In the Shadow of the Cannons

The Hebrew language has an ongoing love affair with the cannon - totah in Hebrew.

In October 1982, Hanoch Levine's satirical cabaret "The Patriot" was performed at the Neveh Tzedek Theater. One of the skits, "Cornerstone," starts with a cabinet minister speaking at the cornerstone-laying ceremony for a public library. And this is what the minister said: "This library building, a first time in the history of architecture, has been designed in the shape of a huge gun, whose barrel, at a 45-degree incline, points toward our border ... ... In times of war, our enemies should know that the cannon will be activated, and the barrel will launch special cluster bombs of volumes bound together, which will wreak havoc on the enemy population. We shall be the first country in the world to turn Plato, Homer, Shakespeare and Goethe into deadly weapons. Bialik, ladies and gentlemen, will at long last go forth to avenge the blood of a little Jewish child."

At the end of the skit it emerges that the minister got his schedule wrong: This was not a cornerstone ceremony for a library, but rather a funeral. The identity of the dead person changes over the course of the skit, and the minister changes his speech accordingly, with astonishing swiftness. Ministers have a speech for every occasion, be it the laying of a cornerstone or expressing regret for loss of innocent lives. Yes, somebody always dies.

The artillery unit that hit Beit Hanun, like the artillery unit that hit Qana, Lebanon in 1996, did not fire books but rather artillery shells, some of which were probably smart shells. The problem is that wars are dumb things. Two explanations were mentioned as possible reasons for the error: a problem with the radar, which resulted in the gun's range being wrongly adjusted Tuesday evening, or a problem with the battery's computer. It turned out to be a faulty radar component, an electronic card that was replaced five days earlier. A note saying "Oops, sorry" from the Qana incident could be used again.

The Hebrew language has an ongoing love affair with the cannon - totah in Hebrew - starting with the Bible. The word is mentioned in the Bible (Job 41:29), and the Ralbag (Rabbi Levi ben Gershon, 1288-1344) interprets it as meaning "a big mechanism for throwing large stones that can topple walls and fortified buildings," but the Latin and English translators missed the point.

The gun that shelled and eventually sunk the Altalena was dubbed the "Holy Cannon." About a decade later, the Nahal entertainment troupe sang about foregoing basics for arms (words by Haim Hefer, music by Moshe Wilensky): "These day three plus three equals two / And if you check you'll find it's very true / 'Cause if a gun equals a pair of socks / The math is not too difficult to do / Than one should give up socks / Run barefoot on the rocks / I think one should / If the IDF thinks it's good / Barefoot or not, together we will sing / The cannon is the most important thing."

After the Six-Day War, the Artillery Corps entertainment troupe sang (words by Dudu Barak and music by Effie Netzer): "The sun will shine bright red / Between Gaza and Rafah / The moon on Mount Hermon will be big and white / Flowers in the barrel / And girls in the turrets / The soldiers will come home all right."

We speak contemptuously about the Qassam rockets and the Katyushas, the steep trajectory weapons that Hezbollah and Hamas fire "blindly." Our army has some of the most sophisticated weapons in the world, with radar and computers that calibrate and aim. Apart from inserting the shell into the barrel and pressing the button, which are still performed by human hands, everything is done by computer chips. Too many chips.

Perhaps it is not by chance that one of the most popular love songs in recent years centers on the phallic symbolism of the barrel. Sarit Hadad sings: "You're a big gun / You are the best / I'm dying over you / You beat all the rest." Major General Yoav Galant (whose name means "chivalrous" or "courteous" in French) defended the shelling, saying: "Israel's citizens don't know how often artillery fire has prevented Qassam launches." Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz expressed regret.

The songs from Hanoch Levine's 1970 revue "Queen of the Bathtub" were recently reissued on compact disc. The subtitle was "A Review of Brothers Sitting Together in the Shadow of the Cannons." One of the songs, sung by Tikki Dayan (music by Zohar Levy) did not cause a scandal in its day. It is wonderfully appropriate to accompany the explanations and regrets: "I met a gun who was shy / A gun with a beauty spot / He told me he feels very awkward / When his shells land in the midst of your lot. / So try to be very nice to him / When your turn comes to be shot / As he is a very shy gun / A gun with a beauty spot."