Word of the Day Tsunami: Israeli Politicians' Generic Synonym for 'Catastrophe'

Some Hebrew speakers fail to fully grasp that a tsunami is quite a specific natural phenomenon, not a catchall word.

Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova
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Shoshana Kordova
Shoshana Kordova

For Israeli politicians, a snowstorm isn’t just a snowstorm. Reaching for a metaphor that might explain away their lack of preparedness, they tried to frame the unusually extensive snowfall as a natural disaster.

And not just any natural disaster: a tsunami.

Just as the English language has adopted the Japanese word tsunami, which comes from the words for “harbor” and “wave,” Hebrew has also integrated it into the language intact. Unfortunately, what some Hebrew speakers seem to have failed to fully grasp is that a tsunami is quite a specific natural phenomenon – a “very high, large wave in the ocean that is usually caused by an earthquake under the sea and that can cause great destruction when it reaches land,” as Merriam-Webster defines it – not a generic synonym for “catastrophe.”

“I’m going around the city and it looks like after a tsunami,” Safed Mayor Ilan Shohat said in the aftermath of the storm. The landlocked capital suffered the same fate, according to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

“It’s a tsunami of snow,” said Barkat, explaining that the city did not have the resources to help people stuck on the roads and asking the army for help.

This isn’t the first time Israelis have reached for this metaphor.

In 2011 then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Israel was facing a “diplomatic tsunami that most of the public is not aware of,” in the form of a possible international recognition of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders. Shortly after, Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard warned of a “legal tsunami” that would “claim a price for violating human rights in the occupied territories.” There have been tsunamis of criticism, tsunamis of new customers, even a tsunami of clouds.

But it is perhaps this tsunami of a snowstorm that most belittles the natural disaster that Israelis so readily reference.

A little more than a year ago, Hurricane Sandy caused the deaths of at least 117 people in the United States alone. The surge level at New York’s Hudson River topped 13.88 feet at Battery Park, and 7.9 million businesses and households were left without electric power.

The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which seems to have been the event that made this word so popular in Israel, was one of the deadliest natural disasters in history. The earthquake that triggered it released energy equivalent to that of 23,000 atomic bombs, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Coastal areas were submerged in waves of up to 98 feet, and more than 230,000 people in at least 11 countries were killed.

Here in Israel this month, about one-and-a-half feet of snow fell in Jerusalem and up to three feet in the Golan. There was about half a foot of rain in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Lake Kinneret rose a little more than three inches, and about 20,000 households lost power. There were four fatalities.

True, the capital was largely cut off from the rest of the country for several days, with roads leading to and from Jerusalem shut down, along with roads within the city. But that was at least as much due to issues with snowplows and road salt, or the lack thereof, as to the storm itself.

Yes, Israeli politicians: There was a snowstorm, and it did involve a little more snow than you’re used to. But it wasn’t a natural disaster, and it certainly was no tsunami.

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.

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