March 19, 2009
By Shlomo Avineri
One of the complex outcomes of Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip was the gap in the way it was perceived by the majority of the public in Israel and the way it was perceived by large segments of the Western public. While most Israelis believe it was a just war, despite some reservations about the way in which it was carried out, the democratic world has focused on the serious damage caused to civilians and the widespread destruction Israel sowed in the Gaza Strip. Such criticism has been raised even by Israel’s closest friends.
These critical differences of opinion stem from the structural divide between participants in the war and those who watched it from a distance. Other causes of the gap include the harsh images – a consequence of the firepower Israel used, as magnified by the media – as well as disinformation and, undoubtedly, plain old hatred of Israel.
But there’s one more cause that many Israeli are not aware of: the name given to the operation, which greatly affects the way in which it will be perceived. Israelis associate the Hebrew for Cast Lead, as the operation was called, with a line written by poet Haim Nahman Bialik that is part of a Hanukkah song typically sung by cute little children. The fact that the operation began around Hanukkah sharpened that association.
Abroad, however, it was seen differently. In English, not to mention German, Cast Lead has a whole other association. Lead is cast into bullets, bombs and mortar shells. When the world reported on Cast Lead it sounded militaristic, brutal and aggressive; it was associated with death and destruction rather than spinning dreidels. Even before the first shot was fired or the first speech explaining Israel’s case was made, the operation had already acquired an image of belligerence.
Did anyone at the General Staff think about that? Of course not.
Anyone who questions the choice of the operation name will immediately be told it was picked by the Israel Defense Forces computer. Pardon me, but that’s an inane answer. Who is in charge of input into the army computer? Does it feed itself input? And in any case, this wasn’t the first time. Just look some previous choices, both for names of operations carried out against Lebanon in the 1990s: Grapes of Wrath and Settling Accounts (known abroad as Operation Accountability). Both are militaristic and macho, chosen with the probable intent of letting someone feel like a man’s man and embodying a “we’ll show them” attitude. The perception this causes abroad only worsens Israel’s image as being a vengeful and spiteful country that understands nothing but might.
Mind you, we’re not the only proponents of this method. When the United States invaded Afghanistan after 9/11, it called its military action Operation Infinite Justice, a silly name that it changed a few days later to Operation Enduring Freedom.
Of course, the significance of operation names shouldn’t be overestimated; the events on the ground, the balance of power and the outcome of the fighting are all more important than what the operation is called. But perhaps somebody should rid the IDF computer of aggressive and militaristic words. This doesn’t mean we need a return to the sort of hypocrisy of the first Lebanon war, which was officially named Operation Peace for the Galilee, but why didn’t the IDF use a neutral term for war against Hamas? Perhaps something like the Gates of Gaza, which also has a historical ring to it.
Operation names aren’t necessarily a life-or-death issue, but they should not be surrendered to the arbitrariness of a computer or the thick-headedness of those who provide it with input.