The war between Israel and Hamas will be decided on the tragically blood-soaked ground of Gaza. In the meantime, there has been an ongoing war of words in the U. S., in which distortions of language, from simple to profound, have been manipulated to discredit Israel.
The distortions begin with the simple reluctance in some quarters to call terrorism “terrorism.” Both the U.S. State Department and the European Union have long designated Hamas a “terrorist organization.” Nonetheless, certain media outlets have insisted on substituting words such as militants” or fighters.”
Those sanitized terms are especially inappropriate with regard to the Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli villages and kibbutzim, as well as an all-night music festival, in which about 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians, including many children, were dismembered, burned alive, and taken hostage.
The Associated Press’s online style guide accurately defines terrorism as the “calculated use of violence, especially against civilians, to create terror to disrupt and demoralize societies for political ends.” Inexplicably, however, it then disallows using the terms “terrorist” or “terrorism” to describe “specific actions or groups.” Thus, the updated guide itself blandly calls the Hamas attack merely a “military operation” in Israel.
The New York Times, for example, has described the worst slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust as only a “Hamas-led cross-border raid.” The Washington Post has reported on “Hamas’s Oct. 7 rampage . . . in which militants killed more than 1,400 Israelis and took more than 230 hostages.” (Other New York Times and Washington Post articles have referred to Hamas’s “terrorism.”)
The award for feckless journalism, however, probably goes to the Chicago Tribune. In a story on the release of two of Hamas’s 240 hostages — a mother and teenage daughter from Evanston, Illinois — the Tribune wrote that they had been taken hostage “by Hamas operatives.”
While many journalists have been regrettably equivocal about terrorism, some academics have been emphatically reckless in their eager denunciations of the Jewish state. A number of nominally scholarly organizations have issued statements or open letters accusing Israel of “genocide” in Gaza.
While one might expect those rhetorical excesses from political figures such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), university professors ought to have a decent respect for the actual meaning of such a loaded word.
A statement by the University of California Ethnic Studies Faculty Council, for example, referred six times to what it called “the unfolding genocide of Palestinians.” Likewise, a letter of solidarity from classicists and ancient historians refers twice to “genocide,” while also claiming that Israel seeks “the total annihilation of the Palestinian people,” a fantasized claim that even the Palestinian Authority does not make.
Such accusations are obviously intended to strike at the heart of Israel, which was established in the wake of the attempted Nazi genocide of the Jews. The term itself originated in 1944 to describe the “Nazi policies of systematic murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust.”
Genocide has a precise definition under international law. As explained by the United Nations Office of Genocide Prevention, “to constitute genocide, there must be a proven intent on the part of perpetrators to physically destroy a national, ethnical, racial or religious group," in whole or in part.
Despite the oppressive conditions in Gaza and the devastating carnage of recent weeks, it is a vile exaggeration to argue that Israel has ever intended to physically destroy the Palestinian or Gazan people, even in part. The blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt, in effect since Hamas’s ascent to power in 2005, has created severe deprivations in what has been called an open-air prison. The recent death toll is already horrendous, with no need to misrepresent it as genocide.
It is Hamas, in fact, whose “original covenant spells out clearly [its] genocidal intentions” against Israel’s Jews. The 1988 Hamas Covenant repeats classic antisemitic conspiracy theories, quoting the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and adding that Jews were behind both World War I and World War II. It calls on the very stones and trees of Palestine to proclaim, “there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”
Many pro-Palestinian demonstrators have unthinkingly taken up the Hamas slogan “From the River to the Sea.” Others have purposefully chanted it, while well aware that the refrain calls for the violent elimination of Israel and Israeli Jews in a war of “religious purification.”
The classicists and ancient historians, whose letter wrongly accuses Israel of genocide, also condemned the “unlawful creation of the Israeli state in 1948,” virtually endorsing Hamas’s call to rid the Holy Land of Jews. This demand was shouted by the demonstrators who smeared red paint at the White House — “We don’t want a Jewish state. We want ‘48” — and it was shocking to see it adopted by purported scholars.
It may require modern historians to recognize that Israel was lawfully created under United Nations Resolution 181 of Nov. 29, 1947. The classicists’ denial of Resolution 181’s legality has staggering implications, not only for the existence of Israel, which they evidently abhor but also for the validity of subsequent resolutions in support of the Palestinians, whom they profess to support. In the absence of international law, there is only force, which has done the Palestinians no good.
Perhaps the most profound misuse of language has been the academic theory of “settler colonialism,” which has been used to delegitimize Israel as a holdover from the age of European colonialism. Although this is now routinely asserted in university departments, it is a grotesque distortion of history that confuses the desperation of refugees with the expansion of empires.
The Jews who founded Israel, and those who arrived in later waves, were attempting to remove themselves from European empires, not to replicate or extend them. Today, by one estimate, over half of Israel’s Jews are Mizrahi, of Middle Eastern origin, whose families fled or were expelled from Arab countries and who have no connection to imperialism, or of mixed background.
Early Jewish communities did call themselves “colonies,” but the word as understood in the 19th century had no association with colonialism. Instead, it meant a place of refuge, as in an artists’ colony or religious colony. In the 1850s, for example, escapees from U.S. enslavement founded the "Refugees’ Home Colony" in Canada.
At its worst, the settler-colonialism theory has been used to justify the massacre of Israeli Jews, no matter where they live. “Settlers are not civilians,” said Yale Professor Zareena Grewal, justifying the Hamas murders of Oct. 7.
If Israelis and Palestinians are ever to have the peace and security that both desperately need and deserve, it will only come through mutual recognition and understanding. A good way to begin, or at least envision, the challenging negotiations ahead would be to use more honest language.
The Palestinians have been dispossessed and brutalized for far too long, but Hamas is a terrorist organization, Israelis are not colonialists and there has been no genocide.
Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor Emeritus at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. He is the author of “The Trials of Rasmea Odeh: How a Palestinian Guerrilla Gained and Lost U.S. Citizenship,” and many other books.