Culture War, Identity Politics, Politics

The Protocols of the Euphemisms of Zion

What anti-Semites really mean when they complain about “Zionists.”
July 15, 2019
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(Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

When confronted on their expressions of apparent anti-Semitism, contemporary public figures—think Jeremy Corbyn, Steven Salaita, Louis Farrakhan, or the Chicago Dyke March—typically explain, with varying degrees of credibility, that their real problem is not with Jews but with “Zionists.” The clarification is often questionable, especially when the initial comments were accompanied by classic caricatures, stereotypes, or invectives, but expressions of anti-Zionism can still operate as socially acceptable cover for an underlying disdain or hostility toward Jews (which remain, for now, off-limits in most polite company). It is an all too familiar occurrence, but how far back does it date?  

I thought I had unearthed a very early instance of the phenomenon, in the course of researching another subject, when I came across an old quotation from George Habash, founder of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, originator of airplane hijackings, and organizer of multiple attacks on Israeli civilians. As it turns out, there was much more to it than the actual quote I found: 

To kill a Zionist far from the battleground has more of an effect than killing 100 of them in battle. 

The quote was in a 1991 book by Jamal Nassar—now a professor of political science, and dean emeritus, at Cal State-San Bernardino—titled, The Palestine Liberation Organization: From Armed Struggle to the Declaration of Independence. Nassar’s source was a 1970 interview with Habash, conducted by the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, that appeared in Life as “A Leader of the Fedayeen: ‘We Want a War Like the Vietnam War.’” Wondering what else was in the interview, I dug up a copy.

 To my surprise, it turned out that Habash had not said “Zionist” at all. In fact, the original quote was quite explicit about his intended targets: 

To kill a Jew far from the battleground has more of an effect than killing 100 of them in battle. (Emphasis added)

The discrepancy between the actual quote and Nassar’s version was jarring, especially given some other passages in the interview. Remarking on the PLFP skyjacking of a flight from Rome, for example, Habash said, “The Arabs have a right to use Italy as a base against the Jews.” 

I emailed Nassar, requesting an explanation for sanitizing Habash’s anti-Semitism by recasting it as anti-Zionism. Before he answered, I discovered a fascinating exchange in Life ’s Letters to the Editor. In response to the Habash interview, the PFLP’s Department of Information complained that Fallaci’s “so-called interview” had been “fabricated,” and that she had “substituted the term ‘Jews’ in place of ‘Zionists’” in the very line about killings away from the battleground.

Fallaci replied with outrage. The “so-called Department of Information,” she said, “ignores the existence of a machine known as a tape recorder” on which she had recorded the entire interview, which had been conducted in English. “Habash knows very well that what I wrote was said by him into a microphone,” Fallaci explained, and she offered to put “the tape at his disposal to refresh his memory.” 

I received Nassar’s reply later that day. I expected him to refer to the attempted correction from the PFLP, but he provided a rather different explanation: 

I remember specifically discussing this issue with the late Professor Ibrahim Abu-Lughod who was a renowned expert on Palestinian affairs, a member of the Palestine National Council and former Chair of Political Science at Northwestern University. He told me that he posed the same question to Dr. George Habash who responded that everyone knows what he means, that is his use of the word Jews in that context refers to the Zionists who colonized the Palestinian homeland and those zionists (sic) in the Western World who finance and support that colonization. As such, the change of the word in the quotation was grounded in the intent of Dr. Habash. However, you are correct to point out such a change. I should have included an explanation in the reference.

If “everyone knows” that “Jews” means “Zionists,” of course, there would have been no need to alter the quote, which Abu-Lughod clearly acknowledged had been accurately transcribed by Fallaci.

In any case, quotations are quotations, and scholars should never be in the business of changing them to fit a speaker’s assertedly more tolerable intentions, especially on the basis of a secondhand account from a political confrere. That is the work of publicists, not academics. The press secretary to Chicago’s first Mayor Daley once attempted to instruct local newspapers in that vein, telling them, “Don’t print what he said. Print what he meant.” The working journalists knew better than to comply.

 The reality was that Habash meant exactly what he said. His use of “Jews” was not limited to “Zionists,” and, even more to the point, the targeted Zionists quite plainly meant Jews. The PFLP Department of Information left little doubt in its letter: “To the PFLP the liquidation of a Zionist wherever he might be is important,” and that included “burning down a Zionist store in London.”

 That was 1970. Many things have changed since them, but euphemisms evidently have not. In its own perverse way, Habash’s goal was admirably unambiguous: He wanted to kill Jews. It was only his apologists who later sought to make the wording more palatable to American audiences. The Palestinians have many compelling complaints against Israel, which can naturally comprise a rejection of Zionism itself. But when threats, insults, and banishment demands are directed at generic “Zionists,” well, I think we know whom they really mean.

Steven Lubet

Steven Lubet is the Edna B. and Ednyfed H. Williams Memorial professor of law at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.