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Chants of 'intifada' ring out from pro-Palestinian protests. But what's it mean?

A pro-Palestinian protester at Columbia University in early May. Chants calling for "intifada" have become central at many demonstrations against the war in Gaza and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.
Adrian Florido
A pro-Palestinian protester at Columbia University in early May. Chants calling for "intifada" have become central at many demonstrations against the war in Gaza and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

NEW YORK — The chants at a recent pro-Palestinian protest at Columbia University were loud and defiant.

“Intifada! Intifada! Long live the intifada!”

That term is one of many that have become points of contention among people with opposing views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that have turned language into a battleground.

Many of those protesting Israel’s offensive in Gaza say "intifada" is a peaceful call to resist Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. But many Jews hear chants like "globalize the intifada" as calls for violence against them and against Israel.

“Intifada” is an Arabic word that generally translates as “uprising.” But the word’s role within the tortured history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has loaded it with meaning well beyond that, making it a term that evokes strong emotions on both sides.

A prolonged period of protests and civil unrest against the Israeli occupation in the late 1980s came to be known as the First Intifada. A second, much more violent uprising began in the early 2000s. During the Second Intifada, Palestinian militant groups adopted bloodier tactics, killing about 1,000 Israeli civilians and soldiers, often through suicide bombings at eateries and on buses. Israel responded with ground troops and tanks, killing more than 3,000 Palestinians.

For Eliana Goldin, a Jewish undergraduate and leader of a pro-Israel group at Columbia, the term “intifada” is inextricable from that violence.

Growing up in a Zionist family, she said, “the word intifada was only associated with death and terrorism and destruction. So ‘intifada’ still feels just as charged as if someone were to say Holocaust. Or if someone were to mention any sort of catastrophe that happened against a people that you consider yourself a part of.”

For her, the chants sound like an incitement to repeat violence against Jews.

For many, it’s a call for liberation

For Basil Rodriguez, a Palestinian American graduate student at Columbia, the word is not about violence at all. Rodriguez, who uses they/them pronouns, said that when they chant “intifada” at protests, they're expressing a commitment to their people’s struggle against Israel, and calling for an end to the status quo in the conflict.

“For me, it just speaks to liberation,” Rodriguez said. “To free Palestine from the apartheid regime, and the military occupation. For me it calls for freedom and for change.”

 A pro-Palestinian march near Columbia University in early May.
Adrian Florido / NPR
A pro-Palestinian march near Columbia University in early May.

Taoufik Ben-Amor, a linguist and professor of Arabic Studies at Columbia, said there are several reasons people interpret the word differently.

Intifada comes from the Arabic root meaning to shake off, as if dust from a cloth. It’s a term Arabic speakers use to describe any kind of social uprising aimed at shaking off an oppressive system — like against the Iraqi monarchy in the 1950s. But for non-Arabic speakers, Ben-Amor said, it’s easier to disassociate the word from that meaning.

“It’s different when someone who knows Arabic uses the word,” he said, “as opposed to someone who doesn’t and who knows the word only in a context in which it has been politicized.”

But he also said the decision by pro-Palestinian protesters in the U.S. to use the Arabic word rather than to translate it is a deliberate choice — one with implications for both sides.

“If you turned the word ‘intifada’ into uprising,” he said, “then it would belong to the English vocabulary that people are completely familiar with. By not translating into English you can actually define the meaning as you want, and so the word becomes a sort of weapon in both hands — to be used in this political jostling that’s happening.”

The word and its reception have evolved over time

Arabic words are often stigmatized, he said, associated with violence and terrorism when they don’t inherently carry those meanings. In the case of "intifada," its meaning has evolved over time alongside the evolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, taking on different associations for different people.

The pain and trauma that Israelis suffered during the Second Intifada influences their perception of the word, explaining why chants calling for an intifada revolution might alarm them. But Ben-Amor notes that the Second Intifada was also very painful for Palestinians, who were killed at three times the rate as Israelis. Yet they tend not to recoil from the word because of its broader association with their aspirations for freedom from the occupation, he said, and not necessarily with violence.

Eliana Goldin, the Jewish undergraduate from Columbia, said she would like to think that her classmates who chant “intifada” at protests are not actually promoting violence against Jews. But she said it's hard to believe because on her campus she also heard chants she says are suggesting Israel’s erasure.

“They chant ‘we don’t want two states, we want all of it,’ ” she said. NPR did hear this chant at Columbia University. “They chant 'death to the Zionist state.' When there’s so much other rhetoric going on in the same chants that obviously points to destruction of Jewish people, why am I to believe that intifada doesn’t mean what I think it means?”

She said she wishes protesters would choose a different word, because of the visceral fear it elicits from many Jews, including people like her who, though Zionist, calls the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories a tragedy.

Basil Rodriguez rejects the idea that they should have to sanitize their language at protests.

“Arabic is our indigenous language as Palestinians,” they said. “The idea that we have to not say a word because it’s in Arabic I think plays into the racist assumption that Arabs are terrorists. And so I’m not going to ever stop saying the word intifada.”

Taoufik Ben-Amor said when it comes to words like intifada — and other contested terms like genocide, martyr, resistance — the stakes are high. The words used to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have always had the power to shape public sentiment, and likely always will.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: June 2, 2024 at 2:45 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story misgendered student Basil Rodriguez. Rodriguez uses they/them pronouns, not she/her.
Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.