Home / Articles / Ethnic Cleansing and Other Figments of Political Language
Back in September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a video that accused the Palestinians of wanting to commit “ethnic cleansing” by ridding the West Bank of Jews. Netanyahu’s Twitter and Facebook feed introduced the video with the phrase “No Jews,” a phrase that, to many, raises the specter of Nazis and Nuremberg laws, of Judenfrei and the Holocaust. And then he began: “I am sure many of you have heard the claim that Jewish communities in Judea Samaria, the West Bank, are an obstacle to peace. I’ve always been perplexed by this notion. No one would seriously claim that the nearly 2 million Arabs living inside Israel — that they’re an obstacle to peace. That’s because they aren’t. On the contrary,” he continued, “Israel’s diversity shows its openness and readiness for peace,” Netanyahu says. “Yet the Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one precondition: no Jews. . . . There’s a phrase for that: It’s called ethnic cleansing. . . .” He added that any demand that Jews leave their West Bank settlements is “outrageous” and: “It’s even more outrageous that the world doesn’t find this outrageous. Some otherwise enlightened countries even promote this outrage. . . Would you accept ethnic cleansing in your state? A territory without Jews, without Hispanics, without blacks? Since when is bigotry a foundation for peace?” The Prime Minister concluded: “Ethnic cleansing for peace is absurd. It’s about time somebody said it. I just did.”
The video’s purpose seems to have had a lot to do with coalition maintenance in the face of a then-recent speech by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of a failed effort to kickstart the fabled but feeble Israeli-Palestinian peace process. If so, it stands as a classic example of the multiple audience problem, for plenty of parties overheard a message intended for Netanyahu’s pro-settler rightwing colleagues in the cabinet. One of those audiences was the U.S. government. Obama Administration State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau criticized Netanyahu’s assertions: “We obviously strongly disagree with the characterization that those who oppose settlement activity or view it as an obstacle to peace are somehow calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from the West Bank. We believe that using that type of terminology is inappropriate and unhelpful.”
There were other critiques, too. Several critics pointed out that Netanyahu appeared to be referring to a 2013 statement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “In a final resolution,” Abbas told Egyptian journalists, “we would not see the presence of a single Israeli—civilian or soldier—on our lands.” Note that Abbas, speaking about how a Palestinian state would look, said “Israeli,” not “Jew.” “Palestinian leaders have made clear that Jews can be citizens of a future Palestinian state,” according to a blog post on the Foundation for Middle East Peace written by Matt Duss. “But that they will not accept the presence of enclaves of Israeli settlers peppered throughout that state (as, of course, no state would).” Duss quoted Hanan Ashrawi, a top (Christian) Palestinian leader, who told Israeli journalists in 2014: “Any person, be he Jewish, Christian or Buddhist, will have the right to apply for Palestinian citizenship. Our basic law prohibits discrimination based on race or ethnicity.”
None of these criticisms daunted those for whom the pronouncements of the Israeli leadership are infallible. So, months later (March 28 of this year to be specific), when the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s president invited a PLO spokesman to present a program to its membership, a self-avowed member of the Zionist Organization of America accused him publicly of being a “coward” for allowing the speaker to spew hatred about the “ethnic cleansing” of Jews. At least “coward” does not go so far as the favorite verbal spewing of ZOA members in such cases: “self-hating Jew,” which is no more than an exaggeration characteristic of our political world that happens when Jews have political disagreements with one another.
What exactly is going on? For one thing, we are witness to contending polemics—nothing new there. The word “polemic” comes from the Greek root meaning “war,” so a polemic is a waging of conflict with words. Israelis and Arabs of various descriptions have been doing it for a long time, and so have American Jews with each other.
If polemic is going on, it is a sure thing that exaggeration is going on, too—and exaggeration, as the poet Eliza Cook once wrote, “misleads the credulous and offends the perceptive.” Thus it is obvious that Palestinians today cannot “ethnically cleanse” Jews from the West Bank. Israeli settlements are all in the 60 percent of the West Bank called Area C, which is under the control of the Israeli army. So Netanyahu set out in his video to transform a supposed intention into an imminent threat, an exaggeration in practice if there ever was one. This doesn’t mean that many, probably most, Palestinians today would not cleanse all of Palestine of Jews, not just Jewish Israelis, if they could. But they can’t and they know it.
