With all the talk in the air about a possible peace agreement between Israel and
the Palestinian Authority, it may be worth looking at the language of some
When British prime minister Neville Chamberlain
signed the notorious Munich Agreement with Hitler, he touted it as “Peace in our
time,” trying to follow the lead of the Lord of Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli,
who 60 years earlier came back from the Berlin Conference of 1878 with another
piece of paper that he called “Peace with Honor.”
evaporated very quickly as Hitler marched into Poland, but 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 Dardanelles, but also obtained
the island of Cyprus for the British Empire.
Disraeli, whom prime
minister of Prussia Otto von Bismarck greatly admired and called “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.
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 so it is different for
everyone. But it goes further, because peace seems to mean different things in
different languages. The English word “peace” is related to the French paix, the
Italian pace and ultimately the Latin pax. And that word 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 nice English names like Irene and Renée, but its origin is
obscure and probably means calm and restfulness.
The Spanish and
Portuguese adopt paz from the Latin, but they also use tranquilidad, clearly
opting for the restful reference.
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, which again is a good English name! Our Semitic
language is quite different.
Shalom is a word related to that for payment
(as leshalem, to pay, to complete) and is based on a kind of completion, such as
a transaction. It is also used as a place-name, where Melchizedek is the “king
of Shalem” (Genesis 14:18) which in the traditional understanding is taken to
This however, is challenged by the Samaritans, who
quote Genesis 33:18, which reads: “And Jakob came [to] shalem, the city of
Shechem.” Normally translated as Jakob came “in peace” to Shechem, the
Samaritans claim it means he came “to Shalem, which is the city of
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 a senior fellow at the W. F. Albright
Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.
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