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WORDS MATTER, Part 3: Settlements

Michael Lame, posted August 11, 2009

[Note: This short series, WORDS MATTER, is not designed to answer the questions of what should be done about Palestinian refugees or Israeli settlers. Rather, the author hopes to raise questions in the mind of the reader about the language that we use and the way that we think about these issues.

Anyone who carefully listens to politicians or who reads political columnists knows that certain words and phrases are employed with the intention of eliciting an emotional response from the audience. Do you want a negative response to an idea? Then preface it with an adjective like unfair, undue, immoderate, extreme, unhelpful, old, tired, elitist, sexist, racist, etc. If you want a positive response to an idea, add the descriptor reasonable or prudent, frugal or thoughtful. Good legislation is carefully crafted; poor legislation is hastily slapped together. These characterizations are perhaps simplistic but, apparently, still effective. After all, who doesn’t want good government, efficient administration, and honest officeholders who give careful consideration to the insightful suggestions of senior citizens?

In my youth, I served as press secretary to a congressional candidate. One day a long-serving U.S. senator came through town to campaign for my guy, and in his speech the senator described the candidate as “a courageous, creative man of integrity and great ability.” I’ve never forgotten the phrase; it became a joke among the campaign staff.

Our candidate was a good man, but the senator’s description – especially since the two of them had just met – seemed like such generic political rhetoric that we imagined the senator using it to describe every candidate across the country that he supported that year. After the senator’s visit, whenever staff members were asked their opinion about anyone at all, the answer would come back loud and clear: “He’s a courageous, creative man of integrity and great ability!”]

The myth of the temporary Palestinian refugee camp mirrors the myth of the impermanent Israeli settlement. Camps and settlements are parallel linguistic constructs. In the context of the Middle East, neither name fits reality. Each name creates a false impression.

The term settlement shapes what we think is there and what we believe should happen to it. Even before defining the term, for those who equate morality with legality or who view Middle East conflict through the prism of international law, the moment the term settlement is prefaced with illegal or unlawful, then it is only natural to think the worst of the place and of the people who live there.

Settlement, when modified by Israeli, is a loaded term, though it doesn’t seem that way from the dictionary:
a: occupation by settlers b: a place or region newly settled c: a small village
The term settlers summons up images in my mind – history-lover that I am – of Daniel Boone leading a band of hearty men and women into the wilds of Kentucky or of Ward Bond (the 1950’s television star of Wagon Train) shepherding intrepid pioneers across the plains of the Midwest.

Like the term camp, the word settlement often refers to simple dwellings, for a few people, which are temporary or of recent vintage. Settlement, in the context of Israeli housing in the West Bank, can refer to anything from a single caravan on a hilltop with a handful of occupants to an entire suburb of Jerusalem – like French Hill (7,000), Gilo (27,000), or Pisgat Ze’ev (40,000) – to small cities such as Ariel (16,000), Betar Illit (32,000), Modi’in Illit (38,000), or Ma’aleh Adumim (33,000). [2007 population figures]

Today, close to 200,000 Israelis live within the expanded city limits of Jerusalem on the Palestinian side of the Green Line (separating pre-1967 Israel from the West Bank and East Jerusalem). Another 290,000 Israelis dwell elsewhere in the West Bank. To provide a sense of proportion, the Palestinian population of east Jerusalem and the West Bank is approximately 2.5 million.

When hearing the word settlement, I still think of a make-shift bunch of shelters – tents, shacks, or lean-to’s. I imagine that a well-established, thriving settlement would at some point graduate to a different designation, such as village or town. In reading the word settlement, I certainly don’t think of a decades-old centrally-planned community with parks, playgrounds, and shopping malls, with stone or concrete multi-storey buildings and industrial parks. Yet that is what the settlement of Ma’aleh Adumim looks like, just five miles east of Jerusalem, and when I first saw the place, its appearance surprised me. Whether it should be there or not, whether it is legal or not, whether it will eventually become part of a Palestinian state or not, it was clearly built to last. Calling it a settlement can mislead us into thinking of it as something small and easily removable.

The words settlements and settlers hold a different, more ideological meaning for some on the Left. In 1967 (just before the war that year) the French Marxist and Islamic scholar Maxime Rodinson, himself a Jew, wrote a provocative essay, later published in book form in English as Israel: A Colonial-Settler State? For Marxists, anti-imperialists, and supporters of third world liberation movements, the term “settler” has always been highly pejorative. It represents Europe and America at its imperialist-colonialist worst.

