For author and journalist Ben Ehrenreich, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is more than a cultural or geopolitical struggle. It’s also a war of words. Ehrenreich first reported from the West Bank in 2011, then lived there from 2013-14. Now based in Los Angeles, his focus is on how people understand the conflict and by what terms.
The current term he’s contemplating: “intifada.” An Arabic word that literally translates as “shaking off,” it’s often used to describe the increased violence between Palestinians and Israelis from 1987-91 and 2000-05. Its definition has been distorted to generally mean “uprising.”
For many Palestinians, naming the spike in violence that began in July 2014 in Jerusalem inspires fear; they worry terms that have been applied – “silent intifada,” “urban intifada” or “third intifada” – could lead to oversimplification and a hasty resolution that leaves underlying issues still simmering.
With the U.S. spending $3 billion a year supporting Israeli military operations, Ehrenreich is concerned that a solution in the near future is not likely. But he believes the way to get there is through a well-informed audience that reads between the lines. He spoke with the Weekly in advance of his talk at CSU Monterey Bay.
Weekly: What are some other terms that get convoluted in media and propaganda surrounding the conflict?
Ehrenreich: I don’t think there’s any other conflict where the basic language is so controversial. If you call it “Palestine,” you’re picking a side. If you call it “Judea-Samaria,” you’re picking a side. If you call it an “occupation,” you’re picking a side.
When the basic terms make up so much of the conflict, that’s when it gets difficult to discuss. “Peace-talks” have certainly never made Palestinians happy because nothing has come out of them; it’s as if people involved in those talks are just putting a happy face on the conflict. Almost any term we find is in contention.
What should people be reading to educate themselves on the conflict?
Read widely. Even objective news sources take sides, and people should know to what degree. I think reading Israeli newspapers is important, also reading mainstream stuff like The New York Times, and also Palestinian papers like Ma’an, whose reporting is sometimes dodgy but is still a different source. Al Jazeera also does really well in covering the conflict. As far as books, there has been a rise of Israeli historians changing up the historical narrative, like Ilan Pappé’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. One of the best journalists writing about the issue is Amira Hass, who writes for Haaretz. She’s telling incredible stories no one else is telling right now.
Has the U.S. escalated the conflict?
Whatever Israel does, whether it was the Gaza War of 2008-09 or the Gaza War of 2006, the U.S. has supported Israel, regardless. Even with escalating numbers of civilian casualties, the U.S. will only politely protest for Israel to be a little more cautious. The U.S. is the prime sponsor and prime benefactor of this war.
What role does media have?
It plays a huge role. During the Gaza war, Israel had an entire team dedicated to Facebook and Twitter. On the Palestinian side, if you go to a demonstration, cameras are everywhere. You see all of these narratives emerging.
Why is this relevant for the U.S.?
Americans are sustaining this conflict with their tax dollars. They are paying in weapons and they’re paying in bloodshed. Also, much of what is happening in this conflict is directly linked to the conflicts happening in American society. Israel has always been years ahead in thinking about how to police certain subject populations. When you think about the violence used against people of color in the U.S., I think Israel could be a beacon of what’s ahead.
Why do you continue covering this conflict when it seems so helpless?
If I covered stories that seemed more hopeful, I’d stick to writing about firemen pulling cats out of trees. I’m really deeply moved by that place and their people. I developed a real attachment; it’s a place that pulls you in. The fact that things keep going badly doesn’t make me care any less.