Friday, February 19, 2016

P is for Palestine?

PHONOLOGY AND POLITICS — WHAT THE MK ACTUALLY SAID: No ‘P’ in Arabic Means No Palestine, Israeli Lawmaker Says (ISABEL KERSHNER, New York Times)
JERUSALEM — One of the many things that divides Israelis and Palestinians is the letter P.

The consonant that prefaces prejudice and partisanship became an object of mirth on Thursday after Anat Berko, a conservative lawmaker from the governing Likud Party, said in Parliament that there could be no such place as Palestine because there is no P in Arabic.

This article came out a week ago. It does not seem to be the first one to cover the story, but it's the earliest I have been able to find that takes it in this direction. I noticed it back when it came out and I started keeping track, but I've been busy and have only had time to write it up now. Several points arise from this article and many of the others which cover the same story.

1. The supposed argument by MK Berko, as presented in the headline (and other headlines in articles published elsewhere, see below) is ludicrous and scarcely worth addressing. No P in Arabic does not mean "that there could be no such place as Palestine."

2. That said, the headline does not represent accurately or fairly what she is reported in the article to have said. The article itself quotes what she did say:
The name “Palestine” is a borrowed term , Ms. Berko said, presumably referring to the ancient Greek “Palaistine” and the Syria-Palaestina of the Roman era.

“I want to return to history. What exactly is our place here regarding Jerusalem, regarding Palestine,” she said during a parliamentary debate late Wednesday called by the center-left Zionist Union on the two-state solution. “As we have said, there isn’t even a P in Arabic so this borrowed term is also worth scrutinizing,” she added.

As opposition lawmakers heckled Ms. Berko, she retorted, “There is no ‘Pa,’ ” sputtering, “Pa, pa, pa,” for emphasis.
There is nothing incorrect in what she did say, as reported here. "Palestine" is a borrowed term that ultimately comes from the word "Philistine," one of the groups of Sea People invaders who came to the region in the late Second Millennium BCE. As the article goes on to say, there is indeed no "P" sound in Arabic. And it is entirely fair to scrutinize the use of this borrowed term. Yes, she is making a rhetorical point to underline that the term is borrowed, but so what? She did not say anything resembling the absurd assertion "that there could be no such place as Palestine because there is no P in Arabic."

Now let us be clear. The excerpted section is what the Times quotes her to have said, this is what every other article I checked quoted, and this is presumably what she said. (You can view that part of her speech here on YouTube.) If she actually said something more objectionable earlier or later in the speech, then let's hear an exact quote of what it was. But if that were the case, I'm pretty sure they all would have seized on that and quoted it. Instead, they try to base their conclusions on this brief quotation.

PaleoJudaica does not have a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Scott Adams would say, that is at a different URL. One can agree or disagree with whatever MK Berko's overall political position about Israel and the Palestinians may be or with whatever other unreported political statements she may have made in the speech. Fine. My point is that what she is reported to have said here does not correspond to the accusation being made against her.

3. PaleoJudaica does have an interest in the historical background and development of terms like "Palestine," and those concerns are foundational to this little media tempest. So let's go ahead and scrutinize that term "Palestine." In fact I have done so, especially here, but posts here, here, and here are also relevant. I have no interest in drawing any modern political conclusions beyond those drawn in those posts (i.e., on whether and in what sense Jesus can be called a Palestinian), but I have surveyed the historical facts and their implications as I see them there.

4. I have been extra wary of the New York Times ever since they published that unfortunate article dealing (badly) with scholarly views about the Jewish temples on the Temple Mount. Regular readers will remember this incident well and more recent visitors can read the whole story here and links (cf. here). In general, my attitude is not to give the Times, or for that matter any of the mainstream media, the benefit of the doubt. A good principle is to withhold judgment on the coverage of anything controversial unless you have independent verification of what is reported. And, as we shall see, multiple articles in the media do not necessarily count as independent verification. This hermeneutic of suspicion is especially important if you see something that looks wrong based on your own knowledge or you see what look like internal inconsistencies in the coverage. Then, check very carefully before you accept what is said.

5. Other media coverage of MK Berko's comments are as follows. Note the equally inaccurate headlines.*
Israeli Lawmaker Says Palestinian Nation Doesn’t Exist, Because Arabic Doesn't Have 'P' (Jonathan Lis, Haaretz)
Israeli Lawmaker: There Can’t Be a Palestine Because Arabic Has No ‘P’ (SIOBHÁN O'GRADY, Foreign Policy Blog)
Israeli MP claims the Palestine Nation cannot exist 'because they can't pronounce the letter P' (Matt Payton, The Independent)
Israeli Legislator Argues With Straight Face That Palestine Can’t Exist Because There’s No P in Arabic (Joshua Keating, Slate Blog)

It is worthwhile to analyze the pattern of coverage here. Something someone has said about a controversial topic is picked up. It is over-interpreted in an extreme way that makes the person look bad but which does not accurately express what they did say. The provocative over-interpretation is placed in a headline and in the first paragraph or two of the article. Then the actual story and the actual quotation are reported. (As an aside: keep in mind that many readers will not go beyond the headline or the first few lines, and some of those who read the whole article will read it carelessly within the provocative frame already set.) Finally, articles are multiplied across the media which repeat the provocative over-interpretation in the headlines, echo chamber style. Consumers of the media, unless they are very observant, are left with the impression that the speaker has been discredited.

Now that this pattern has been pointed out to you, keep an eye out for it. Who knows? You may notice it again sometime.

*The above is a representative sampling. Examples could be multiplied. To be fair, some other headlines more accurately reflect what she actually said. Examples:
Likud MK sparks outrage after questioning the 'P' in 'Palestine' (Arutz Sheva)
Mind your Ps and Qs: Israeli lawmaker puzzles with Palestine comment (AFP - carried by the Daily Mail and many others)
Israeli MP ridiculed over Palestine comment (World Bulletin)
Likud MK: Palestinians can’t even say ‘P’ (The Times of Israel)

UPDATE (20 February): More here.