Word of the Day / Etrog

We’ve just completed the festival of Sukkot, where one of the star players is a fragrant, delicate, citrus. Though the holiday is over, the etrog as a metaphor for political coddling is available year-round.

Doram Gaunt

The Jewish holiday of Simhat Torah, which took place on Monday in Israel and is celebrated on Tuesday everywhere else, marks the end of the weeklong holiday of Sukkot, in which religious Jews eat in a temporary hut and wave a palm frond, myrtle and willow branches, and a lemon-like citrus fruit.

The word for the fruit -- “etrog,” meaning “citron” -- was granted a second lease on life in 2005, when Israeli television journalist Amnon Avramovich used it as an analogy for the kid gloves he thought the press should use in its treatment of Ariel Sharon, at least until the prime minister implemented his plan to unilaterally withdraw from the Gaza Strip and part of the northern West Bank.

Because an etrog can easily be damaged and because certain kinds of damage cause it to become unacceptable for use as part of the Four Species on Sukkot, it is typically wrapped in protective layers and placed inside a box. Similarly, some left-wingers were concerned that the corruption scandals swirling around Sharon and his family could damage Sharon and render him useless as the leader who would carry out the disengagement plan.

“We have to protect Sharon like an etrog,” Avramovich said at a conference on the planned pullout that took place at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in February 2005. “Protect him in a sealed box, padded with gauze, cotton and plastic wrap, at least until the end of the disengagement.” (Avramovich later said he was referring only to opinion pieces, not news pieces, when he recommended that media outlets cushion Sharon from criticism, but the analogy was widely seen as an admission that left-wing journalists were underreporting corruption scandals that might have destabilized the Sharon government.)

At the same conference, Avramovich also brought new forms of the word “etrog” into the Hebrew language. Using a word meaning something along the lines of “etrogness,” he said: “Etrogiyut until late September 2005. Then we’ll reconsider.”

The etrog metaphor has survived beyond the disengagement. It is still primarily used in political contexts, and generally continues to refer to coddling and cosseting public figures. In the post-2005 lexicon, the Hebrew word used for this is “le’atreg,” literally meaning “to etrog” or “etroging.”

In at least one case, the “etroging” entity under discussion was a country rather than a person. “Le’atreg Mitzrayim [Egypt],” ran a Hebrew headline on the Maariv website last year, over an opinion piece arguing that Israel must seriously consider the damage an Israeli attack on Hamas would cause to Israel’s ties with the Egyptian government.

The Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif was dismantled in the summer of 2005, and Ariel Sharon has been in a coma since January of 2006. But the etrog analogy he inspired lives on.