The 21st century usage of settlers and settlements often echoes that anti-Western perspective. Settlers and settlements are frequently portrayed in the media and in political discourse as inherently illegitimate, as holdovers from the now-discredited bad old days of colonialism. This meaning of settlement has nothing to do with the size of the community or its longevity. According to this view, settlers are foreigners. Settlers don’t belong. Settlers have imposed themselves on the legitimate and legal residents of the area – the indigenous peoples, the natives, the locals. Looking from this perspective on the Middle East, the term settler is not merely an identification but an indictment. It serves as a validation of the wrongfulness of Israelis’ presence on the West Bank: The Boers of South Africa were in the wrong. The Pied-Noirs of Algeria were in the wrong. The Dutch in Indonesia, the French in Indochina, and the British damn near everywhere were in the wrong. Now it’s the Israelis’ turn, in the West Bank.

For some reason, this pejorative sense of settler is not universally applied to all peoples who “intrude” on others’ long-inhabited lands. For an example of how else “newcomers” can be viewed, compare coverage of West Bank Israelis to the portrayal of the Han Chinese who, with the backing of Beijing, have flocked to the Muslim Uighur-inhabited Xinjiang region of western China and to the rugged plateaus of Buddhist Tibet. They are not vilified by Western media for their settlements but rather are criticized for their treatment of the local inhabitants. Their presence is seen as the result of migration. [See the recent NY Times article, Migrants to China’s West Bask in Prosperity,]

What might you call Israeli settlements in the West Bank if you were to use another term? If you want them dismantled, then you don’t want to use a term that seems benign. If you want them to remain, then you prefer a term without negative baggage. And if you search for a neutral term without clear-cut positive or negative connotations, then you will likely be accused by one side or another of bias.

The suggestion box is now open. . .What else could we call Israeli places of abode on the West Bank and how might we relate to them differently if they had a different name?
Communities? – Jewish Communities? Bedroom Communities? Gated Communities (my favorite)? Towns? Development Towns? Villages? Built-Up Areas?
Or we could go overtly partisan:
Colonies? Imperialist Outposts? Potemkin Villages?

What about the people? What else could we call Israelis living in the West Bank other than settlers?
We could go positive: immigrants or pioneers.
We could go negative: interlopers, usurpers, colonizers, squatters.
We could go neutral: inhabitants, populace, residents.

Small settlements not authorized by the Israeli government are called outposts. They could just as easily and just as legitimately be called camps.

Indeed, imagine if we switched the names and began to speak of Palestinian refugee settlements and of Israeli camps in the West Bank. Or what if we used the exact same words to describe Israeli and Palestinian settlements/camps? Communities could cover both. So could enclaves in many cases, as in Palestinian refugee enclaves in Lebanon or the Israeli enclave in downtown Hebron.

Enclave: a distinct territorial, cultural, or social unit enclosed within or as if within foreign territory enclaves>”

Are these terms likely to change? Probably not. Too many people – from the Middle East and from the West – want to continue using words like settlements and camps precisely because such words imply a makeshift impermanence. They want the settlements to disappear. They want the camps to eventually close.

Certainly, vast differences exist between the Israelis’ Ma’aleh Adumim settlement and the Palestinians’ Balata refugee camp, not only in infrastructure but in the rights and privileges, status, income and opportunities of the inhabitants. And, of course, there exists the most fundamental of psychological differences in how the residents view their communities. The Israelis hope to stay and build. The Palestinians dream of going home.

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “WORDS MATTER, Part 3: Settlements”

  1. Don Ellison Aug 11th 2009 at 10:24 am

    Michael Lame nicely parses (dare I say “deconstructs”) the term “settlements.” He skillfully demonstrates how many interpretive frames can be applied to the term. But alas, the analysis remains a clever parlor game because any term in a language can be subjected to a long chain of nuances, special meanings, and divergent interpretations. It is simply the nature of the linguistic beast. It is more important, I think, to find the convergence on meaning.

    When it comes to “communication” and “understanding” rather than individual word meaning, two things are required: first, communication would not be possible without assuming an a priori world of shared meanings accessible by individuals. There has to be some overlap on meaning or the human enterprise would not be possible. And second, it must be possible to limit the process of endless interpretations. We cannot get caught up in an endless loop of meanings, at least not defensible ones. The explanations for these issues are long and complex (for more see entry 16 at: but the upshot is that there is such a thing as semantic realism. Without belaboring the point, semantic realism is the overlap of shared meaning that we commit to and makes communication possible. We take meaning to be a real thing that has real consequences. The reason that “words matter” is because meanings matter. And meanings cannot be cavalierly changed, discarded, and manipulated.

    Moreover, meanings do not spring forth from airy nothingness. They are rooted in lived experiences and can always be logically connected to such experiences. The settlements have meaning for Israelis and Palestinians that emerge from the experiences of each group Meanings are always something we lay claim to. We defend meanings with evidence, reasoning, and data. That is why “one man’s terrorist is not another man’s freedom fighter.”

