Thursday, October 18, 2018

Analysis: New York Times fails to use language that holds Israel accountable


By Annelies Verbeek - July 10, 2018
TAGS:
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Israeli violence] [Bedouin] [demolition]

“As Israel pushes to build, Bedouin homes and schools face demolition,” the headline reads of The New York Times (NYT) story on the Palestinian village of Al Khan Al Ahmar on June 24. 

The article covers the demolition of the Bedouin village of Al Khan Al Ahmar that is drawing closer. Israeli Security Forces led in bulldozers to prepare the area on Wednesday July 4.
 
The Jahalin Bedouin living in the village are originally from the Negev, in the south of what is now Israel. After the Israeli army expelled them in the early fifties, they settled in the West Bank.
 
When Israel occupied the West Bank, it refused to recognise the village as a residential area. The village will soon be demolished on the grounds that it was erected without a permit. Israel already approved new housing units for an illegal settlement in the area.
 
While the NYT headline appears to be neutral, a linguistic analysis may show that the newspaper is choosing the side of the powerful, Israel.
 
Critical discourse analysis is the academic study of language as a social practise, with specific attention for power relationships. Language is produced by a social context, and in its turn, reproduces that social context. Inequality and racism can be detected through the systematic linguistic analysis of newspaper articles, even when the racism is not explicit.
 
Language users are always forced to make choices. Every sentence could be constructed in a different way. Every linguistic choice made, holds meaning. This is why some argue that language can never be neutral.
 
An important part of critical discourse analysis is to analyse the way in which transitive actions are portrayed. One can write “I broke the vase,” “the vase was broken by me,” or “the vase was broken,” each construction reflecting a different level of agency and responsibility.
 
The headline of this NYT article should reflect a transitive action: Israel will destroy Al Khan Al Ahmar. But the only verb attributed to Israel in this headline is “building.” This rather positive verb does not imply violence. The Bedouin “face” demolition. Who is forcing the demolition on them is only implied.
 
The subheadline poetically asserts: “the herders are being herded.” The NYT again leaves out agency, deleting the responsibility of the Israelis, while using a neutral or perhaps positive verb “to herd.” This construction could invoke the idea that the Bedouin caring for their sheep is comparable to the Israelis violently expelling them from their homes.
 
Throughout the article, the NYT does use a few direct constructions; “soldiers hauled off families,” “Soldiers tore down a few shacks…”
 
Though inevitable, we should be wary other types of constructions that leave out agency; replacing humans with machines: “bulldozers levelled a whole neighbourhood,” “Bulldozers will arrive to wipe the West Bank Bedouin community (…) off the map.”
 
When using language, it is impossible to avoid these kind of pitfalls. Perhaps the NYT cannot be blamed for making choices many journalists make.
 
Language that reflects power relations in society is more likely to be perceived as neutral, while language that explicitly or implicitly chooses sides with the powerless, is more likely to be perceived as biased. Large newspapers tend to implicitly choose sides with the powerful while trying to appear neutral.
 
This is apparent in the way the NYT frames the overall story.
 
“Khan al-Ahmar is a dusty dot on the map, tucked behind a highway dividing two bustling Israeli settlements: Maale Adumim, so well-established as a suburb of Jerusalem that even leftists concede it would need to be carved out of a future Palestinian state; and a fast-growing offshoot, Kfar Adumim.”
 
Perhaps the writer expected the reader to know that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law. He chooses to not mention this. As a result, the presence of the settlement is framed as a natural or normal phenomenon, as opposed to reflecting the reality of the settlements in themselves being an attack on the Palestinian people.
 
Kfar Adumim is described as a “fast-growing offshoot.” This description implies a form of organic-ness. It is a plant metaphor. A choice that can be deceptive, as the settlement is not growing on its own; the Israelis are actively colonising the West Bank, and expelling Palestinians in the process.
 
The word “illegal” is mentioned three times in the article; twice to refer to Al Khan Al Ahmar, once in a comparison between Al Khan Al Ahmar and illegal outposts - starting settlements that are also illegal under Israeli law. The writer never describes the settlements as illegal.
 
While B’tselem has documented that the Bedouin have been there since the 1950s, were expelled from surrounding hills to make space for Kfar Adumim, and Human Rights Watch wrote that Al Khan Al Ahmar was already established in 1952, the NYT writes the Bedouin have been there since the 1970s.
 
The newspaper mentions no date of establishment of the settlements. Neglecting the fact that the village was there before them, and the settlements have slowly appropriated more and more land from the villagers. Or the fact that Israel’s refusal to recognise the village’s presence after occupying the West Bank, is in no way comparable to the illegal colonisation of the West Bank by Israeli settlements.
 
It is no wonder then, that Jerusalem bureau chief for the NYT, an Israeli, David Halbfinger, describes the village as “the contested linchpin of two duelling national destinies.”
 
It is in the advantage of the powerful to portray the powerful and the powerless as equal, a conflict between two sides equal claims to the land.
 
The NYT may very well be helping Israel fulfil its colonial project.
 

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