With all the talk in the air about a possible peace agreement between the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, it may be worth looking at the language of some previous agreements.
When British prime minister Neville Chamberlain signed the notorious agreement with Hitler that he waved around and called “Peace in our Time,” he was trying to follow the lead of Lord Beaconsfield 60 years earlier, who came back from the Berlin Conference of 1878 with another piece of paper Beaconsfield called “Peace with Honor.”
Chamberlain’s peace evaporated very quickly as Hitler marched into Poland, but Benjamin Disraeli, elevated to the peerage late in life, had secured not only a piece of paper from the Russians and the Turks, and prevented war in the Dardenelles, but also obtained the island of Cyprus for the British Empire. Disraeli, of whom Bismarck said, “Der alte Jude, das isst ein mann“ (that old Jew, what a man!), had succeeded in the search for a permanent if fragile peace where so many others had failed.
Unlike the case of the unfortunately named “Perpetual Peace” concluded in January 1502 between the Scots and the English, which resulted only a few years later in the battle of Flodden Field and the massacre of thousands.
Like apple pie, nearly everyone is in favor of peace, but what do people mean by the word? In general it seems to mean, “peace on my own terms,” and is thus different for everyone. But it goes further, because peace seems to mean different things, not only to different people, but also in different languages. The English word is related to the Latin word “pax.” And that goes back to something like “pact,” an agreement between the parties. Peace comes about after agreement between the warring parties.
Russian is different, their word is “mir,” which also means “world.” Perhaps it suggests an agreement with the rest of the world, but it could perhaps also mean peace through world domination, an unpleasant thought. But the Russians, and the Poles, also use “pokoj” and “spokoj.” The first is the same as the word for chamber, an obscure similarity, but the second quite clearly means rest and quiet, which also seems to be the meaning of the ancient Greek.
Indeed, the Greeks have a word for it, “eirene,” which has evolved into English names like Irene and Renée, but the origins of which are obscure. It probably means calm and restfulness. The Spanish and Portuguese adopt “paz” from the Latin, but they also use “tranquilidad,” clearly opting for the restful bit.
The German word for peace, “frieden,” has similar overtones. It implies satisfaction as well as tranquility, maybe satisfaction at the result of the war, or tranquility due to the ending of hostilities. It may have a distant relationship to freedom and the idea that peace will bring freedom of action at home. The Scandinavian person uses the German idea and says “fred,” (another good English name).
Our Semitic language is quite different. “Shalom” is a word related to payment (as in “leshalem,” to pay, to complete) and based on completion, in the case of finances the completion of a transaction. It is also used as a place name, as in Malchizedek, the “king of Shalem” (Genesis 14:18), which in the traditional understanding is taken to represent Jerusalem.
This however is challenged by the Samaritans, who quote Genesis 33:18, which reads, “And Jacob came [to] Shalem, the city of Shechem.” Normally translated as Jacob came “in peace” to Shechem, the Samaritans claim it means he came “to Shalem, which is the city of Shechem.” This a fine point of controversy between the men of Judah and the men of Samaria but both agree the city’s name is somehow related to the idea of peace.
But what kind of peace is that? Shalom means “completion,” or better, “resolution” – when things are finally resolved and one can sit back and relax. But shalom is not just the relaxation, it must incorporate the conditions that lead to the resultant peace and quiet, the conditions that produce a situation where the conflicting parties have resolved their differences one way or another. It is not Chamberlain’s illusory “Peace in our Time,” but rather Disraeli’s more permanent “Peace with Honor” to both sides.
The author is Senior Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.