As for a ZOA member calling someone who strives to fairly present multiple views of an issue a coward, that is a scoundrel’s exaggeration. It is not much different, only less playful, from a fanatical baseball partisan insisting that the umpire is blind in every call that doesn’t go his way, but miraculously regains fine vision for any close call that does go his way.
Similarly, many Palestinians in recent years have accused Israel of ethnically cleansing parts of Palestine of Arabs, and of wanting in its dark heart of hearts to cleanse all of Palestine of Arabs. It is true that in 1948-49 some specific strategic parts of Palestine were ethnically cleansed by Jews—Ramle, Lod, for example—and it is true that the word “cleanse” was used at the time, according to historian Benny Morris. In a 2004 interview in Ha’aretz, Morris rues the fact that Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion did not cleanse more or even all Arabs from Palestine, a somewhat surprising view for someone who set out on his research intending to be a critic of the Zionist enterprise. And it is true as well that as recently as 35 years ago there were many on the Right in Israel who subscribed to the “Jordan is Palestine” falsity and spoke of “transferring” the Arab population west of the Jordan River to the east of the river, at a time when the phrase “ethnic cleansing” had not yet been coined for popular usage.
In retrospect all of this looks to have been one kind of exaggeration or another on the part of Palestinian polemicists, for virtually no one in Israel today, even on the fairly far Right, speaks of transfer. This does not mean that lots of Jewish Israelis wouldn’t ethnically cleanse Arabs from west of the Jordan River if in some fantasy world they could, but as is the case on the Palestinian side, they can’t and they know it.
What is also going on, of course, is the elastic use of language as a means of polemical exaggeration—in this case of the phrase “ethnic cleansing.” That is how exaggerations proceed from the brain to the train of events that form politics eventually into history. What can one say of political language, you ask? You’re asking the right person, since I’ve written a book on the subject. But I’ll spare you a recitation, since I can sum the matter up well enough through the vehicle of a few well-known quotations from masters much greater than I.
First, Eric Arthur Blair (a.k.a. George Orwell): “Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Second, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll): “’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’”
Adding the two thoughts together, we arrive at a conclusion, which, in this case goes like this: Ethnic cleansing means whatever a speaker or writer wants it to mean and is allowed to get away with meaning, and if that speaker or writer is a politician you can bet the rent that some kind of intentional misrepresentation is behind it all.
That is not very comforting, perhaps. We want words and phrases, especially emotive and loaded ones like “ethnic cleansing,” to have but one meaning that more or less stands still for a long enough time that we can use it objectively to communicate precisely. But as long as there are politicians and polemicists on the make, we are not likely to have our way, especially at a moment when “false news” thrives because so many people cannot think because they do not read deeply. They just watch television and other screens launching mediated images at them non-stop (unless they choose to stop it), rather like the Chauncey Gardiner character in Being There—except this time it isn’t very funny.
There are multitudinous examples of such vocabulary creep. Take the word terrorism, for example. What does it mean? It used to have an agreed meaning. It meant the use of random deadly violence against civilians for the purpose of evoking terror, the better to goad some targeted adversary into a counterproductive reaction or to gain media exposure for a cause, or both. It was once possible to face down the patent relativistic nonsense that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” That has now become very difficult since most Americans, without thinking about it (and that is the key) have come to call events like the October 1983 bombing of a Marine barracks near the Beirut International Airport or the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbor examples of terrorism. Since when is attacking uniformed military personnel on foreign soil or in foreign waters consistent with the definition of terrorism noted above? It clearly isn’t, but that distinction has melted away, especially since 9/11, into nothingness. To most Americans, terrorism is simply an all-purpose name for evil coming from alien sources. As best as my experience can discern, there is nothing that can be done about this.
