How Words Can Matter: Israeli Censorship and Palestinian Letters

I made the mistake of reading the conservative Israeli press again. It never fails to remind me how vomitous Israeli politics and history often are.

So I figured I'd do my small part to point out one aspect of that vomitous history to the small number of people who happen upon my blog.

First, let me warn you that this is not going to be in my normal essayist voice. I am writing from the gut, here, and my aim is to communicate an attitude and state of mind. Not just information. Don't expect a focused magazine article, or the 5-part-essay as prescribed by highschool English (pr/t)eachers. Let me further remind you that I have no illusions of a pedestal under my feet. Armed as I am with a stockpile of colorful metaphors, a semi-automatic pottymouth, and an impulse to ranting ideation like a shitfaced longshoreman, at bottom I'm still just some weird guy (even my ex boyfriend thought so) on the internet. Hell, for all you know I live in a closet with tinfoil on my head to keep out the alien mind-rays.

Now then, on we go:

Israeli Military Order No. 50 of 1967, which controlled the licensing and distribution of newspapers and other periodicals, allowed the Israeli military administration to prevent any publication from entering the occupied territories if said administration concluded that the publication would "foment disorder or hostile behavior." Often a single word could be enough to fill that criterion. And certain words, at various times, seem to have been automatic red flags- usually in certain contexts, but often just for being there. I'll list just a few individual words that ended up being thus censored. (Although Israeli military administration eventually downgraded to a lower level of psychosis, this kind of censorship was still going on in the 80s, and its legacy continues today.)

First up is the word نكبة nakba "calamity". This is the common word in Palestinian Arabic for the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, as in the phrase نكبة ثمانية واربعين nakbet tmānye u-arbʕīn "the calamity of '48". And according to a friend of mine from Galilee, منكوب mankūb, the word for "disaster-survivor" (literally "calamitized one"), when used with the definite article and in the plural i.e. المنكوبين il-mankūbīn "the calamatized" can refer specifically to survivors of Israel's creation. The calamity in question is that said creation came about through widespread fighting, coerced population transfers, and even a few instances of what I cannot refer to in good conscience as anything other than ethnic cleansing. The word nakba is actually still banned today in some ways, albeit under the aegis of other government parties. It has, for example, recently been banned from Israeli Arab school textbooks by the Ministry of Education. None other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the word as tantamount to anti-Israeli propaganda, and a spokesman for Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar opined "It is inconceivable that in Israel we would talk about the establishment of the state as a catastrophe."
[Snarky answer: that "inconceivable" sounds as hilarious as when Vizzini said it in The Princess Bride. What's inconceivable is that the Israeli Ministry of Education sprinkles sugar over shit and gets upset when other people refuse to call it candy. If use of the word nakba is inconceivable, then I guess it's also inconceivable that the Cherokee would talk about "The Trail of Tears" instead of "the necessary growing pains of a glorious nation with liberty and justice for all". Dear little Benny-boy Netanyahu & Co: the intellectual rigor of your arguments entitles you to spend eternity in the eleventy-leventh circle of hell kissing Ghassan Kanafani's dick.]

Another word that often got a publication banned was عودة ʕawda "return", a word often used in connection with the desire or proposition that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to their homeland. The word seems to really piss Israeli's off. For example, Y. Harkabi, erstwhile professor of political science at Hebrew University, wrote that the word was, essentially, a call for genocide and the destruction of Israel.
[Snarky answer: Jeez. Who stepped on Harkabi's dick? He reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry's uncle called a waiter an anti-semite for bringing him a cold burger. It's horseshit, of course. The word عودة doesn't threaten Israelis. It just makes them feel guilty- as well they might, considering the vaunted "Right of Return" accorded to a certain more prestigious ethnos. But that guilt easily degenerates into defensiveness, and defensiveness makes people vulnerable to stupid, ironic binaries. e.g. "Alright, y'all tan-skins, my six-shooter says this here Lebensraum ain't big enough for the both of us."]

