Different Meanings of Occupation

I’ve always had an interest in language and the adaptability of words, but I never felt the physical and emotional charges we attach to words until I lived in a conflict zone. Take the word “collaboration,” for instance. In the West Bank, collaborating refers to Palestinian working with the Israeli Army informing them of their neighbors’ activities or other actions with equally dangerous repercussions in the community. Being accused of being a collaborator carries heavy social consequences for any Palestinian and their relations.

Hence, when I left Palestine to teach digital storytelling in India, “collaborate” was not a word that rolled off my tongue often. When I started hearing it used in the classroom regarding groupwork or when discussing partnerships between educational organizations, I had to mentally process the difference. I still do. It’s not something I usually verbalize, but I’m not sure it will ever go away.

And then there’s the word “occupation.” Despite opposing the U.S. occupation of Iraq, I had little awareness of this word being anything other than a synonym for “job” before learning about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Even now I wonder if people in the U.S. get what I’m talking about when I refer to the occupation. It doesn’t have the same weight as the word “war”—that is unless you’ve experienced it, in which case the word will probably make you want to curl up in a corner if you think about its meaning while sitting in a hip café writing a blog post.

So I’ve been having a lot of mental processing as the word “occupation” has become a popular lingo referring to protests in Wall Street and elsewhere, in which participants literally take over a space that they do not legally control. It’s the same basic action as a military occupation, though of course the actors, type of force employed, purpose, etc. differ.

The striking language difference here is that by and large the people I talk to about these occupations are promoting and praising them. I’m accustomed to occupation as something to resist, not a form of resistance itself. So it’s in the valuation of the word in phrases like “Occupy Everywhere” that my embodied understanding of the term is destabilized. Today I saw a photo that speaks to this linguistic trip wire.

Solidarity with Palestinian political prisoners, 10/11/11. By Oren Ziv

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