The POSTman Knocks Twice: Old and new ‘bad’ words

A smart Jew said it a few thousand years ago: “Wise men, be careful with what you say!”

August 15, 2013 22:25
2 minute read.
Avraham Avi-hai

Avraham Avi-hai. (photo credit: Henrietta Avi-hai)


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Television and films have given a kashrut certificate to cursing, to words that would have seen old-time parents wash your mouth out with soap. In conversation, and in the media, an ugly curse word has been replaced by once meaningful words, which now are pejoratives.

“Liberal” tops the list. (“Socialist” must never be used in American and some Israeli polite company. It causes virgins to faint, widows to take the salts, brave men’s knees to quake and politicians to run for shelter.) Well, dear reader, “liberal” stems from the same Latin source which gives us “liberate” and “liberty.”

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In its more modern use, it denoted a person who was free, independent, concerned with individual rights in face of tyranny and with opinions based on reason. A liberal was able to think freely and fearlessly.

To me, a liberal is an independent individual who can make up his/her mind on each issue on its own merits. He or she sometimes sees logic and reason on the Right in one issue, and sometimes finds reason on the Left in another. A liberal protects minorities and minority opinion in face of governmental or public repression.

What then is a conservative? A curse word of the Left, he or she is a person who sees value in “things as they are” – the present situation – or who believes that an idealized past situation was best.

If a society is based on liberal values, (“liberté, égalité, fraternité” or “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”), the battle between liberals and conservatives is to determine how much government involvement is needed to preserve life and liberty.

In Israel, democrats such as Menachem Begin and Moshe Arens may be called conservative in wishing to create or conserve a liberal and democratic state, which would respect minority rights. “Respect,” perhaps, is an aspect their mentor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, hoped for in his poem “Two Banks of the Jordan River”: “prosperity... for Arab, Christian and Jew.”

Now I have committed the ultimate sin, worse than the ugly cursing on television: I called Jabotinsky, Begin and Arens “conservatives of liberalism.”

The “liberals” of today are extremely conservative, and the Left even more so.

The Left wants to conserve Israel as a democratic and Jewish state by shedding heavily populated Arab areas. So on the Left, Shelly Yacimovich, or in the Center, Tzipi Livni, are conservatives of liberalism.

Confused? We all should be. In parlors on Friday night, in local and foreign press reports, stereotypes abound. (More on that in a future column).

The true problem is that the various Zionist parties in Israel all have elements of both philosophies or political approaches, from rabid proto-fascism on the off-the-chart Right to rampant populism and limitless state interventionism on both Right and Left.

Left-wing politicians (so-called) including those still alive today fostered settlements in their time; right-wing politicians declared settlement freezes. Another example of stereotypes gone wrong.

True confession: I too stereotype. I too am a Left liberal and a strong conservative.

So, in the words of that famous Yiddishism, “What is the bottom line?” A smart Jew said it a few thousand years ago: “Wise men, be careful with what you say!”

Avraham Avi-hai, now retired, has worked as a Jerusalem Post reporter, senior civil servant, university lecturer, founder of the Hebrew University Rothberg International School, chairman of Keren Hayesod-UIA and author of the recent novel, A Tale of Two Avrahams.

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