Hebrew Hear-Say: War of words

This war, which would sound no sweeter by any other name, is suffering from an identity crisis.

August 3, 2006 11:06
3 minute read.
rocket haifa 298.88

rocket haifa 298.88. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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There's something about war that makes journalists look up quotes by Winston Churchill. It's as though the sound of sustained shooting automatically makes writers everywhere fire off a few lines by the late British prime minister. In other words, never has so much been owed by so many hacks to so few. It's hard to beat: "If you're going through hell, keep going." A helluva quote. Ehud Olmert's "No more!" speech in the Knesset might not resound through history quite as much as the Churchillian "We shall fight on the beaches..." but it has a fighting chance of becoming the catchphrase for this round of hostilities, if not his "finest hour." We need not look to Britain for the right word at the right time. David Ben-Gurion provided blue-and-white inspiration when things looked far from rosy. Take: "In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles" or "Courage is a special kind of knowledge: The knowledge of how to fear what ought to be feared and how not to fear what ought not to be feared." The present government is still battling over what to call the "situation." Some, on the defensive, settle for "military action." Others are campaigning for "war," which would entail all sorts of economic compensation for those affected. During the 1991 Gulf War, a new term entered the Hebrew lexicon: "Matzav shel shigrat herum," "a routine emergency situation." It was an oh-so-Israeli phrase that fitted us as snuggly as our gas masks. This war, which would sound no sweeter by any other name, is suffering from an identity crisis. No sooner had we gotten used to calling it Operation Just Rewards than it began to march under a different banner: Operation Change of Direction. Whatever it's called, it is highly unconventional for conventional warfare. Almost every mayor in the North now has a "war room" (hadar milhama), usually abbreviated to "hamal." Welfare and voluntary organizations have set up "command rooms" (hadar pikud kidmi or hapak). The Foreign Ministry, suitably diplomatically, has its "situation room" (hadar matzav). Ordinary citizens, those braving out the hostilities on the new front line, have to make do with public shelters (miklat tzibori) or another Israeli-concept: The merhav mugan dirati (apartment's protected area known as mamad). As we bunker down for this strange battle, spare a thought for those who have to go to work. Regulations issued by the Emergency Economy Board, known in Hebrew by its acronym "Melah" - an umbrella organization coordinating between major companies and the IDF with the ultimate responsibility for keeping the country running in times of war or natural disasters - require all sorts of workers in essential services to carry on with their daily lives as if their homes weren't literally under attack. The list includes the obvious employees of the national electric, water and phone companies, along with emergency personnel (and journalists). Strangely, it also covers workers at the Bamba factory. In 1991, during the Gulf War, then-IDF spokesman Nachman Shai advised parents to take a packet of the peanut-flavored snack into shelters with them to keep their kids calm (or at least quiet). The snack became known as "The Children's Patriot" - a reference to the anti-missile missiles stationed around the country to shoot down Saddam's Scuds (and now being reportedly remobilized). It was later decided that the country should not have to survive a crisis without the puffy peanut pieces - an army marches on its stomach, after all, and those fighting at home are no different. As these kids come of age, the term "Bamba" has entered army slang and refers to rookies. According to Ruvik Rosenthal's Dictionary of Israeli Slang, the inspiration is the image of those so young they have Bamba crumbs around their mouths (what in English is known as having milk behind their ears and in Hebrew "milk on their lips"). Soldiers fueled by motivation are said to be muralim (literally, poisoned or addicted). Be they Bambas or pazamnikim (veteran soldiers, so-called for the Hebrew acronym for "perek zman minimali or mizari," referring to the period they have served), the main thing is they get home safely. And that their homes, too, are safe. A case of "Over and out" ("Rut, sof"). liat@jpost.com

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