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Sylvia Chan-Malik on Wajahat Ali’s story in the Atlantic


This is very long post about the language in Wajahat Ali’s Atlantic article on Israeli settlements.

Amidst all the noise, I finally buckled down and read Wajahat Ali’s story in the Atlantic about Zionist settlements. As it is Ramadan, and in addition to food and drink, I am fasting from anger and name-calling (to varying degrees of success), I attempted to read the piece like the Reading and Composition teacher I used to be. In his response to critics, Ali asks readers “to think for themselves” as to whether he is a “shill” for the Zionist cause. While I’ll refrain from answering that question (again, Ramadan), I’d like to simply point out two selected passages from a section in the piece in which Ali describes the prayers he offers at Al-Aqsa mosque.

Of the Palestinians, he writes:

“I prayed that Jihad Rashid, the father of two martyrs, and other Palestinians who use and abuse religion to validate hate and sanction violence would realize that they didn’t have to give their life or their children’s lives to defend this place.”

Of the Israeli settlers, he writes:

“I prayed for the settlers. I’m convinced that their zeal to redeem the land has transformed it into a golden calf—an idol, placed on a pedestal where even God, Jewish morality, and democracy can barely reach it. And I’m convinced that the settlements have become the Achilles’ heel of Israel’s security.”

Language matters. Word choice matters.

In the first passage, we see how Palestinians are characterized as possessing “hate,” of “abusing religion,” of “sanctioning violence,” of sacrificing their children to the conflict. The passage also infers that Palestinians do not understand that sending their children to die is a bad option. This portrays Palestinians as somehow more inclined to send their children to death than all other parents everywhere. Thus, I am hard pressed to come to any other inference from this passage except that Ali sees Palestinian humanity as warped, degraded, debased. His prayer for them is not about Palestinian suffering, of the pain and desperation that would drive any parent to view death as a viable option for their child. His prayer for the Palestinians is that they will somehow rise out of their debased state of violence and hate.

Contrast this with the second passage, about the Jewish settlers. First off, it’s important to note that nowhere in the entire article does Ali attribute hate, abuse of religion, or sanctioning of violence to the settlers or Israeli state. Indeed, his prayer for the settlers echoes the sentiment throughout the piece, that the settlers are driven by “zeal,” and a utopian vision of homeland. The settlers come off as idealistic, passionate, though slightly flawed in their approach. Their problem is, as the passage reflects, that their goals are simply too lofty, that in aspiring to their “pedestal,” they have actually undermined their own security. In this portrayal, I infer that the settlers are merely aspiring to religious prophecies and cultural autonomy. He indicates no sickness, no “hate” in the souls of those settlers who seek Palestinians to be caged and/or forcibly removed from their ancestral lands. His prayer for the settlers is that they can simply take a deep breath, so they can be the decent people they truly are.

Again, I have no desire to engage in name-calling. However, as someone who has been following this conversation, I wanted to take up Wajahat Ali’s request to read his article and assess his position and the essay’s message, both explicit and implicit.

Language matters. Word choice matters. Writing is an intimate art. So close-reading always offers keys to a writer’s truth.

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