The New York Times’s hesitant foray into the question of language in this latest enactment of hostilities between Israel and Hamas made me long for the ringing tones of George Orwell. It’s hard to miss what the Times calls the “clash of narratives” being played out even as the clash of artillery continues with its tragic toll on human lives and suffering. The Gaza interior ministry recommends that every Palestinian casualty be referred to as an innocent citizen. Etgar Keret observes that these same dead are referenced by Israeli journalists, not as civilians, but as targets that are uninvolved or being used as human shields by heartless terrorists. Israelis hiding in bomb shelters are taunted for being mice; Palestinians are variously characterized as goats, beasts, snakes, or just animals in general. No matter what actions Hamas perpetrates, Palestinian news makers are apt to begin their report with “In response to the cruel Israeli assault. …” The incursion into Gaza known in the West as Operation Protective Edge actually translates from the Hebrew as Operation Strong Cliff, a metaphor relying on geological imagery that makes Israel’s dominance appear part of the natural order.
Yes, I know, it’s all propaganda, and we’re used to it by now. Didn’t we live through Shock and Awe in Iraq, or the winning of hearts and minds in Vietnam? Still, each engagement comes with its own set of references and its own subliminal messages. I’m struck, this time around, by two in particular. One is Israel’s Iron Dome, its highly effective new antimissile system. The other is the ubiquity of the accusation that Hamas uses ordinary Gazans as human shields.
Cooking up the name Iron Dome was apparently a weekend’s task, and the project leader’s initial idea was straightforward: the Anti-Qassam, referring to the type of missiles most commonly fired by Hamas. When that was rejected as “problematic,” he and his wife came up with Golden Dome, an image that brings to mind the palaces of Kubla Khan or perhaps (closer to home) the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. That name was rejected as being too ostentatious, so under the pressure of time, gold was reduced to a lesser metal, and Iron Dome was born. And maybe it works well for Israel’s public image—iron is strong, enduring, humble. When I first heard the term, however, other associations rose up. Iron Curtain, for instance, referring to the divide between East and West during the Cold War; and Iron Cross, referring to the military decoration of the Third Reich. These don’t work so well in garnering sympathy for Israel. Interestingly, though, they both trace their origins to the Holy Land. The symbol of the Iron Cross was established by the Teutonic Order in the 13th century, when the Kingdom of Jerusalem (Christian, at the time) permitted them to combine their Black Cross with the silver Cross of Jerusalem. And the original Iron Curtain is cited in the Babylonian Talmud, which promises that even an iron curtain will not separate Israel from its God. Plenty of irony to chew on here, but perhaps the term is appropriate in ways that the developers didn’t exactly consider in the time crunch of the weekend.
Human shield, as a term, gets even stranger. Its use has risen dramatically since the 1980s, with reference not just to the Israel-Palestine conflict but to wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan and to protective pro-choice cordons facing anti-abortion activists in front of abortion clinics. Although willing demonstrators sometimes assign themselves the term human shield, most groups reject it; the International Solidarity Movement, for instance, of which the American activist Rachel Corrie was a member, takes umbrage at references to Corrie’s being a human shield because, as they point out, “The term human shield is a specific reference to civilians used by military or armed personnel for protection.” Indeed, that is how the term is commonly used, and its practice by not only Hamas but also the Israel Defense Forces has been condemned over the years. So where did it originate? At least one source, apparently, is in Psalm 84, where the sovereign is also referred to as the people’s shield—though as biblical scholar Marc Zvi Brettler points out, “the power of the human ‘shield’ is totally dependent on God, the divine, royal ‘shield.’”
The sovereign, presumably, is a willing shield—plus, he gets to be king. Not so the women and the children. But what happens to me when I read the term over and over is that the word human gets lost, and the word shield, with its attendant imagery, remains. The Times must have had something of the same response; on the day after their rather tepid report on language in the Gazan crisis, they offered the new phrase civilian shields, which didn’t do it for me either. I’m going back to Orwell here. They are not shields, they are people. It is not a dome, but a system. And I don’t see what the cliff has to do with any of it.Return to Top