I love Hebrew (probably even more than I love English, even though English is the language in which I write) in no small part because I had to take it on and grapple with it and make it my own. I love the almost algebraic sense of Hebrew grammar. I love the shadows and echoes of the ancient past running through 21st century mouths. I love the word-play. I love the sound and shape of Hebrew in song and conversation.
Which is why I identified so strongly with an opinion piece in last Wednesday’s HaAretz by Michael Sfard, the legal counsel for Breaking the Silence and a variety of other Israeli human rights organizations:
We are now marking the 45th anniversary of the largest national project in our young country’s history: the suppression of millions of peoples’ longing for independence and freedom.
…We have established a monstrous bureaucratic entity that purports to manage almost every aspect of the lives of millions of people living under our occupation. Toward this end, the Hebrew language has also been mobilized by decree of national emergency. It has been tasked with providing a soothing, anesthetizing name for the entire project of suffocation, for the blanket system of theft we have imposed on those we occupy.
Hebrew has risen to the challenge, showing the creativity and flexibility of a language that has been called to duty. Thus extrajudicial executions have become “targeted assassinations.” Torture has been dubbed “moderate physical pressure”. Expulsion to Gaza has been renamed “assigning a place of residence.” The theft of privately owned land has become “declaring the land state-owned.” Collective punishment is “leveraging civilians”; and collective punishment by blockade is a “siege,” “closure” or “separation.”
This is how we have translated the abominable things we have done over the past 45 years, and are still doing, into an indecent assault on one of Zionism’s most beautiful and successful projects: the revival of the Hebrew language.
This is the language we have chosen to describe our malignant presence in the occupied territories. A language that is deceptive and misleading, that diverts moral questions to the realm of bureaucratic technicalities. It deliberately conceals the human essence of things.
I’m American-born, and a child of the Watergate era – I grew up knowing that words don’t always means what we’re told they mean. No one who pays any attention to politics anywhere on the globe can claim surprise when a national language is pressed into service for ignoble ends.
But hearing the lies and half-truths and daily dehumanizations to which we have become so accustomed in Hebrew is still wrenching. As Sfard put it, the revival of our national tongue is “one of Zionism’s most beautiful and successful projects.” It’s the language I pray in. It’s the language I love.
But “Occupation Hebrew is made of plastic,” as Sfard writes.
It masks the violence at its foundation just as a boneless chicken cutlet, cleaned and coated in bread crumbs, reveals nothing about the slaughter that brought it to our plate.
I do not miss that Hebrew. And yet it makes its way across in the ocean, providing the scaffolding for news stories and government statements, as damaging and damning here as it is in the place it was born, continuing the unholy project for which it was created: “The suppression of millions of peoples’ longing for independence and freedom.”