Writers and speakers often employ hidden rhetorical devices when discussing charged political issues – especially when it comes to Israel. The average reader or listener is often unaware. Here's a list of the most common tricks. Practice finding them and chances are you’ll never think about political discourse in quite the same way!
One way of subtly influencing the conversation is to excuse behavior by describing it in softer language than it might otherwise merit.
Example: when is a terrorist a terrorist? Many media organizations have no trouble calling groups like Al Qaeda “terrorists,” but balk when describing those who kill innocent civilians in Israel, labeling them “militants” instead.1
The opposite of “euphemism” is “dysphemism,” calling something by a name that carries a negative connotation.
Example: Those who can’t bear to say the name “Israel” use the ominous-sounding “Zionist entity” instead, betraying more about the speaker than about Israel itself.2
Israel’s capital, Jerusalem, can become “illegally-occupied Arab Jerusalem” for those who are uncomfortable with having Jewish residents there, and Israelis are sometimes called "settlers."
Stereotyping is another sneaky way to subtly load a conversation. Animal-like words like “overrunning” or “breeding” when referred to people works to downplay their humanity.
Example: British Member of Parliament Martin Linton has recently described pro-Israeli Britons as “the long tentacles of Israel” reaching into Britain.
A trend may be downward, overall, but one can mislead by pointing to a brief uptick as evidence that things are, in fact, going up, even when the opposite is true.
Example: In its April 3, 2010 edition, The Economist magazine ran an article about the terrorist organization Hamas, which controls Gaza, positing that “….some economists say the (Gaza) strip is growing faster than the West Bank run by Hamas’s rival Palestinian Authority.” I’m not in a position to measure this (I’m not sure anybody is, given the lack of transparent economic data in Gaza), but to me this claim cries out as being fragmentary and suspect.
This occurs when writers rely on shadowy or manufactured “experts” to give gravitas to an otherwise wild claim.
Example: look at The Economist quote above: “some economists say….” Who are these economists? And if “some” economists say this, does it mean that many more economists say the opposite? Use of proof surrogates is a clear red flag that a statement might be highly contentious, if not outright misleading.
Advertisers have found that when they add the word “fantastic” to packaging, consumers rate products more highly.
One can do something similar in political discourse, assigning either positive or negative traits to political groups or ideas.
Example: in April of 2010, the emeritus Italian Bishop Giacomo Babini asserted that “Zionists” are behind the many reports of abuse by priests bedeviling the Catholic Church, because Jews are “God killers.” The remarks are bizarre, but can nonetheless -- especially when they are repeated -- subtly color people’s impressions of Jews and Israel.
If you can reduce a view or arguments you oppose to a ridiculously simplistic caricature, it becomes easy to dismiss.
Example: in Carol Churchill’s infamous (and very critical of Israel’s very existence) play Seven Jewish Children, the biggest laugh comes when a Jewish character tries to explain the central, eternal connection of Jews throughout history to the Land of Israel.
In Churchill’s hands, all she can do is say that once -- she doesn’t know how long ago -- an ancestor lived there. It’s a hilarious moment for most audiences, and effectively (but misleadingly) ridicules millenniums of Jewish devotion to the Land of Israel, making it seem silly, but ignoring the fact of continuous Jewish residency in Israel for thousands of years, obscuring the fact that most land in modern Israel was actually purchased by Jewish residents in the years leading up to the founding of the state, and dismisses the political reality of Israel today.3
Caricature is the hallmark of someone seeking to mislead, not debate.
Follow the Money
Who is paying for what you’re reading and to whom you’re listening?
Example: in Israel today, there has been a lot of publicity about the fact that the European Union has been funding some far-left Israeli civil rights groups (which are often extremely critical of Israeli policies). Some Israelis might still agree with this agenda, but they deserve to know who is paying to disseminate these viewpoints.4
Another example: a few years ago, participants in a Chicago festival of Arab culture were startled to see extremely anti-Israel and anti-Semitic materials handed out. It turned out the source for these trinkets was not the local community, but a display funded by the Government of Libya.
Analogies provide us with mental shorthand. There are some ideas that are so closely associated with evil, like Nazism and Apartheid, that comparing a contemporary political group to them taints them with guilt by association. Unfortunately, these two odious regimes are routinely invoked when discussing Israel today.
We are responsible to educate ourselves.
Example: recently, thousands of students across the world have participated in annual “Israeli Apartheid Week” activities. These events do not foster inquiry, but obfuscation.
If students were to truly learn, they would find that it is a vibrant, modern democracy that extends full political rights to all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity. How many participants in “Israeli Apartheid Week” know that Israel has granted asylum to persecuted Muslims fleeing war in Sudan? The reality of Israel doesn’t fit the often rhetorical analogies made about it.
Comparing Israel to Nazi Germany or Apartheid South Africa is not only unfair and outrageous, it does a disservice to people who suffered under these truly evil regimes.
Outright Lies and Distortions
Finally, perhaps the most difficult rhetorical device to counter is the bald-faced lie.
Example: in September, 2000, French television broadcast a video of terrified boy being shot by unseen Israeli soldiers. The boy, Mohammed al-Dura, immediately become an icon. There are terrorists (including those who murdered Daniel Pearl) who have specifically cited Mohammed al-Dura as their motivation for murdering Jews.
Yet, it emerged years later that the al-Dura video was a hoax, staged by local activists, and carefully edited by France’s Channel-2 television station, which to this day has refused to release the full, un-doctored video, despite a French judge’s requests.
In the face of a brazen lie like this, what can we do? Fortunately, a number of resources counter some of the most common slanders of Israel. Organizations such as Honest Reporting and Camera keep us appraised of some of the most vicious lies and innuendoes concerning Israel.
Ultimately, we are responsible to educate ourselves. The more we read about Israel, the more we visit it, the more we speak with knowledgeable people, the more equipped we will be in identifying and resisting the rhetorical devices listed here.
- See "Terrorist or Militant"
- For a lighthearted take on these names, check out “American Friends of the Zionist Entity” on Facbook.
- The text of this play is available at “Seven Jewish Children”
- See the report “Trojan Horse: the Impact of European Government Funding for Israeli NGOs"