The next Arabic word that made the Israeli military cry is صمود ṣumūd "steadfastness, tenacity." In the context of Palestinian experience, it took on the specific connotation of standing firm against Israeli occupation.
[Answer: Censorship of this word, though revolting, is at least understandable- as a more run-of-the-mill kind of dickishness. Don't get me wrong, it's still douchbaggery to expect Palestinians to effectively lie back and not think of Palestine (or England, for that matter), and it smacks of a metastasizing nation-cankering lunacy that has yet to go into remission. But I'm not going to beat this one over the head with irony. That's for the next one.]

And now the finale which constitutes the crème de la crème de la crotte: The mere word فلسطين flisṭīn "Palestine", believe it or not, was still threatening enough -on its own, with no menacing context- to be censored even in children's textbooks in the 70s. Yeesh.
[Snarky answer: People who censor filisṭīn are just philistines. Hell, this was even before the days when you could blame oversensitive filter-software for blocking an article on breast cancer. And they STILL manage to fuck up like mindless software.]

Censorship of these and other "anti-Israeli" words and phrases had some peculiar ramifications and, it seems, motivations. The recently-deceased Amnon Kapeliouk, an Israeli journalist who wrote for the Hebrew periodical Al Hamishmar and spent decades reporting from the west bank (and to whom I owe a good third of the information in this blog-post either directly or through 3rd parties,) noticed that the texts being censored were very often absolutely innocuous, saying "I've found even love-poems that were censored although they contained no reference to the question of nationhood. Maybe our censors are anti-love. Most likely the censor didn't understand the poem, so he censored it."
[Snarky answer: Either seems possible. How many pro-love military censors can there have been?]

It does make one wonder, though, about the Arabic-proficiency of the censors in that context, given the massive volume of material they were examining (not exactly an incentive to do close reading or thumb through your Arabic dictionary), the indiscriminate way in which they seem to have kaboshed texts (as if just lazily skimming for certain key-words and then nixing the whole megilla), and the fact that it would almost by definition be hard to find Israeli Jews who had mastered Literary Arabic and Palestinian Arabic (the latter could often be the medium of protest-songs and cartoons) all the while maintaining such a level of disregard for its speakers that they were happy to screw with the latter for a living.

It also reminds me how scary Israeli thymocracy found Palestinian poetry until recently- how Samih al-Qasim was constantly harassed by the police for his poetry, how the father of a friend of mine from Haifa got the third degree at a checkpoint in the 70s because he was carrying a book in Arabic which had line-breaks (and might therefore somehow constitute a ספר חשוד séfer chashúd "suspicious book" apparently)

And then there's Mahmoud Darwish who, as the top pupil in his class as a kid, was selected to write and recite a poem in celebration of Israeli independence day. When he instead wrote a poem about the insult of being asked to celebrate an event that traumatized him and his village and ruined his childhood, Mahmoud Darwish, all of 12 years old, got called to the office of the military governor and read the riot act for essentially being honest. Ironically, Darwish would later say of that governor
"in a sense he was my first literary critic who taught me to take poetry seriously....the incident made me wonder: The strong and mighty state of Israel gets upset by a poem I wrote! This must mean that poetry is serious business. My deliberate act of writing the truth, as I deeply and honestly experienced it, was a dangerous activity."
And dangerous it was. Writing poetry eventually got Darwish imprisoned at the ripe old age of 16- and he would spend the subsequent years in and out of prisons. In fact would take until the 90s before Israeli legislators started reallly caring about things like actual freedom of speech (by "actual" I mean "no matter how much said speech pisses you off or scares you") with e.g. Basic Law #10 on Human Dignity and Liberty (כבוד האדם וחירותו) which covered things like freedom of expression.

Speaking of which: in July of 2002, when Darwish gave the interview which I just quoted from, it was while living in the Ramallah hills under military curfew with Israeli tanks barreling through the streets and soldiers who may or may not have received a shoot-to-kill order (it's not entirely clear) out on patrol making sure nobody went outside. It was only thanks to a 5 hour break in the curfew that Raja Shehadeh managed to get to him and conduct the interview.

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