The same goes for the word genocide. Before a bunch of mischievous “progressive” lawyers got hold of the term, this post-World War II locution meant the effort to exterminate a whole people, whether defined in ethno-linguistic or sectarian terms. And it followed, as everyone knew back at a certain time, that genuine efforts at genocide focused on murdering women and children, since these are the keys to the perpetuation of a targeted population.
This is no longer how the term is used. Most younger people, my undergraduate students being a case in point, use genocide as a synonym for mass murder. This is likely because of a constant degradation in the usage of the term over the years from its original meaning in trying to come to terms with the Nazi Holocaust.
The first degradation came from the effort to accuse Turks of genocide against Armenians. This is a close case. Some Armenians marched at the head of a Russian army in a war—World War I—aimed at destroying the Ottoman Empire, hardly comparable to the situation of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe. Some Turkish leaders clearly supported and even enjoyed an unrestrained and utterly sadistic campaign to murder innocent Armenians. But the purpose of the murders was to drive Armenians off of what was at the time imagined would become postwar Turkish lands, not to exterminate all Armenians. Turks did the same thing to Greeks at what was then called Smyrna (now Izmir) in the wake of World War I—but again, the purpose was to rid them from particular places, not to murder all Greeks.
The second degradation arguably applies to Pol Pot in Cambodia. This mass murder was at the time widely described as genocide. That was, however, a curious use of the term, because in this case one ethno-linguistic group was not targeting a different ethno-linguistic group (as later in Rwanda and in Darfur). Instead an ethno-linguistic group was targeting itself—making it into a kind of suigenocide. The distinction here was not ethnicity but class. To be sure, the Khmer Rouge did intend to exterminate all members of certain classes, and would probably have succeeded to an even greater extent than it did had not Vietnam’s invasion stopped the murderous madness.
The third degradation, which will bring us neatly back to the matter of “ethnic cleansing,” took place in the Balkans in the 1990s during the Wars of Yugoslav Succession. When Yugoslavia disintegrated, Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs all sought to grab lands as they could, and to drive the losers away into their own enclaves. At the start of the mayhem, the Serbs were the stronger party, especially with regard to the Bosniaks, and so the former became cleansers and the latter mainly got cleansed. The Slovenes managed to get away from all this without a lot of muss and fuss, mainly because they already lived in a more or less homogeneous corner of the country. But the sorting process in the rest of what had been Yugoslavia was protracted and vicious. The press and other Western observers started calling the efforts genocide, particularly after the wanton murder of 5,000 men and boys in Srebrenica under the feckless eyes of UN “peacekeepers.” But this was not genocide; this was old-fashioned mass murder in the service of an old-fashioned land grab. If the more powerful Serbs had wanted to commit genocide, they would have concentrated on murdering women and children instead of men and boys of military or potential military age. This was, yes, “ethnic cleansing.”
So we had a useful word for a while in terrorism, and now we don’t. We had a useful word for a while in genocide, and now we don’t. And we had a useful phrase for a while in “ethnic cleansing,” and now we seem to be in a process, like the others, of losing so much precision that the phrase is becoming—as some Israelis and Palestinians alike are proving—another of what Robert Nisbet once called a “half brick.” A half brick, he said, is not nearly so useful as a whole brick for building anything solid, but it does have the virtue that it can be thrown about twice as far.
Did “ethnic cleansing” ever have a precise meaning, whether in international law or in common sense consensual usage? Not really, as it turns out. Though its origin, as noted, lies in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, other terms in other languages preceded it, some going all the way back to classical antiquity. Many of these terms came into being after World War I and into World War II in Eastern and Central Europe as the great ethno-linguistic mosaic of the area become more consolidated in both violent and non-violent ways. There have been non-violent episodes of ethnic cleansing, usually called population exchanges or something else under such circumstances. That describes the movement of ethnic Germans out of Czechoslovakia, for example, after World War II, and it describes the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey during the period after the Treaty of Lausanne. The diversity of the precursor terms and the situations they described made coming up with a precise meaning for “ethnic cleansing” difficult.
But clearly, one group of people driving another group of people off its lands by force was one of the most popular pastimes of premodern (and not just premodern) humanity. It goes back to hunter-gatherer times and likely even before that. There is simply no question in the light of biological, anthropological, and other evidence that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s regrettably influential depiction of the noble savage supposedly living in peace and harmony until civilization corrupted his innocent soul is just so much wishful nonsense.
