A Lesson in Semantics

It’s one of those really bizarre coincidences that you’d never get away with in a work of fiction: This week, as bombs continue to fall on Beirut, Israel marked the 60th anniversary of the bombing of the King David Hotel, in Jerusalem. (If you don’t know about this attack, here is some background.) Back then, the attacks were described as the work of Jewish terrorists; now they are known as the work of Jewish freedom fighters, desperately trying to establish a homeland.

In Ha’aretz, Tom Segev reports on the work of an academic conference that was held at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center on the question of who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter:

It was quite a week to clarify such a question. They can be distinguished by organizational affiliation, goals, targets, means of combat and mode of operation. They all assume that a freedom fighter is a good person and a terrorist is a bad one. Nearly every terrorist defines himself as a freedom fighter, and vice versa: freedom fighters are usually defined as terrorists. So was Begin. He invested a lot of effort to convince history that he was not a terrorist. Among other things, he emphasized that his organization did not harm civilians. There’s a thesis that could serve as an historic lesson from a moral standpoint: not harming civilians. (…) Netanyahu spoke at the conference. The difference between a terrorist operation and a legitimate military action is expressed, he said, in the fact that the terrorists intend to harm civilians whereas legitimate combatants try to avoid that. According to that theory, the kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by a Palestinian organization is a legitimate military operation, and the bombing of Dresden, Hanoi, Haifa or Beirut is a war crime. Of course this is not what Netanyahu meant. He learned only this from the bombing of the hotel: that the Arabs are bad and we are good. Arab actions starting in 1920 and through the Iranian nuclear plan reflect, in his words, “a terrorist mentality.” Israel, on the other hand, only harms civilians by accident or when there is no alternative. For example, when terrorists hide among civilians.

The historic truth is different: In the 60 years since the attack at the King David Hotel, Israel has hurt some two million civilians, including 750,000 who lost their homes in 1948, another quarter million Palestinians who were forced to leave the West Bank in the Six-Day War and hundreds of thousands of Egyptian civilians who were expelled from the cities along the Suez Canal during the War of Attrition. And now tens of thousands of Lebanese villagers are being forced to abandon their homes, and air force pilots are once again bombing Beirut and other cities. Hundreds of civilians have been killed. Regrettably. It’s all in the spirit of the King David Hotel. One can always say there was a mishap.

You can read the entire piece here.

Thanks to Suzanne for the link.

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