‘Crying terrorism’: Israel’s political use cheapens the term

In characterizing all non-violent Palestinian measures as terrorism, Israel insults the memory of victims of real acts of terror.

By Lara Friedman

Yesterday was Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Remembrance Day. Every year on this day Israelis stop to remember their fellow citizens who have given their lives for the sake of Israel, whether in wars or at the hands of terrorists.

On this day, Israelis think a lot about terrorism. Israelis have a uniquely personal and painful understanding of what the word means.  Exploding packages and buses leave an indelible mark on any person possessing the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the tiniest modicum of compassion to feel the pain of the families whose loves ones are lost and wounded.

U.S. law defines “terrorism” in two places (here and here). Common to these definitions is violence or the threat of violence – instilling in innocent people genuine terror for the lives and safety of themselves and loved ones. Israel, of all countries in the world, knows what this terror feels like, having experienced such violence at home and abroad. Israelis know terrorism for what it is – the depraved, immoral face of an enemy that has no human compassion for Israelis, seeing them not as human beings but only as targets.

It is in this context that the current trend of devaluing the term “terrorism” is so appalling. The term “terrorism” (or its cousin, “warfare”), in the mouths of some Israeli spokesmen and hasbaraniks, increasingly seems capable of expanding to include any action that is perceived as hostile to the policies and ideological proclivities of the current Israeli government and its hard-line supporters.

Thus, we’ve seen Land Day protests denounced by Israeli officials as “political terrorism”; Palestinian efforts to seek recognition from the UN and other nations termed “diplomatic terrorism”; efforts by Palestinians and others in the international community to use the courts to challenge Israeli actions and policies denounced as “lawfare”; settler leaders denounce boycotts of settlements as “economic terrorism”; academic boycotts denounced as “academic terrorism”; and in general, non-violent Palestinian efforts to fight Israeli policies  are increasingly viewed as “non-violent warfare.”

And this week, only a few days before Yom Hazikaron, we heard an Israeli official describe a “60 Minutes” report by a prominent American Jewish journalist as a “strategic terror attack.”

Recently, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails launched a hunger strike.  If they start dying, will this be condemned as a new form of Palestinian “suicide terror”?  Will the Israeli spokesperson sound like the U.S. official who characterized the alleged suicides of a number of detainees at Gitmo as “an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us”?

Can we look forward to new terms – like “demographic terror” to describe the Palestinian birthrates (it’s already been used on one settler website)?  What about “journalistic terrorism” to describe press coverage unfriendly to the current Israeli government?  Or will Israeli officials start vilifying as “linguistic terrorists” those of us who insist on using the terms “occupied,” “settlements,” and “West Bank” in lieu of “disputed,” “communities,” and “Judea and Samaria”?

Israelis enjoy tremendous sympathy and support from around the world for genuine terrorism it has faced.  They threaten to weaken this support and sympathy – and sorely test the patience of even their closest friends – when they “cry wolf”, or in this case, “cry terrorism.”  Conflating non-violent actions with terrorism isn’t going to work, regardless of whether members of the intended audience endorse or reject some of the tactics adopted by those challenging Israeli policies. People know the difference between a bus blowing up in Jerusalem and a demonstration of unarmed protesters in Bil’in.  They can distinguish between a suicide attack and a diplomatic initiative.  They know that appealing to the courts, even for malicious reasons, is not the same as hijacking a plane, and that boycotts, whether you agree with them or not, aren’t terrorism.

Terrorism is terrorism.  When Israelis try to manipulate the term for political purposes, it only makes them seem desperate and cynical – prepared, for their own political purposes, to cheapen the memory of every victim of terror, to insult the pain of the victims’ families, and to deliver a slap in the face to every Israeli and every person who has ever faced the real fear that terrorism breeds.

Lara Friedman is Director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now.