It is quite likely, therefore, that every spoken language had a term for this sort of thing, save those of groups isolated preternaturally by some geophysical feature (island or mountain redoubt, for two obvious examples). The reality of the security dilemma, as we moderns call it, was no doubt the default assumption of most human communities, who did not need George Herbert Spencer to misinterpret Charles Darwin to tell them that the world could be a dangerous place or that, as Hegel put it, history was “a butcher’s block.”
What has changed is the sense of the inevitability of it all. It used to be that most people were resigned to the reality of ethnic cleansing or whatever they called it, and even of genocide as a by-product if not an intention. They lived in a world in which the cyclical metaphor dominated, and in which unworldly forms of fatalism of one sort of another thrived. But, starting small some five thousand years ago, a few people dared to believe that things could be different, they could be better, that people were free and able to change their situation over time, not in some afterlife in some other world, but within the bounds of history in this world.
That thought, beginning in religious culture and moving in uneven fits and starts over many centuries, finally got traction in the Renaissance and real purchase on the minds of men in the Enlightenment’s Age of Reason. Indeed, that faith in moral progress is one of the key defining characteristics of modernity itself: It is the Whig or Chartist idea, to speak of its British context, in which moral and material progress walk hand-in-hand into a better future for all humanity. And it is an idea, above all, that is part and parcel of the very idea of America, a nation born as no other in the optimistic nurturing cradle of modernity itself.
That idea puts stock in the conviction that the abstract articulation of norms can and does impinge upon reality. It is in that context that ethnic cleansing has migrated from an ancient idea under many names as something deemed a facet of reality to a label for a stigmatized behavior deemed morally reprehensible, simply out of bounds for civilized people. In that sense it lives in the catchall aura of liberal progressivism that at least since 1945 has gone under the generic label or banner of human rights: people now have a human right not to be forcibly cleansed from their lands. It is the hopeful history of human rights, and its underlying philosophy of secular humanism, since around 1945 that informs those who believe, as President Obama beautifully put it, that “the arc of history is bending toward justice.”
But is it really? Not everyone agrees. Not so many years ago John Gray began pillorying humanism, the idea of progress, and the whole boatload of utopian, meliorist through that went with it. It is still not entirely clear if Gray and those who think as he does are the cause or the consequence of the erosion of the basic predicates of modernity in the West: the belief in individual agency; the assertion of the secularist divide between religion to the one side and politics and the arts to the other; and above all the idea of progress. But it seems beyond doubt that those predicates are under stress in the West, and that this explains the widely noted loss of self-confidence, verve, and hence confident foreign policy orientation afflicting most Western polities. At least some other parts of the world are just starting to develop an affinity for these characteristics of modernity, however, so the picture gets fuzzier as the globe in our mind’s eye gets larger.
It is that wider context that in turns gives fuller meaning to the games that various people seem determined to play with the inherited moral vocabulary that we have to hand. It seems to me that “ethnic cleansing” (and genocide and terrorism) as a term of moral obloquy will live or perish upon the power and constancy of those who insist upon it. Higher norms of moral behavior, whether in communities, nations, or the planet as a whole, do not have a life of their own separate from the vicissitudes of human transactions. As John Gray insists, they are not baked into some necessary teleology of the future. In a sense, then, they are “artificial” or derivative of our collective will as a civilization, here in the sense that Herbert Simon used the term in The Sciences of the Artificial (1969). If that will or that civilization flags, then before very long those norms will collapse.
This is why politicians and polemicists shortsightedly playing fast and loose with the meaning of terms that are the symbolic repositories of our norms is ultimately so dangerous. What they do deranges the utility of these symbols not just as means of intersubjectivity, but as an array of expectations about the kind of world we want to bequeath to our children and grandchildren. Those expectations are powerful, for if we will a better world, we perhaps can have one. As W.I. Thomas famously put the autogenic theorem back in 1928: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” And if they destroy the intelligibility of critical definitions, that will have real consequences, too.