Do We Know What We Mean When We Say “Terrorist”?

What is a terrorist? Seriously. I’m asking.

Per the Oxford Dictionary, terrorism is the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

So it makes sense that we would regard the murder of at least 260 attendees of the Supernova music festival in southern Israel as terrorism. It makes sense that we would see the indiscriminate killing of Israeli civilians as terrorism.

I fully understand the demands–coursing across social media–to condemn Hamas’s recent atrocities as terrorism. From my apartment in Brooklyn, I can only imagine what Israelis are experiencing at this moment, but I imagine that it is something that can be justifiably described as terror.

What I don’t understand is that if this is terrorism, what is the Israeli airstrike, on Monday, that reduced a marketplace in the Jabalia refugee camp to rubble and killed dozens of civilians?

What are the airstrikes that destroyed four mosques in the Shati refugee camp, killing people worshiping inside?

What is the word that we should use to describe an air force that levels entire school buildings, hospitals, apartment complexes, and neighborhoods?

I am asking what these things are, because when they’ve happened, there has been no overwhelming demand from the American public to label these atrocities as terrorsim. There have been no calls by politicians to label Israel as an entity that yearns for the extermination of all Palestinians. There have been no coordinated attempts to label Israel’s actions as terrorism.

But then what is an appropriate descriptor for the siege that will cut off Gaza from food, water, aid, and electricity and that is being enacted in contradiction of international law?

What shall we call the killing, last year, of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank? Or the killing of at least six more journalists in Gaza in recent days?

What about the murder, carried out this past September by the Israeli special forces, of a 15-year-old boy as he was leaving his grandfather’s house?

How should we think about the acts that killed 91 children in the Gaza Strip over the course of 48 hours this past weekend? Should we understand them as acts of self-defense? Because if we should, then I am unclear as to how this notion of self-defense differs from what I am being told to understand as terrorism.

I visited Israel once, in 2016, on a Birthright trip alongside thirty other young American Jews. I remember that over the course of those weeks, we threw around the word terrorist with abandon. In fact–and this is true–one of the icebreakers that we engaged in after touching down at Ben Gurian airport was called “Escape the Terrorist.” The game involved seeking out a partner to help navigate an area of sidewalk littered with make-pretend bombs.

The only history lesson we received on that trip was a brief lecture given to us by Gil Hoffman, the chief political correspondent at the time for the Jerusalem Post. What left the biggest imprint was Hoffman’s closing remark.

I remember him, in a dramatic pause, holding his chin in his palm, and then looking into our eyes and saying, “When the Palestinians care about their own children, then there will be peace.”

Later that day, I was reminded of Hoffman’s words as I stared into the grainy footage of a Nazi propaganda film on display at Yad Vashem. The film, ostensibly, showed the routine goings on within a Jewish ghetto. In the center of the frame, a group of emaciated children huddled together for warmth, as passersby didn’t so much as stop to take notice.

A placard near the screen described the propaganda as an attempt to depict the Jewish people as callous–as a people incapable even of caring for their own children.

Nearby, a mic’d-up guide addressed a group of elderly tourists, saying, “They tried to strip us of our humanity, but in doing so only revealed the absence of their own.”

What does it mean to believe that an entire people would not care for their children? What does it mean to believe that an entire people would be more celebratory of death than they would be of their own emancipation?

What does it mean that terrorism is defined not by the act but by the actors?

What does it mean to be a terrorist? I’m not sure that we know.

Samuel Rappaport is a senior content writer at Prestidge Group and an MFA student in Creative Writing at The City College of New York. Read other articles by Samuel.