation of southern Lebanon, Israel kidnapped Lebanese citizens on a massive scale. Besides, Israel does not “kidnap” but rather “detains” or “arrests” — this choice of words again conferring a level of legitimacy upon the acts of Israel which the word “kidnap” does not upon those of Hezbollah. “Kidnap” implies the unlawful act of a criminal group whereas to “detain” or “arrest” has the connotation of an orderly legal process conducted by the authorities. Unfortunately, to imagine hearing of the “arrest” of an IDF soldier is equally as laughable as to imagine reading about the “kidnap” of a Palestinian civilian.

Since Israel’s actions are constantly presented as those of a “state” or the “military” of a state — the mainstream media automatically grants them a level of legitimacy and respect which they fundamentally deny the Palestinians without stopping to question why it is that they do not have their own state or military with which to earn such legitimacy. Sadly, the tragic irony of this paradox appears to be lost on those most guilty of perpetuating it.

*Louis Allday is a London-based Middle East analyst.

Israel and the semantics of propaganda

Israel and the semantics of propaganda