Russian Ilyushins illusions and why can’t Israel’s ‘leaders’ speak proper Hebrew?

Can you imagine Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol or Menachem Begin misquoting the Bible?

Former Prime Minister and Labor party leader Ehud Barak talks to journalists at The Israel Project in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Former Prime Minister and Labor party leader Ehud Barak talks to journalists at The Israel Project in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
I will leave the Russian question until further down in the column. Now, just for a little while, forget politics as you read this. It deals with Israel’s national language. To show that this is non-partisan, I put the word “leaders” in quotation marks, because some Israelis would not consider Ehud Barak as their leader, and others would think the same about Benjamin Netanyahu. Both have failed their Hebrew examination.
While that may make many of you happy, because you share that distinction with your “leader,” it makes me angry, as I hope it does the many Israelis who know proper Hebrew.
Just a minute, you say. Modern linguists argue about what is “proper,” as language (and languages) evolve and change. But there are some basics that may not be changed. Can you imagine Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher misquoting Shakespeare? Can you imagine Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of the Hellenic Republic (Greece) misquoting Homer?
Can you imagine Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol or Menachem Begin misquoting the Bible?
Yet Barak and Bibi are both guilty of that. In this case, Barak’s error is glaring to more Israelis than Netanyahu’s. But let’s do a little Bible study while were at this, which I hope you enjoy as much as I do.
One of Ben-Gurion’s favorite quotes was, “The Lord gives strength unto his people; the Lord will bless his people with peace.” (Psalms 29:11) He used the quotation as a source text for Israel’s defense policy; that is, if Israel is not strong, we shall never have peace. Now, those of you whose Hebrew is weak or non-existent may not really care whether the last word in the original is written and pronounced “b’shalom” or “bashalom.” But it is in the Bible. And it also appears in all Jewish prayer books, from ultra-Orthodox to Reform.
Imagine, Brits singing “God shave the Queen,” or the French, “Allons enfants de la matrie!”
But way beyond that, the Biblical Masoretic text – with vowel points – has been preserved since the scribes of Tiberias over 1,000 years ago. And they were quite probably using an oral tradition perhaps over another thousand years before that time.
Well, Bibi, with all the help you have and the advisers with kippahs floating around, could no one have caught the error? Or do they too slur their Hebrew like so many Ashkenazim. Try hiring Sephardi “advisers,” or check with Miri Regev or Aryeh Deri. Next time, sir, do say “bashalom,” as I am sure your father and their rabbinic predecessors did. As doubtless did Ze’ev Jabotinsky, with his well-tuned poet’s ears.
(If any reader is interested in conjecture about the probable distinction between the two prefixes, write me and I will relate part of a consultation with the outstanding Bible scholar, Prof. James Kugel-Kadoorie.)
Ehud Barak’s error was much more egregious. In the Book of Proverbs (3:17), there is a sentence which has entered politics in Israel, but which any child who attends prayer services of any Jewish “denomination” (ughhh, what an ugly term) knows. It is usually sung before removing the Torah from the Ark. “Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace.” The politicians use it to castigate the various ultra-Orthodox and less ultra-Orthodox factions as “unpleasant,” to say the least.
The Hebrew is vocalized as follows: Derakheha darkhei no’am. Barak – using the quote to slam Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (both from the Bayit Yehudi party) mispronounced two out of three words. Obviously he had never studied Proverbs or attentively attended a prayer service. (Again, if you want to know how he said it, write to me.) And if he did, he forgot ....He, just like many Israelis, was never taught to treat quotations with precision. The IDF teaches its soldiers and airmen and airwomen to be exact. On the dot. To the second.
But high schools here don’t teach much about precision in quotations, except, of course, those in the Orthodox systems – at least regarding Bible and Talmud.
In face of the Russians moving S-300 anti-aircraft missiles into Syria, and apparently limiting air space in the eastern Mediterranean, Iranian threats and Hezbollah’s rancor, who really cares about precise quotes? Especially from politicians.
Well, I am prepared to be a minority of one. It won’t be the first time. If politicians pay lip service to our heritage, let them treat it with respect.
Now to the Russians. I have no access to defense or intelligence sources, so the following is based on conjecture based on years of study of modern Russian history. Russia has never had a stable democratic period of rule. Mikhail Gorbachev tried but the honeymoon did not last long.
President Vladimir Putin has shown himself, in the framework of foreign affairs and defense, the most astute and capable of leaders of Russia (and the Soviet Union), though he was helped by the wimpish foreign policy of Obama and the opaqueness of his secretary of state, John Kerry. As I have previously written, Putin realized the dreams of all Russian rulers of the last 150 years: a warm-water port on the Mediterranean.
The Russian Defense Ministry has claimed that Israel lied in its description of the attack in Latakia, which is a Russian preserve, and the heart of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite supporters. As I see it, the Russians felt that our attack was too close to their bases. (They have a 50-year treaty to use the major airport in the area, and use the Latakia seaport, Syria’s largest port.) They probably did not have much time to do something about it.
Given the speed of the Israeli airplanes, they might have flown toward the Russian propeller-driven Ilyushin, but also given their speed would have arrived back into Israeli airspace while the Syrian soldiers, manning their S-200 anti-aircraft missiles continued firing, and, without the software to distinguish the Russian aircraft, hit that plane and killed 15 Russian servicemen.
There could well have been – and I believe there was – a command failure on the Russian side: the air command did not know that the Ilyushin was in the line of fire, and did not warn its pilot to change direction, or just to turn around.
Putin told the truth. It was a tragic error.
And then came the furious response of the Defense Ministry. Their code does not admit error. “What, how can we have made a mistake when the Israelis (Jews?) can be blamed. We never make mistakes!”
This, I am quite sure is the superman pose that Defense Minister Sergei Kuzhugetovich Shoigu struck. Otherwise he would be responsible for 15 deaths of Russian servicemen.
Though I know that from time to time military spokespeople spin the truth and lie, as I imagine occurs in the IDF on occasion, there would be zero – I repeat zero – possibility of the commander of the Israeli air force and his top people setting off to Moscow with faked evidence and lies. The Air Force could only tell the truth to the Russians.
Now, could it be that there is dissension in the Kremlin? If there is a shuffle in the Russian cabinet in the next six months, we’ll know.
Meanwhile, the Russians saw an opportunity to strengthen their hold on Syria through sending S-300 missiles. These, I am rather sure, will only be manned by Syrians if they are under complete Russian control and command.
The deeper the Russian involvement the chance of a greater clash of interests between Russia and Iran, which wants to extend its empire through Syria into Lebanon. This is in no nations’ interest, including Lebanon, which, next to Israel, is the least willing to let the Iranians in.
Well, this is indeed the confused reality (or perhaps unreality?) of our neighborhood.
As for General Shoigu, since when did the Russian leadership speak the truth. A close friend of mine from a Soviet-era Eastern European satellite told me he had no Zionist or Israeli background.
“So, why did you choose to come to Israel?” I asked.
He gave me a conspiratorial smile. “The government said Israel was bad – so, of course, we all knew it was good!”
This is probably how Russians think about their military’s accusation of Israel for the Ilyushin’s downing. The Russians may have made a chess move forward, but that will neither stop Israel from bombing supplies to Hezbollah nor guarantee Syrian stability.
And, sad to say, we are not about to be blessed very soon “with peace,” neither “b’shalom nor bashalom.”
The writer held major positions in the early governments of Israel and was a member of the Jewish Agency’s executive for a decade (