On Root / In a Pickle About Israel's Occupation

The central act that is expressed in the root k-b-sh is to 'press down, tread underfoot.' Then the political problems start.

Last week, in response to a column about eish and other-fire related words, a reader chided me for insulting Lag Ba'omer when I called it the "evil twin" of Tu Bishvat.

I meant no harm. It just struck me as ironic that we have one holiday dedicated to planting trees, and another where we do our best to burn as many of them as possible.

This week is different. In the last of the weekly holidays that occur between Passover and Shavuot, certain publics in Israel mark Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. It commemorates Israel's victory in the Six-Day War and the establishment of Israeli sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem.

There's no environmental paradox here – but there is a highly charged, controversial political issue. For some, a cause for celebration; for others, protest and dissent. Like the city it is meant to commemorate, it is a day that strives to be uniting and united, but remains divided and divisive.

That polarization frames the choice for the Hebrew words to be explored this week, as we don't answer the question: Was Israel's 1967 victory kibbush, "occupation," or shichrur, "liberation"?

The road to conquest

The root k-b-sh (with the medial "b" alternating with "v") first crops up in the Bible, in the creation story, with the divine command to the first humans that they "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue [or conquer] it" – that last word being vekivshuha.

While not a license to rape and pillage, this idea of kibbush indeed means "to dominate," or even "subjugate." That's certainly not very politically (or environmentally) correct, but it has been seen throughout history as a particular vision of the human race's dignity and progress in the struggle for survival over and against the often inimical forces of nature.

The central act that is expressed in the root k-b-sh is to "press down, tread underfoot." Thus, a "road" is a kvish, paved by a machbesh, a "steamroller" (here the "k" alternates with its softer "ch" variant). And fermented vegetables are often known as yerakot kvushim, having been pressed or crammed together during the curing process. For instance, kruv kavush is pickled cabbage, a.k.a. sauerkraut. We may not have jerk chicken, or pulled pork – but we do have pressed pickles.

There is a sweeter side to kibbush, though. You can conquer your beloved's heart, kibbush halev, and you can conquer your own lustful passions, as in the saying from the Ethics of the Fathers: "Who is brave [or a hero]? Hakovesh et yitzro." "One who can conquer their inclination [or lust]."

But in contemporary parlance, "the kibbush" is the buzzword for the Israeli occupation of parts of Jerusalem and the West Bank, or "the occupied territories." When protesters shout "dai lakibbush!" it is not a general rant that we've had enough (dai!) of military conquests, it is a specific political program: "end the occupation!"

Liberation front

Supporters of the Israeli presence in those territories use a different vocabulary. First, they call them by their traditional Jewish historical names, Judaea and Samaria. Second, since they feel that these areas are the heartland of the historic Land of Israel, no one else has a right to them. Therefore, the only kibbush was Jordan's rule there, and in Jerusalem, and what we did was not "occupation" but "liberation," shichrur.

Their view puts the '67 victory on a par with the triumph of 1948, for Israel was born in the wake of what is known as Milchemet Hashichrur, The War of Independence (or "emancipation").

Shichrur is an interesting word from an interesting root – ch-r-r. The noun cherut means "freedom," and Herut was the name of the right-wing party headed by Menachem Begin that later merged with other parties to form Likud.

And those familiar with the Passover seder will recognize this root in the line: "Once we were slaves, now we are bnei chorin" – "free people."

Leshachrer, the verbal form, can be used more colloquially as well – to "loosen up" tense muscles, or simply "let go" of something. In the final analysis, we may be in a pickle about the kibbush, but it's not so easy just to leshachrer.

Next week: One root will reveal to us the discoveries on postcards from Birthright. Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Oded Balilty, AP