"Clean words can mask dirty deeds," wrote William Safire in a 1993 column on the term "ethnic cleansing." One year earlier, "ethnic cleansing" had entered the dictionary as "the expulsion, imprisonment, or killing of ethnic minorities by a dominant majority group." Due to its roots in the violence in the former Yugoslavia, the "killing" portion of the definition has overwhelmed the "expulsion" part, while the sense of mass imprisonment never seemed to materialize.
So when Tony Campolo told reporters earlier this month that "evangelical Zionists" favor "ethnic cleansing" of the Palestinians from Israel, the dictionary may have given him meager support, but he was using a loaded term.
"Some evangelicals have gotten caught up in the theology that before Christ can return, the Holy Land must belong to the Jews," Campolo told the Birmingham News on June 7. "They're really advocating ethnic cleansing. It's the extremist view that favors taking more and more land away from the Palestinians."
Campolo has been out of the country and unavailable for comment. But his remarks to the News suggest he was using the "expulsion" sense of "ethnic cleansing" and not accusing evangelicals of advocating the mass murder of Palestinians. What he meant was probably closer to the phrase "ethnic purity," which got Jimmy Carter in trouble during the 1976 Democratic primaries. When asked about federally funded public housing projects in historically Polish and Italian neighborhoods, Carter said such neighborhoods should be able to "maintain their ethnic purity." (Carter had to apologize, but President Gerald Ford got it right when asked about the controversy: "Ethnic heritage is a great treasure," he said. "Heritage" is to be celebrated; "purity" ...