JERUSALEM — Death and life are in the power of the tongue: and they that love it shall eat the fruit thereof.
When Lebanese gunmen ambushed an Israeli patrol and made off with two soldiers north of the international border last month, the Israeli press referred to the incident as a "kidnaping," though the soldiers were armed, in uniform, and confronted native resistance on foreign soil.
The local Arab press said the Israelis were "captured" or "taken prisoner."
Shortly before that, Al Fajr, the English-language edition of the Palestinian newspaper in East Jerusalem, headlined a story about a clash between Israeli security forces and a band of West Bank gunmen: "Israel Kills Commandos."
The West Bank gunmen were terrorists by almost any definition, responsible for killing five Israeli civilians and for rifle attacks on civilian buses in which 18 people had been wounded, Arabs as well as Jews.
Sensitive to Language
Both incidents were skirmishes in the Arab-Israeli war of words, a war so intense that experienced foreign diplomats say it may be unique in the annals of international conflict. In part, the exchange is so highly charged because of cultural factors that make Arabs and Jews unusually sensitive to language.
When the early Zionists adopted Hebrew as the official language of Israel, they resurrected what was for most practical purposes a 2,000-year-old dead language, but one rich in history and tradition. Arabic, too, is considered one of the world's richest and most poetic languages.
By religious tradition, Jews and Arabs both believe that the word of God has been passed specifically to them. And Islam and Judaism both have large bodies of law and tradition dissecting the meanings of revealed truth--the Talmud for Jews and the Hadith for Muslims.
Saying Is Being
Also, according to Yigal Yanai, director of Hebrew University's Academy of the Hebrew Language, "with the Arabs and many Jews, too, if they say something, they attribute to it the power of already being." It is a philosophy, he said, that "as a man pronounceth, so shall it be."
The Middle East sensitivity to language is also a product of an intense politicization of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has turned words into weapons, the verbal equivalents of bullets. Control of the terminology is like control of the arsenal, and as participants in the Mideast conflict see it, one may be as important to victory as the other.
"It's an elementary political tactic to redefine your adversary's objectives in your own terms," said a Western diplomat who has worked in the region for many years. "And it has been lifted to a fine art here in the Middle East."
Terminology is also central to the doctrine of Leninism. But although in the Soviet Bloc ideologically charged words are widely seen as part of a political vocabulary so remote from everyday life as to be almost a foreign language, the Middle East equivalents are staples of conversation.
In this part of the world, words are often manipulated as part of an effort to "demonize" the opposition.
For example, state-owned Israel radio has a rule, according to an employee, that the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are never to be referred to by name. They are mentioned only by their initials, PLO and PFLP, because the word liberation implies a legitimate Palestinian claim to lands Israel considers its own.
Similarly, an Arab editor acknowledged that his newspaper does not refer to Palestinians as "terrorists." That word was reserved for members of the so-called Jewish underground who were convicted last year of carrying out a series of attacks against Palestinians.
A variation on "demonizing" the opposition is protecting one's own image. Thus, the Arab editor said, the Palestinian press refers to the "1967 War" rather than the "Six-Day War," as the Israelis prefer to call it. "We don't like to emphasize how badly we lost," he explained.
Last July, Israel radio's English-language service managed to give an ideological twist to a brief news report: "Police are investigating two bombings and a grenade attack in the Tel Aviv area. The two bombings are suspected to be the work of terrorists, while the grenade attack on the Hassan Bek Mosque in Jaffa is believed to have been carried out by Jews."
A tool the Israelis use to control the terminology of the Middle East conflict is censorship. In one case, the censor demanded that a foreign correspondent delete the word ambush from a report he filed from southern Lebanon quoting an Israeli army officer describing a clash in which his men, lying in wait, surprised a group of armed Lebanese trying to cross his lines.
"You can say engaged , fought with but not ambushed ," the censor said.