Word of the Day / Shvayitz: The Land of Milk and Money

To Israelis, Switzerland has come to represent the polar opposite of the Middle East, a kind of uncanny utopia.

The mythic land of cheese and trees, where nothing bad ever happens.
The mythic land of cheese and trees, where nothing bad ever happens.

“When there’s more space, we all enjoy the journey,” posters on Israeli trains have announced since a campaign was launched early this year to encourage Israelis to do things like take up only one seat on the train and stand along the entire train platform rather than jam their way into a single car.

One Israeli made a seemingly irrelevant comment on the railway’s Facebook page, announcing what the transportation company surely knows: Israel is not in northern Europe.

Kahn ze lo Shvayitz. Don’t try to educate Israelis,” he said, or in English: “This isn’t Switzerland.”

Shvayitz (Sh-VA-yeetz) comes from the German name for Switzerland, Schweiz. Though the land of snowy peaks, accurate timepieces, cheese, chocolate, peace and confidential banking is sometimes referred to in Hebrew as Shveitzariya, it is Shvayitz that Israelis like to remind each other is a different country – not just on the map, but on some essential philosophical plane, where it has become a sort of abstract inversion of everything Israel represents.

In the Israeli lexicon, Shvayitz is shorthand for a place where people don’t have real things like terrorism and war to worry about, leaving them free to devote their taxes to social progress and their time to skiing, a place where a conspicuously non-Middle Eastern orderliness reigns.

On the other hand, it is also the word Israelis reach for when they spot a clump of trees, a big hill or a dusting of white powder, which are often described as embodying the pastoral ideal of being kmo Shvayitz! – just like the forests, mountains and snow of an almost mythical country.

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Do you dare to complain that the bus came two hours late and that when it did come, the bus driver decided to skip half the stops without announcing the change? Hey buddy, you might be informed: Kahn ze lo Shvayitz – this ain’t Switzerland, so lower your expectations.

Or maybe you want the government to cut funding from the defense budget and put it into the schools or social services? Yeah right, the answer is: Kahn ze lo Shvayitz – we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and letting our national security erode, so stop whining about the wealth gap.

And yet, a photograph prominently featuring two Israeli flags amid snow that barely covers the ground was described early this year by the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee as an image that “looks like Shvayitz.”

Maybe someone ought to let ’em know that the Alps are nowhere near.

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.