Dictionary aims for Mideast harmony

Book seeks to show Israelis, Palestinians how other side thinks

December 26, 2005|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO -- What is in a word?

For Israelis and Palestinians, words are much more than their dictionary definition, two professors say. Words stir feelings, rouse nations to greatness, label enemies as evil. Language can lead to war or promote peace.

In the Middle East, words can magnify misunderstanding, keeping peace just out of reach. To combat the problem, Ilai Alon and Assad Busool - one Israeli, one Palestinian, both professors of Islamic studies in Chicago - are creating a dictionary of terms they hope will shed light on how each side defines issues and events that have shaped a decades-long conflict.

"The idea is that words include emotion," said Alon, an Israeli who is teaching medieval Islamic philosophy and negotiations in Arabic-speaking Islam at the University of Chicago while on leave from his post at Tel Aviv University.

"It's not always nice to hear," Alon said. "It makes the blood boil on both sides, but this is reality."

The lexicon hits most hot-button issues, defining everything from the Al-Aqsa mosque to Zionism without censoring opinions that some might find extreme. The authors define holocaust, refugee and Deir Yassin, a Palestinian village destroyed during the 1948 war, itself an entry in the dictionary. Israelis call it the "War of Independence"; Palestinians refer to it as the "Nakbeh," or catastrophe.

"We decided not to make [the lexicon] anything academic or statistically valid, but to try to portray what people feel," Alon said.

The authors said they hope the book, which doesn't yet have a publisher, will help peacemakers and university students studying the conflict. Mostly, they want the public in Israel and the Arab world to read it and begin to see the conflict through the other side's eyes, with the hope that such understanding will lead to peace.

"When we talk to each other, we talk over the heads of each other," Busool said. "The point is to bring to both peoples how the other side feels and thinks."

The project was started three years ago, when Alon and Israeli author Yoram Afek decided to define the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the Israeli point of view. Then, they thought, why not find Palestinian counterparts who could define those terms from the Palestinian point of view?

They searched for a Palestinian willing to undertake the task, approaching Israeli-Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi and Marwan Barghouti, an architect of the current Palestinian uprising imprisoned in Israel.

Tibi declined, and Barghouti never answered the letter Alon and Afek sent to his jail cell, Alon said. Five or six other Palestinians accepted and worked on the project for a while, only to drift away after penning a few definitions.

"They didn't want to appear as collaborating with Israelis," Alon said. "It was very disappointing."

Alon's luck changed after he took a sabbatical to teach at the University of Chicago in 2003.

Shortly after his arrival, Busool recognized Alon's name on a list of speakers set to give a talk at North Park University. It was his old classmate from Hebrew University. They had graduated together in 1967; Alon had gone on to graduate studies at the University of Oxford, while Busool studied at the University of California, Berkeley.

Busool, a professor at American Islamic College in Chicago, contacted Alon, who asked him whether he wanted to contribute to the dictionary. Busool agreed.

"I thought it would be informative for both sides," he said.

Busool said he thought it was important to write the Palestinian point of view of Jewish people and events, including the Haganah (pre-state Jewish fighters) or Golda Meir, Israel's prime minister at the time that 11 Israeli athletes were murdered during the Munich Olympics.

It was equally important for Israelis to define Palestinian leaders and events, such as Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the radical group Hamas, who was killed in an Israeli airstrike last year.

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