eternity
Eternity. Photo by Reuters
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BFLs - best friends lanetzach? Photo by Reuters

At Ben-Gurion International Airport on Wednesday, U.S. President Barack Obama concluded his short speech on arrival with a Hebrew word that he accurately described as meaning "eternal" or "forever."

"So as I begin this visit, let me say as clearly as I can - the United States of America stands with the State of Israel because it is in our fundamental national security interest to stand with Israel," Obama said. "That’s why the Star of David and the Stars and Stripes fly together today. And that is why I’m confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, it is forever - lanetzah (la-NE-tzakh)."

The same form of the word appears in Jeremiah, where God accuses the people of Israel of acting like "a harlot with many lovers," in the sense of being unfaithful in their loyalty to God. The question is: "Will he bear grudge for ever? Will he keep it to the end (lanetzah)?" (3:5)

Standing alone, netzah can also mean "victory" or "glory." In I Samuel 15:29, netzah is part of a euphemism for God, as used in the phrase Netzah Yisrael lo yeshaker, "the Glory of Israel will not lie."

That four-word phrase, which means that God doesn't break his word, was the name of an underground pre-state espionage ring in Israel referred to as Nili, the Hebrew acronym formed from those words. The phrase also served as the password for the members of Nili, who spied for England and its allies during World War I, reflecting both parties' mutual interest in wresting the Land of Israel from Ottoman control.

The use of lanetzah, then, can be seen as a (probably unintended) reflection of Israel's long history of concord with the West, a message that fits in well with the context of Obama's proclamation that America and Israel have an eternal alliance.

But perhaps a note of caution would be wise here. British interests and those of the pre-state Yishuv did overlap for a time. But that idyll didn't last. Soon enough they collided, as the Jewish underground movements turned their attention to ending the British rule that succeeded the Ottoman era.

To contact Shoshana Kordova with column suggestions or other word-related comments, email her at shoshanakordova@gmail.com. For previous Word of the Day columns, go to: www.haaretz.com/news/features/word-of-the-day.