Translation is not the simple act of looking a word up in a dictionary. Cultural connotation and context are often crucial to understanding a translation that might have a very different meaning from the one intended.
Such is the case these days in the wake of the furor that erupted in late February over the words of Israeli Deputy Minister of Defense, Matan Vilnai. Here is the accurate translation of what Vilnai said:
The more Qassam [rocket] fire intensifies and the rockets reach a longer range, they will bring upon themselves a bigger shoah because we will use all our might to defend ourselves.
The key to understanding this statement is the one untranslated word in the sentence: shoah. Many non-Hebrew speakers have heard this word. It is the Hebrew word that refers to the Nazi genocide of Jews in World War II, the Holocaust.
Minister of Defense, Matan Vilnai
At this point, I should disclose that I am not fluent in Hebrew, though I speak it well enough to get by when I’m in Israel, and can read daily newspapers with some degree of effort. In preparing this article, I therefore consulted with several Israelis, two of whom are writers and thus expert in the intricacies of both the spoken and written Hebrew word. They concurred with my linguistic analysis, though several other Israelis whose opinions I gleaned, directly or indirectly, had a different take on the matter.
The parsing of words is always a matter that leads reasonable people to disagree. But I feel confident in my view, shared by the professional Hebrew-speaking writers I consulted, that while Vilnai was making a very serious and objectionable threat to Palestinian civilians, he was not threatening to act toward them as the Nazis had toward the Jews.
Holocaust: The Word and the Image
It is, of course, difficult for many people, and especially Jews, to hear the word “holocaust” and not have it conjure up images of the Nazi atrocities. Yet “holocaust” itself must be understood in context. The word existed long before Hitler, and meant a sacrifice consumed by fire, or a massive conflagration that causes great loss of life and property. The English word still finds use in that context.
Similarly, the Hebrew word “shoah” means “catastrophe, devastation, disaster, or cataclysm,” and is still used in such contexts. Like “holocaust,” other words are often substituted for shoah in Hebrew because of the association with the Nazi atrocities. “Ason” has a similar meaning, referring to calamities, but it usually is used to connote tragedies of a much smaller, individual nature. The word “hashmadah,” meaning “extinction or extermination/annihilation” is often substituted for cases of genocide instead of the word “shoah.” But “shoah” is still used in Hebrew outside the Nazi context.
An experienced public speaker like Vilnai might be assumed to understand that English-speaking people in particular would hear the word “shoah” and immediately think “Hitler.” But he was actually speaking on Army Radio when he made his comment, to an entirely Hebrew-speaking audience. In a military context, is seems entirely possible that Vilnai was using that particular word, not to invoke Hitler and the Nazis, but to threaten the Palestinians with an enormous national cataclysm. Indeed, in Arabic (a language I do not speak), the closest translation of “shoah” might well be “naqba,” which means catastrophe and is the word Palestinians use for the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
The overtones of the word “shoah” are very frightening apart from any contextual meaning—which is precisely why that word is used to refer to the Nazi judeocide. Vilani did not need to invoke the Holocaust to make his point: the word “shoah” is powerful enough as a threat even without reference to that great crime.
There Are More Important Things Than Words
But a far more important point is really being missed in the brouhaha (see some of the reactions to Vilnai’s comments here, here and here) The issue should not be that Vilnai was invoking the greatest of a long line of historical tragedies to befall the Jewish people. Rather, the issue should be that Vilnai was mimicking the very same behavior that has recently brought much condemnation on the heads of the leadership of Iran.
I recently wrote that both the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and the President of Iran have made contemptible statements about Israel that were rightly and roundly condemned by the international community. Yet neither Iranian statement carried the weight of threat that Vilnai’s did. In part, this is due to the fact that, although Vilnai is only the Deputy Defense Minister of Israel, he actually plays a much more prominent role in deciding whether or not to bring down death and destruction on another people than either the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or even the Iranian president.
The role that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, plays in foreign affairs is considerably exaggerated in the Western and Israeli media. It is remarkable to recall that when Mohammed Khatami, a moderate, was Iran’s president, we heard much about the limited role the Iranian president had. He was depicted as a functionary and a spokesperson, but the real power was always, and correctly, said to rest in the hands of Iran’s theocratic Supreme Ruler, currently Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Yet somehow, Ahmedinejad gets portrayed as the man with his finger on the proverbial button, which is far from the case. None of this should minimize the very real threat Iran poses nor mitigate the justifiable fear and consternation his threats have provoked. But to respond to such things effectively, we must understand both what he said in its proper context and just how much ability he really has to carry out such threats.
