International Educator deserves great credit for its attempts to explore the complex issues surrounding a number of the world's most intractable conflicts, and for highlighting the role that educators can play in developing greater tolerance for the perspectives of people, especially the young, on both sides of the divide in such societies. It was therefore with some distress that I read Israel Gordan's strident attack (Letter Box, "Contentious Terms," November/December '06) on Dana Wilkie's laudable and balanced article, "Security Walls and Suicide Bombers" (July/August '06).
Gordan cites Wilkie's use of the term 'Palestine' as proof for what he claims is "the one-sidedness of the article," although he provides no substantive evidence of this in the remainder of his letter. Instead he proceeds to fume about subjects that are not germane to Wilkie's article, e.g "strife between Shiites and Sunnis," and "the discrimination of women in Saudi Arabia." Although there is no question that the use of the term 'Palestine' to describe certain lands adjoining Israel is clearly contentious to some number of people, so too is the use of 'Londonderry' and 'Bombay' to some others, and even 'Israel' to yet others. One wonders, for example, if Gordan would have criticized President Bush who said in Brussels in early 2005 that, "We seek peace between Israel and Palestine for its own sake."
I therefore don't think the editor of IE was correct with the institutional reply to Gordan that suggested, "We should have worked with the author to find a better term" because all such terms in conflicts of this intensity are contested by some—there is no "better" term, only more of them. If IE, for example, had used "occupied territories" as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the United Nations Security Council, and other international bodies have, would Gordan have been pleased? I doubt it, because the Israeli Foreign Ministry and their intellectual supporters repeatedly use the term "disputed territories" and argue that Israel is not engaged in an "occupation." But as Mr. Gordan must also know, even within Israel the term for these lands is contentious. Courage to Refuse—a group made up of hundreds of Israeli soldiers who refused to serve in what they called the "Occupied Territories"—saw such service as a threat to Israel's security.
In his wonderful play, Translations, about the renaming of Irish places into English by a British Army survey team in the 1830's, Brian Friel has one of the principal characters remark that "It can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact." The "landscape of fact" in the Middle East has been transformed in recent history not only with the institution of "Israel" as a state, but also by the longing of the Palestinian people to make the linguistic contours of their lives conform with new facts that may provide greater protection for those lives—in other words, a state called "Palestine." Thus, as educators, let us not be "imprisoned in a linguistic contour" that disallows the term "Palestine" before it is formally instituted as such, because its use is merely evidence of their and our longing, that all of the peoples of this region may live in peace.