What’s in a name? When “Israel” becomes a dirty word

Photo by Dominic Greyer
Photo by Dominic Greyer

I have a very special and precious friend. Her name is Basma and she’s an American from a white, middle class background, who converted to Islam and moved to the Middle East. She’s precious both because she’s a lovely person (I was fortunate enough to host her when she visited Tel-Aviv) and because she provides me with an invaluable political challenge. Basma’s anti-Zionist position is unyielding and staunch. Her commitment to the Palestinian cause makes my own politics seem Liebermanian by comparison.

Like me, Basma is appaled by the wrongs of the occupation. Unlike me, she sees both sides of the Green Line as being equally occupied. In all Truth, we share more than it would seem. Basma may be radical and angry but she isn’t unaccepting, or I would have been deleted from her list of Facebook friends a long time ago. I’m still there and we exchange comments and read each other’s status updates. Yesterday she posted the following one:

If I have to hear another foreigner in Amman talking about their plans “to go to ‘Israel’ for Eid,” somebody might die. If you’re going to come study or work here, then at least try to figure out what’s really going on here. If you’re a Zionist and aren’t willing to question it, go back to wherever you came from, yalla bye bye.

I took a minute to think about this and then posted a long response. I was later encouraged by Dimi Reider to post it here, not because he thought it was oh-so-cleaver, I’m sure, since it’s just as hastily written and casual as any remark made in a Facebook dialogue, but because Basma opened up an important issue and it’s worth being developed.

Here’s what I wrote:

‎”Eretz-Yisrael” (land of Israel) Is a term that has been used thousands of years before the invention of Zionism. Did Zionism delegitimize it to the point that it must be placed under a taboo? Can a country have two names or more? Am I “Israeli”? if not, what am I? If I am Israeli, yet Israel is not a legitimate term, then what is my home? If I was born here and my parents were born here and this land is Palestine, am I “Palestinian”? When asked where I am from, what should I say? What should I think of the Jordanian cab driver, who, mistaking me for an American tourist, praised the marvels of “Israel”? May I use the term “Palestine” when speaking of the West Bank, or even of the entire territory, despite the fact that Palestine is not yet a soverign state and using this term may create a skewed impression, as if the struggle for it is over? I can ask thousends of such questions, I ask them of myself every day.

I’ll add a story. There’s a city in Northern Ireland that’s referred to as “Derry” by Catholics and Republic of Ireland, and “Londonderry” by Protestants and the British government. It’s a charged place, where the events of Bloody Sunday took place, and the name is a charged matter. I knew a Catholic guy who in the 90s drove up from the republic to a concert in that town and was stopped by the British border police. They asked him where he’s headed and when he said “Derry” they told him no such place exists and sent him back.

I can understand the point of view from which “Israel” shouldn’t exist and doesn’t. I think perhaps for you, as a foreign pro-Palestinian activist, the answers may be a little more clear cut than they are for me. They aren’t for me. I struggle with these questions a lot. In any case, I don’t place taboo on words nor take any name for granted. I try to use “Palestine” as often as I can, even in situations here where people don’t expect to hear it and don’t know quite how to deal with heaving just heard the country named that. What’s in a name? A lot.

I won’t add many words here, since I’ve already taken up far more verbal room than did the other voice in this dialogue. It’s left to you, dear reader, to ponder these many questions and make up your mind. I’ll leave you with a good tune to which to muse. It was written by Bobby Sands, a man who took the struggle for liberation as seriously as Basma does.