    Clearly, the meanings for “settlements” is one of the discursive divides that fuels the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians. A settlement is a temporary claim on land and that is why calling Ma’aleh Adumim a settlement makes perfect political and communicative sense. It makes just the point the source of the message wants to make.

    As Mr. Lame correctly points out, the language we use is important—how could it not be?—but in the end the fact of different meanings is less important than finding shared meaning.

  2. Michael Lameon Aug 11th 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Note: The above comment was written by Donald G. Ellis, Professor of Communication at the University of Hartford. He recently published a thought-provoking article entitled “Israeli-Jews and Palestinians Must Argue”,

  3. Moniron Aug 11th 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Shared meanings is like we agree to the same thing!? The problem here is a little bit simpler. It’s when one party wants to – by force – impose the same understanding and meaning on the other party. Words of course carry all the weight, but only in communicating one’s message. What is behind the message is all a different matter. That is when the power of intention comes in. What is the intention of the Jewish American settlers toward the land and its inhabitants (The Palestinians)? That is what will define the meaning of Settlers and settlement to the Palestinian listener, or definer of the word SETTLEMENTS!
    I do have a lot of respect for my friend Michael, and professor D. Ellis, and their capabilities in exploring the linguistic value of the matter, but what counts most for the parties involved is the manipulations of words and game playing semantics, to deceive the victims, or the listener/observer in this case. We do not want to be lost in the maze of words that the beneficiary of the action wishes us to agree with him, or at least blind us for the time being, of how to translate his or her action. To a Palestinian family, who wake up one morning, and find a foreign-looking mobile home, with a bulldozer, and three Army jeeps, pointing their guns at him, there is no need for him to go and get his dictionary, nor take a class in linguistics. All you have to do is ask him what does SETTLEMENT mean? He will tell you exactly what it means without hesitation or doubt.

  4. Michael Thomason Aug 12th 2009 at 11:12 am

    Curiouser and curiouser. Now Michael expressly disclaims any intent to make policy arguments, before going on to argue that the universally used term for a core issue in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — moving hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews into occupied territory to live in Jews-only, state-supported communities — is a “loaded term.” Presumably, a “loaded” term is an unfair term, a term that chooses sides when it shouldn’t. As Don Ellis correctly notes, the word “settlement” is appropriately loaded with relevant meaning. To replace it with a place-holder term devoid of the connotations of transiency and colonization would be to award the settler movement an undeserved victory. It would imply, as Michael clearly does, that colonial cities such as Ma’aleh Adumim are (should be?) permanent. The State of Israel intends that they be permanent, and to permanently exclude Palestinians, but if there were an impartial court of competent jurisdiction the state program of settlements would be prohibited. Even the Israeli courts recognize that, in law, the setlements are transient.

    The legal scholar who is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the law of war (or “international humanitarian law”) happens to be an Israeli, Yoram Dinstein. Prof Dinstein recently published a book on belligerent occupation, the legal term for the manner in which Israel controls the West Bank and Gaza. Dinstein distinguishes between the case of individual Israelis who choose to move to the occupied territories to live, and the systematic state-financed process of planning and building settlements and related infrastructure, much of it on land expropriated by Israel, for the exclusive (and subsidized) use of Jewish citizens of Israel. The latter is a clear violation of Article 49 of the Geneva Convention (4th). Dinstein reviews the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of Israel, which refuses to accept the Fourth Geneva Convention as binding law in spite of Israel’s having joined all of the 1949 Conventions. He finds it unsatisfactory in many ways, concluding that “the greatest contribution of the Court to the legal discourse about settlements has been the recurrent emphasis on their non-permanent nature.” Dinstein, The International Law of Belligerent Occupation (Cambridge 2009), p 246. Ma’ale Adumim must be undertood, as a matter of law (and, some of us would argue, justice and humanity) as an impermanent community, however much its residents think and wish otherwise.

    However “loaded” the word “settlement” is, Michael finds it less so than “colony,” which would be “overtly partisan.” But the word “settlement” has as one of its definitions in most dictionaries, the act of colonizing or the establishment of colonies. And yes, both words carry emotional freight, especially in the developing world, after the history of colonial empires that left so many wounds. But are we to abandon legitimate and accurate uses of words because they carry negative connotations? Perhaps the argument is about whether those connotations, or all of them, are fair as applied to Israeli settements. That is at least a discussion worth having. (I would note that it would be a little different than the argument about whether the occupation regime imposed by Israel should be called “Apartheid,” since colonial regimes ranged from the Belgians in Africa to substantially less brutal systems.)

    To replace “settlement” with “colony” is not inaccurate, but it is a more aggressive use of language. To propose “bedroom community,” or even Michael’s favorite, “gated community,” is to use language as a smokescreen behind which the ugly and embarrassing truth is harder to discern.