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The “Automatic” Majority against Israel in the UN

Contributed by Toine Van Teeffelen on 22.06.2011:

Analysis of a Metaphor

Toine van Teeffelen, Bethlehem

This year new metaphors have been applied in relation to the Arab world which significantly change patterns of thinking about the region. Two main examples are the Arab “spring” and Al Jazeera’s Arab “awakening” which provide a very different, more open and evolving meaning to the idea of people-initiated change than the old mechanical metaphors associated with “violence” in Arab countries such as, for instance, “explosion,” or the “boiling over” of emotions.

Despite such new symbolizations, Israel’s ongoing hasbara, its communications strategy, sticks to familiar old metaphors. Though worn-out, the metaphors and related language devices leave their effects in reinforcing stereotypical patterns of thought. One such expression nowadays again in vogue with the upcoming Palestine vote at the UN in September, is “automatic majority.” This is an expression used literally thousands of time in the media and elsewhere, and is integral part of the anti-UN political discourse that is still prevalent among right-wing constituencies in the US. Netanyahu used it in his recent speech in Congress, and its repeated, in fact automatic re-mentioning seems now to be part of the public propaganda strategies dealing with what is briefly called “September.” What are the features of this expression as it has been employed?

1. When you suggest somebody or a group to be, or operate like, or to be part of an automaton, you first of all suggest that thinking is absent – or rather that this person, group or collective is plain stupid. Automatons do not think or speak humanly. The suggestion of stupidity is underscored by the familiar expression of Netanyahu and Israeli diplomats old and new, that the UN would be able to vote in majority for a statement such as that “the earth is flat.” More subtly, but equally worn out, the element of stupidity attributed to Arab political bodies is evoked by Abba Eban’s one-liner that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity,” which during peace negotiations has been routinely deployed as a labeling tactic directed at the Palestinian side. (Many supposed wisecracks used in Israeli communications date back to the times of Abba Eban, Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir).

2. The metaphor of automaton suggests immorality. Automatons, such as robots, do not have morals, are not informed by human values. Israeli diplomats reinforce this meaning of immorality by saying that they are presently trying to build up a “moral minority” in the UN, implying that the majority in the UN is amoral or immoral. Choose what is worse: stupidity or a/immorality.

3. When you supposedly are, act like, or are part of an automaton, you are liable to be manipulated by outside forces. These forces may be stupid or clever, moral or – most probably – immoral. In fact, the metaphor suggests that it is not a matter of option but definition. Automatons are by definition operated from outside. They follow or conform to orders from outside and serve exterior ends. They do not have an inner will but are tools in the hands of others.

4. An automatic majority is a perversion of democracy. Democracy, ideally speaking, is based upon argumentation, dialogue, persuasiveness, and not upon a routine yes or no voting or on pre-programmed statements and declarations. Israeli communications used to emphasize the routine “no” pronounced by Arab leaders, such as the three times “no” of the Arab summit in Khartoum after the 1967 war. Over the years a great many sarcastic western cartoons portrayed Arab representatives and their supporters in the UN as purely conformist, repeating well-known simple language acts. The “Arab no” also used to evoke the equally “routine” njet by the Soviets in the time of the Cold War.

5. An automatic majority based on numbers rather than reason, and upon amorality or immorality rather than values is potentially a threat to a minority. Automatic majorities are expected not to respect minorities. Lack of democracy implies the rule of power rather than law. Notice that the traditional portrayal of “Arab” threats to Israel also used to emphasize the dimension of quantity: the quantities of arms, space, countries, demographics as opposed to Israelis’ lack of arms, space, demography, and its access to only one country (“no other country to go to”). Quantities threaten, while what is qualitative is fragile and in need of defense. You have to protect yourself against automatic majorities.

6. Note that this threat of stupidity, immorality, manipulative power, and the naked force of quantity, quickly evokes the idea and practice of anti-Semitism which shares all these features.

7. Automatic action stands opposed to narrative action. The formation of automatic majorities does not start an engaging or challenging story; it does not call for new horizons to be journeyed to (like “Arab spring” or “Arab awakening”), or for identification with a protagonist. To the contrary. In popular speech, automatons implement predictable, easily executable scripts devoid of intrinsic interest.

8. The automaton metaphor makes it more difficult to identify with especially the Arab advocates of a Palestinian state. Each of the associations or implications above deeply contradicts with the possibility of identification or empathy.

9. Of course, the Israeli side is supposed to be the reverse of all this. In line with familiar stereotyping, this side is represented as thinking, moral, argumentative, democratic, not manipulative, and playing a role in enfolding and engaging narratives, while its stand is attributed to quality rather than the mechanical power of numbers.

How effective is the present-day repetitive, rhetorical use of calling the UN to be influenced by “automatic” majorities?

Of course, there is erosion in effectiveness the more such cliché expressions are used in new circumstances. It goes without saying that Israel does not particularly look like the white angel it once used to be portrayed in much Western political discourse. Also, there is a built in problem that when you wish to do advocacy towards a great many political actors you rather should not associate those actors with automatons.

Maybe the metaphor is still influential in one main respect. These and similar metaphors serve to hide the unpleasant “automatic” aspects of Israel’s own political behavior or the behavior it elicits. Think for instance of the automatic, orchestrated waves of applauses during Netanyahu’s speech in Congress – or the automatic, routine demolitions, land confiscations, expansion of settlements, for that matter.

This is the first of a series on “Metaphors and Palestine”, which is part of a track of working of the Bethlehem-based Arab Educational Institute in its “Communicating Palestine” project. Toine van Teeffelen is development director of the Arab Educational Institute and holds a Ph.D. in discourse analysis from the University of Amsterdam.

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