Monday, May 17, 2004

Settler? No. Revenant

Here's my op-ed explaining why I think the word "revenant" should be used instead of "settler".

Revenant Is Relevant
By Yisrael Medad

The American writer Carolyn Wells, who died 60 years ago, asserted “actions lie louder than words”. Be that as it may, words still play an important part in the craft of fooling people. This is especially so in the Arab-Israel conflict.

To take one example, the proper nomenclature for the Jewish civilian residential areas in the disputed territories of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, as even William Safire has indicated, should be communities rather than the pejorative and negatively connotative “settlements”. Jews live in communities or, for that matter, in cities, towns and villages. They do not live in “settlements”.

In his August 5, 2001 column, On Language, in the New York Times Weekend Magazine, Safire has written: "Words have connotations. In the disputed territory known as the West Bank, an Israeli village is called a settlement, implying fresh intrusion; a small Palestinian town, even one recently settled, is called a village, implying permanence." Of course, his use of “disputed” rather than “occupied”, or for that matter, “liberated”, in another example of the importance of how one calls an act or a situation.

This phenomenon, of harnessing language to political ideology, is not exceptional nor is it new. In a volume discussing political geography, Richard Muir deals with an “image system” whereby a subjective perception of reality is promoted via language so as to achieve superiority either at negotiations or other actions that will help establishing borders to territories. The use of “occupied” and of “settlements” and “settlers” is a projection of a desired reality. That Israel’s official state institutions such as the Foreign Ministry’s information services and their employees continue to use these very terms is unfortunate, to say the least.

Incidentally, I am sure that a very good case could be made supporting the proposition that, semantically, Yasser Arafat himself is an “occupier” of the local Palestinian Arab population. He need not be technically foreign to the area but his policies indeed form an occupation of Areas A and B and do oppress the local population.

But what should we term the Jews who live in the territories? A substitute for the word “settlers” has been hard to come by. I once introduced myself to a British Foreign Office Official at an appointment I had arranged at its London’s King Charles Street complex as a “Jewish civilian resident of a community located in Samaria”. Puzzled momentarily, he quickly interjected “but I thought I was to converse with a settler”. True, that was too many words, and therein is the problem. I think, though, that a more accurate noun perhaps has been found, one that is more relevant to the reality.

It is revenant.

According the American Heritage Dictionary, a revenant is one who returns after a lengthy absence. A revenant can be any person who shows up after a long absence such as those who come back to their ancestral home after years of political exile. This is the classic definition although Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel the Fair Maid, to denote a ghost. It stems from the French "revenir," which means simply "to return".

Jews lived in the hills of Judea and Samaria for over 3500 years, as nomads, as tribal chieftains and as kings, priests and prophets. They were dispersed once and returned. They were exiled and returned. Despite foreign conquerors, they persisted in returning under the most difficult of political, religious and economic conditions. Their civilization was created in the area as was their literature. Their three most important cities are there.

The Torah and the New Testament use the terms Judea, Samaria and Gaza. The Quran records God’s command that the Jews should live in the Promised Land. Eighty years ago, the world recognized unabashedly and with no disagreement the right of Jews to reestablish their historic homeland as a political entity. And following a brief 19 year long hiatus, Jews are once again living there.

This, then, may be the word we need to employ. One word, of course, does not a victory make. Terminology is never terminal. Nevertheless, a major part of Israel’s Hasbara problem, especially in the medium of the electronic media and in academic and other political forums is its lack of ability to create a neutral space for discourse. Once the term “occupied” is tossed out in any gathering, any adequate response forces the speaker to deal with eighty years of detailed history, intricacies of international law and the interpretation of this or that Convention.

If one is referred to as a settler, immediately the audience is disposed to consider the object as a near-monster, an oppressor, one who doesn’t belong and so forth. The person described as a “settler’ loses his humanity. He is a stereotype. Those who contend that Jews possess no rights in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, what should be called properly Yesha, have an easier task if they talk about a “settler”. A revenant, on the other hand, belongs. He has rights to the land, both his personal location and the collective geography.

If one needs a humorous moment in the debate, the religious residents of Yesha could be referred to as reverent revenants. There are also irreverent revenants. Other residents could be irrelevant to the situation.

Good linguistic advice is that to own a word, one should use it ten times. I have employed it seven times in this article. Perhaps you will join with me in multiplying its use?
Yisrael Medad resides in Shiloh and comments on political, media and cultural affairs


Anonymous said...

