Alongside the usual war for hearts and minds waged through conflicting narratives in the media, there’s a parallel fight happening on the rhetorical battlefield. Brooke talks with Jodi Rudoren, Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times, about her recent piece, “In Gaza, Epithets Are Fired and Euphemisms Give Shelter,” in which she explores the issue of semantics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The issue of semantics is very much on the mind of Jodi Rudoren, Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times, who explored it in a recent piece, titled, “In Gaza, Epithets Are Fired and Euphemisms Give Shelter.” Jodi, welcome to On the Media.
JODI RUDOREN: Thanks so much for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Israeli author David Grossman wrote about the propaganda war over the Palestinians way back in 1987. In his book, The Yellow Wind, he wrote, “A society in crisis forges for itself a new vocabulary, using words that no longer describe reality but attempt instead to conceal it.” Could you assess that observation, from a prospective 26 years later?
JODI RUDOREN: Well, some things just continue. I mean, on both sides there’s dehumanizing language and there’s euphemisms that I think make the constant conflict and the violence kind of go down easier, as Grossman described.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Those who are slain who are noncombatants are sometimes called the uninvolved?
JODI RUDOREN: Yeah, Etgar Keret, another Israeli novelist, told me about this. There is a Hebrew word for civilian, and if a civilian is killed in Israel it’s always used, “Ezrahim.” But then he talked about this phrase called “uninvolved,” which is not always used for Palestinians but often. He said, “You know, all we can say about this person is that they’re not shooting at us,” he said, “This person is not a child who wanted to grow up and play the piano and not a woman who wished for bigger breasts. It was just someone who wasn't shooting at us, someone who was uninvolved,” And that was really powerful, the way he put it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned in your piece, Ayelet Shaked, a member of Parliament who cited a 2002 article and posted it on Facebook?
JODI RUDOREN: Right. It’s a good example about how much is new and how much is old, right, ‘cause she got all this criticism for making this post on Facebook and, in fact, it was an article that was from a dozen years ago. It talked about how the whole Palestinian people were the enemy and it defined Palestinian children who think of themselves as martyrs; they call them snakes. And it also said that all their mothers should be killed. And it went viral.
And so, what’s interesting to me about that is the way that the social media networks have kind of put this propaganda war on steroids, because things just happen so much faster. People like Ayelet Shaked and other kind of leaders and officials, they're not phrasing their own talking points in the same formal and, and maybe careful way that they used to, because they're playing on these different platforms where everything is conversational and, and quicker. So that’s one aspect. The other is that the social networks have just opened up the field, right? So now, anybody can be in this propaganda war. It’s being fought by people who are in New York or in London, firing off missives and characterizing data. Little themes or memes develop without necessarily anybody in charge or anybody trying to dictate what the talking point should be anymore.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What kind of memes?
JODI RUDOREN: There are hashtags on Twitter, one called #GazaUnderAttack and the other one called #IsraelUnderFire. People are doing creative mash-ups in video or in Photoshop that mix Hollywood thrillers with footage of Israeli or Palestinian leaders or Israeli or Palestinian strikes on each other, or things like that.
There are these videos that the Hamas is putting out and videos that IDF is putting out, and they, they both are kind of styled after trailers of Hollywood thrillers. And I don't know, if you didn't pay too close attention and you just saw the explosions and heard the thundering soundtrack, I’m not so sure you could tell the difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The last ground invasion of Gaza happened five years ago, which was a big five years for social media. You write than in 2009, a soldier in the military public affairs unit, Aliza Landes, paid for a WordPress account on her own credit card.
JODI RUDOREN: There was tons of stuff going on, on social media. She was realizing that the IDF was totally absent from that conversation, and so she just said, this can’t be, and she kind of went to her superiors and said, can I please post this thing on YouTube, whereas now they have 40 people working just at interactive. So now they’re really right in the game. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hamas is also trying to harness social media, but it's encountering some roadblocks.
JODI RUDOREN: Right, because Hamas is characterized as a terrorist organization by the United States and by other Western countries, Twitter and Facebook have blocked them of its official account, so they’ve still got some that are going and I think they have other proxy accounts. Their individual leaders have their own Facebook pages and things like that. But they have definitely been hampered. But they’re doing their own thing too. I mean, they had a video that they’ve posted from their Interior Ministry that advise supporters on how to post to Facebook and, and other social networks and told them what to say.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is the “Do's and Don'ts” video.
JODI RUDOREN: Yeah, exactly. But a lot of the do’s and don’ts that they had were sort of similar to the do's and don'ts that I get from the New York Times.
Don’t use all the 140 characters, ‘cause if people want to retweet you, they need space, things like that. Don’t write about things that are not right where you are, ‘cause you’ll lose your credibility. And then some of the other ones were a little more specific, like, don't put up footage of masked gunmen at close range because they’ll shut you down or, don’t show rockets being launched from a civilian neighborhood because Israel might attack it, and always add “innocent civilian” after the name of every dead person, and definitely post pictures of dead people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As for how the US media are contextualizing the conflict in Gaza. Nimer Sultany, who lectures on law at the University of London, took note of the repeated use of the phrase “once again” in many, many American and Western stories about the conflict in Gaza. He said, “Repetition is equated with futile death.” I guess what he's saying is by saying “once again” you've judged and dismissed the conflict over again? Have you noticed frequent use of the phrase? Have you used it yourself?
JODI RUDOREN: I don't know that I’ve used the phrase “once again” but I’ve definitely written repeatedly that this is the third Israel-Gaza battle in the last six years and have tried to explore questions of will this time be different or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
JODI RUDOREN: I mean, it is true that a lot of what’s happening in Gaza has happened twice before in the last six years, and reporters should say that. It’s important to the story, to have people know that. It's context.
Now, is “once again” a loaded phrase that has sort of this implication of futility? It might. You could probably say it in a more neutral way, I guess. It relates to some complaints I hear from readers, which is, what started everything? No matter how much background you put in a newspaper article, there's always someone who thinks you didn't go back far enough, right, and that because this is always seen as a tit-for-tat thing and it goes back forever, people want to begin the conflict, the specific things you’re writing about, wherever they want to begin it. And I, I sometimes joke that every article should include a paragraph that says, “Abraham had two sons, there was Isaac and there was Ishmael” because it seems like that’s how far this goes back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jodi, thank you very much.
JODI RUDOREN: Oh, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jodi Rudoren is the New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief. Her recent article is titled, “In Gaza Epithets Are Fired and Euphemisms Give Shelter.”