Ian Black brings a fresh perspective to one of the most closely studied conflicts on Earth, unpacking its complexities with clarity and candour
In 2015 a BBC2 documentary, Children of the Gaza War, brought a flurry of complaints. One of the Palestinian children interviewed said in Arabic that “the Jews” are killing Palestinians. However, the English subtitles translated this as “Israel is massacring us”. Many Jewish and Israel-supporting viewers accused the BBC of intentionally downplaying Palestinian antisemitism. The documentary’s maker, Lyse Doucet, stood by the subtitle, saying: “We talked to people in Gaza, we talked to translators. When [the children] say ‘Jews’, they mean ‘Israelis’. We felt it was a better translation of it.” Israel has existed around Gaza for nearly 70 years and children there are still calling their Israeli neighbours Jews.
Ian Black opens his excellent new history of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Enemies and Neighbours, with a note on terminology titled Language Matters. He points out that in colloquial Arabic used by the Palestinians, Israelis are still often called “Yahud” – Jews. On the other hand, while until 1948, the year of Israel’s establishment, the term “Palestinians” usually referred to all inhabitants of Palestine, including Jews, it only gradually came to be used to describe one side in the conflict. Only in recent decades have Israelis started to differentiate their next-door neighbours from the rest of the neighbourhood, calling them “Palestinians” instead of the more amorphous “Arabs”. Words matter. They are the building blocks of the contradicting narratives each side has continued telling themselves, and the world.
Narratives are meticulously broken down and reshaped by inconvenient facts