An interesting discourse - however, one thing I find problematic is that those living there are not themselves revenants - they are not returning to a place they once lived. Following the logic of your argument, I should be able to move to England or to France or to Eden and claim it as my own since I am a descendant of one who lived there at some point. You declaim the use of "settler" because of its negative connotations. As a more objective person, I recognize your point but feel "revenant" fails for exactly the same reasons. It implies more than the reality. Why not simply use "neighbor" as that is what you all are in reality. And like neighbors anywhere you need to find ways to live in peace without antagonising each other so much.

YMedad said...

Glad you found this four-year old piece.

Since the word revenir contains a long-time period ellement, I did stretch the meaning a bit but nevertheless, I think it still can provide a semantic frame of reference. The Jewsis right to reconstitute their historic homeland was internationally recognized in a series of international legal forums between 1919 and 1923 when the Mandate was finally awarded to Gt. Britian for that purpose, reconstituting the former Jewish state.

Jews have always sought to return home to the Land of Israel and now, they shouldn't have had to sneak in like under the Turks or be afraid to do so because of local Arabs who moved in after conquering the area in 638. And since the 1860s, Jews had been buying back their land, and continued to do so, mostly in places where few Arabs wished to live or where Arabs did live but actually had no property rights since the owners were living somewhere else.

The local Arabs sought to wield political violence since 1920 and killed, traped and pillaged. Nice neighbors, eh?

And they never accepted any compromise proposals, not when some Saudi Arabian refugee was crowned Emir of TransJordan, not when the 1937 partiton of CisJordan (west of the Jordan River) was offered, not the White paper of 1939 which basically condemned the Jews of Europe to death because they ahd no where else to go to except the Palestine Mandate but the British wouldn't let them in because the local Arabs had been ritoing and revolting for the past three years and they didn't except the 1947 UN Partition.

So, with which neighbors do we make peace after in 1964, when they established the Palestine Liberation Organization (think: what "Palestine" could they have wanted to liberate if the "West Bank and Gaza" were not in Israel's hands at the time? No "occupation", no "settlements", no "settlers". So why did they start terror again after the fedayeen raids in the early 1950s?

Am I missing soemthing here about good neighborly relations?

Anonymous said...

Let's be PROUD of OUR Heritage, Morashàh [NOT yerushà, inheritance: BIG difference!] that is OUR Toràh and OUR Land.
The so called "territories" are to be called "liberated territories", formerly "occupied" by Jordan, if there are gentiles who want to dispute them, that's their problem.
The Toràh COMMANDS us to SETTLE the land, "we-ithnachalthem bah", and you shall settle it.
Settling, being a settler is a COMMANDMENT, an honour.

Anonymous said...

Most of the settlers don't have any connection with this land. They just come thanks to the money that the Israeli government provides them. Moreover, if you want to keep "judea and samaria" please fight in order to give back all the coast between Ashdod and Askalan, that was never ever 'israelite'. Religion is something private between you and your god. To use it in political debates is not acceptable. Especially if, like in this case, it is done in a highly selective way.

Anonymous said...

I saw this post on JungNaiv's timeline and just had to respond.

You don't like the word "settler" because of its negative connotation, so instead you want to be called a "revenant"? You realize the connotation there is 100x worse, right?

From wikipedia:
A revenant is a visible ghost or animated corpse that was believed to return from the grave to terrorize the living

This is why the international community has no respect for Israeli settlers, because they want to be called something that is literally an undead monster that terrorizes the living, and think that's somehow going to win people over where "settler" did not. It's farcical how out of touch you are with reality.

YMedad said...

To anon 7;35 - it can mean that but its origin is simple - 19th century French, literally 'coming back', present participle (used as a noun) of revenir.

Anonymous said...

YMedad said...

To anon 7;35 - it can mean that but its origin is simple - 19th century French, literally 'coming back', present participle (used as a noun) of revenir.

Point missed. Settler has no negative connotations in its definition or origin either. The historical fact that "settlers" traditionally settled violently (as in the Americas) is the reason the word has negative connotations.

Similarly, revenant may have benign origins like you say, but in modern usage, it means a monster who returns from the dead to terrorize the living. Because of games like Dungeons and Dragons and their effect on popular culture, I'd hazard to say that the vast majority of people either don't know what revenant means or they do, and they know it is a monstrous creature of evil. Do a google search of the word, the first hits are all about evil monsters.

So maybe contact a PR specialist who can focus group this stuff for you next time.