On Root / The Language of Tough Talk

With violence escalating in the south, Israel is again using the language of defense to explain its military offensives.

The south is heating up again with attacks, counter-attacks, responses and reprisals. Who started it this time? Who is ultimately to blame? And how do we get out of this mess? Fortunately, this column is concerned with the linguistic roots used in discussing the conflict, not the historical or ideological roots of the conflict itself. But how we talk about these issues does, of course, influence how we think about and handle them.

Much of the Israeli mindset centers on "defense," haganah. The central pre-state militia was called the Haganah, and later, the army of the newly-founded state was christened TzaHaL, an acronym for Tzva Haganah Leyisrael, "the Army for the Defense of Israel." It is better known in English as the Israel Defense Forces. As these terms suggest, we would like to believe that our military actions are always defensive in nature.

This mentality may go back even further than the state. One of the central symbols of Israel and Judaism is the Magen David, the "Shield of David."

Unlike some cultures, which have swords as central symbols, we have a star that we call a shield. And shields defend; they don't attack. When the shield is painted red, it becomes the Magen David Adom, the "Red Shield of David," symbolizing the Israeli branch of the International Red Cross.

Also, Magen Avraham, the "Shield of Abraham,"and Magen Avot, the "Shield of the Patriarchs," are names for God.

Like many Hebrew terms with historical or religious underpinnings, magen has a contemporary secular meaning as well. A magen – or megen –is a defensive player in kaduregel, literally "foot-ball," the game my people call "soccer."

Haganah and magen share the root g-n-n, which looks a lot like the words gan, "garden," and ganan, "gardener." This resemblance makes sense, as gardens are fenced-in or "shielded" outdoor spaces.

Every Israeli knows the word mamad, the "reinforced room in a home." But what many Israelis don't know is that this familiar acronym – the army loves acronyms – stands for merchav mugan dirati, "protected apartment area."

The mamad is the room to go to when an attack comes. "Attack" is hatkafa, from the root t-k-f. Variations of this root give us some interestingly nuanced words. For instance, tekifut is "assertiveness" or "forcefulness" while tokpanut ("p" and "f" being the same letter in Hebrew) is "aggression" or "hostility."

The word tokef means "validity," as in the useful life of your credit card. When the expiration date passes, pag tokpo, "its validity has expired." To non-native Hebrew speakers, this phrase may sound more like a dim sum delicacy than a Hebrew legal expression.

In non-martial competitions, like sports or legal trials, haganah means "the defense." Conversely, Hatkafa means "the offense," though not "the prosecution."

Another term for attack is pigu'a, from the root p-g-'ayin, 'hit," "hurt" or 'harm." This is the most common name for a terrorist attack in Israel. It is also an example of how tri-literal roots can take on different meanings depending on their vowels. Pigu'a's active form, poge'a, means "hit" – as in a target – and its passive middle form, pagu'a means "hurt" or "wounded." Pagi'a, which is from a group of Hebrew words like that of English words ending with "-able," means "vulnerable."

This root also has a gentler biblical meaning – "come upon"—as in Gen. 28:11, when Jacob yifga bamakom, "came upon a certain place," stopped for the night and had the dream of the angels on the sulam, "ladder" or "stairway." In the Bible, sulam is a hapax legomenon, meaning (in Greek) that it only appears once.

In modern Hebrew the word has also come to mean "scale" – in measurement or music – and so ties back into our discourse on defense.

When attacks give rise to further and often more vicious counter-attacks, it is easy to imagine the violence climbing a ladder. And indeed, the Hebrew word for "escalation," haslama, comes from the same root as sulam.

The assumption in Israel military discourse that we are never brutally offensive, except perhaps in the excusable forms of pre-emptive strikes or well-deserved reprisals, began in the early days of the state. These early IDF reprisals were answers to cross-boundary attacks by groups of Arab terrorists, known as fedayeen. The traditional Hebrew term for "reprisal" or "retaliation" is pe'ulat tagmul.

The syllable tag also appears in the so-called tag mehir or "price tag" attacks, a recent eye-for-an-eye and mosque-for-a-car-bomb campaign by Jewish settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank. Surprisingly, there is no linguistic connection between the similar syllables in any of these contexts, including the English.

The root of tagmul is g-m-l, which denotes reciprocity. There are actually three different g-m-l roots. The first refers to a camel, from whose shape we also get the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet, gimel. The second relates to the Hebrew gamar, "finished," gives us gemila, meaning "weaned from," and refers to anything from toilet training to rehabilitation.

The third root –from which we get the violent term pe'ulat tagmul – also gives us all kinds of positive things, including gemilut chassadim, "acts of loving kindness," birkat hagomel, "the blessing for receiving divine generosity or grace" and gimla'ot, "retirement," receiving one's just due after a long life of hard work.

The idea that all our actions are defensive, haganati, no matter how offensive – as in both matkif, "attacking,"and poge'a, "hurtful" – dooms us to a vicious circle of violence. "Peace," shalom – from shalem, "whole" – will only come when we retaliate with acts of cooperation and learn to work together in building our unavoidably shared future.

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