THE BLOG
11/11/2013 09:25 GMT | Updated 11/11/2013 09:25 GMT

Israel the Synecdoche

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When one talks about 'the evils of drink', it's pretty obvious that one isn't talking about Coca-Cola (although admittedly they're pretty evil too). In the phrase 'the evils of drink', the word 'drink' is a figure of speech called a synecdoche, in which a term for the whole of something is used to refer to a specific part of it.

Similarly, when one hears that India has signed a new trade agreement, or Brazil has won the World Cup, nobody would think it means all of them, all of the Indians or all of the Brazilians. The context makes clear the specific part of India or Brazil to which the synecdoche is referring, be it Finance Ministry or football team.

The word 'Israel' is often used as a synecdoche as well, but somehow nearly everyone manages to misunderstand it.

Far-left Palestine Solidarity Campaign types all too often treat 'Israel' as a monolith, in which every Israeli, past, present and future, is treated as one with every Israeli government, political party and institution. This is how academic boycotts gain traction: 'Israel' does something wrong, therefore 'Israel' must be boycotted. The fact that the bit of Israel which built a further thousand homes in the West Bank is entirely different to the bit of Israel which funds universities and cancer research doesn't get a look in.

This would never happen in the UK: while 'Britain' may be slashing its social security system, nobody blames Sussex University for this.

But misinterpretation of the synecdoche that is the word 'Israel' is just as bad on the right. Just as activists who are rabidly hostile to anything done by any facet of 'Israel' are apparently unable to distinguish between the component elements of the state, so are those rabidly supportive of anything done by any facet of 'Israel'.

Organisations like AIPAC and the The Jewish Chronicle are quick to characterise any criticism on any aspect of 'Israel' as an attack on Israel itself.

One need only suggest that perhaps the Israeli Defence Forces shouldn't use stun grenades against Palestinian-owned sheep, and the Anti-Defamation League will slap you on a list of "the worst of the worst anti-Israeli organisations" because to speak out against the IDF is to speak out against 'Israel', with no middle ground.

This is why the terms 'pro-Israel' and 'anti-Israel' are usually used as insults rather than as accurate descriptions: they are completely and utterly meaningless, seeing 'Israel' as an indivisible black box rather than a normal, living, multi-faceted country like any other.

These two mindsets are completely self-defeating. Nobody will ever listen to those who cannot understand that some parts of Israel are not responsible for the actions of 'Israel' as a whole: because their demands are so broad they are impossible to engage with.

And nobody will ever listen to those who cannot understand that 'Israel' as a whole is made up of different elements about which people will have varying opinions. These people are supposedly the country's friends, yet by blinkering themselves to the nuanced reality of life in Israel as a fully-fledged nation, they also blinker themselves to the possibility of nuanced change which will benefit the standing of the Israel they hold dear.

As Jay Michaelson has written in The Daily Beast, "If your friend is an alcoholic, is it 'anti-friend' to stage an intervention and compel them to quit drinking?"

It would definitely be 'anti-friend' to compel someone to stop taking fluids altogether. But that's clearly not what the word 'drinking' means: if people would only apply this common sense approach when interpreting the synecdoche 'Israel', the quality of the debate would improve hugely.

And so too, probably, would the quality of the State of Israel.