Word of the Day / Hamas: The Terror Movement That Didn't Do Its Hebrew Homework

The proper noun has a literary homophone in the Hebrew language: a biblical word referring to the violence that filled the earth before the flood.


It’s pretty safe to assume that the Islamic terrorist organization that controls the Gaza Strip didn’t conduct market research on the meaning and resonance of the organization’s name in Hebrew before choosing to call itself Hamas.

The Arabic name of the group is widely described as an acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (“Islamic Resistance Movement”) as well as an Arabic word meaning “zeal.” But unlike "Islamic Jihad," say, or "Al-Qaida," the name “Hamas” is not just an Arabic term or an English translation of one. It also happens to be a Hebrew word meaning “violence,” among other things.

Hamas the Hebrew word has been around since antediluvian times. In fact, it was one of the reasons God flooded the earth, according to Genesis: “And the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence [hamas]” (6:11).

The biblical-cum-literary noun hamas is not spelled the same in Hebrew as the the terror group (the proper noun has an aleph in its name, unlike its lowercased homophone). The word has several definitions in addition to “violence,” and none of them are culled from the "How to Defend Hamas" guidebook: “wrong,” “oppression,” “evildoing” and “robbery.”

As a verb, hamas also means “to take by violence,” “to rob” and “to destroy.”

In a twist that further complicates the issue, the Hebrew word that parallels the name of the Islamic terror group can itself be traced back to the Arabic. Etymologist Ernest Klein writes that the Hebrew hamas is linguistically linked to the Aramaic word hamas and the Arabic word hamisa, both meaning “was hard,” as well as the Akkadian hamasu, meaning “to oppress.”

Nowadays, when the Israeli media refer to Hamas operatives, they are often called anshei Hamas, literally “Hamas people.”

But contemporary media outlets are hardly the first to use this term (or at least one that sounds the same). Proverbs, as the name of the book indicates, has words of wisdom for people of all persuasions: “Envy thou not the man of violence [ish hamas], and choose none of his ways” (3:31).

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.