Vilnai’s threat is much more explicit than anything Ahmedinejad has ever said. Ahmedinejad’s widely reported alleged threat to “wipe Israel off the map” was a mistranslation. What he actually said was more of a wish that Israel would vanish from the page of history, a common Persian phrase, and was not his own statement, but a quote he related from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That statement is still objectionable and offensive and ought not be downplayed, but it was not a statement of intent to destroy Israel. Vilnai’s threat is also more direct than Revolutionary Guard head Jafari’s bombastic prediction of the triumph of Hezbollah. Moreover, unlike Israel, which can defend itself against the Iranians, the Palestinians clearly do not have the capacity to defend themselves against Israel.
Vilnai’s statement that Palestinian rockets will bring a shoah is a clear threat to cause a massive loss of life to the Palestinian people, and was obviously directed at the Palestinian civilian population. Fortunately, like Ahmedinejad’s and Jafari’s threats, Vilnai’s is unlikely to be backed up by reality. Even if Israel does invade Gaza with overwhelming force, as it appears more and more likely they will do, it is unlikely to produce anything that would seem like a Palestinian “shoah” or second naqba (though I have no doubt some will say it is, never missing an opportunity to scream “genocide,” reality be damned).
More likely the result will be similar to what we saw in early March 2008, where some 54 civilians (as well as 52 combatants) were killed in Gaza. A larger scale invasion will produce more deaths, but not a shoah or genocide. And that is precisely the danger of using disproportionate language.
The truth is it’s time for all of those analogies to go by the boards. A tyrant does not have to be Hitler to be a genocidal criminal who needs to be opposed and deposed. Indeed, he does not even need to be genocidal, merely unjust and oppressive. If something good is to come out of this, perhaps it will be a future reluctance to refer to a Saddam Hussein, a Slobodan Milosevic, a George W. Bush, a Fidel Castro, or an Ariel Sharon as Hitler. Any war criminal, or accused war criminal, is his own entity and needs to be viewed that way. Invoking the Nazis is demagoguery at its worst, and it blinds both leaders and populations to options that usually exist, even with tyrants, but which did not apply to Hitler, who was unique even among genocidal dictators.
Of more immediate concern is the need to apply standards in a fair and universal manner. If the Iranian bombast draws sharp reaction and condemnation, so must the Israeli. Israel does face double standards; I have written in the past of some of these, such as with the UN Human Rights Council. But the response to Vilnai cannot be another double standard. Vilnai’s threat was as vile as the Iranians’. If anything, his greater ability to follow through makes it worse. But it should be treated equally if we are to have any standards at all.
Being Cavalier About Violence
The steady stream of Qassam rockets raining down on Sderot and the rest of the southwestern Negev has caused Israelis to cry out to their government for protection. Indeed, the most fundamental responsibility of a government, the primary reason Hobbes gives for people consenting to be governed in the first place, is such protection. In this area of responsibility, Israel has been coming up quite short of late.
The Olmert government has been faced with mounting public pressure to act in Gaza. Yet their blockade of the Strip and sporadic strikes within it did nothing to stem the tide of rocket fire, but were damaging Israel’s international standing. So on February 27, 2008, Israel embarked on its latest incursion into Gaza and again caused more civilian than military damage (a trend Israel had been moving away from, according to reports that showed that the percentage of Palestinian civilians killed among all killed by Israeli operations had dropped precipitously in 2007).
Little was said about these Palestinian deaths in Israel, as they were largely accepted as an inevitable consequence of Israeli attempts to stop the rocket fire. No one justified the killing of civilians, but it has become such a routine event that most Israelis are inured to it at this point. But for the parents of those killed, particularly the young people, it was no routine matter. For them, it was, indeed, a shoah.
Shortly thereafter, a lone gunman entered the Merkaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem and murdered eight unarmed students in cold blood. Incredibly, some so-called “peace groups” took pains to point out that Merkaz Harav was the ideological birthplace of the settler movement, as if this made it a legitimate target. All too many Palestinians celebrated this act as well.
This is the cavalier attitude toward the deaths of unarmed civilians that is reflected in Vilnai’s threat and brought to the fore in the praise of the Merkaz Harav gunman, as well as the complete loss of moral direction among those who believe that objectionable political beliefs in any way mitigate the killing of unarmed students.
Even while conditions in Gaza are worse than they have ever been (and that is no small statement), there is no indication of any real threat of genocide. But that shouldn’t be the standard to act to change the situation there. The increased military abilities of Hamas and even Hezbollah still do not give those groups the ability to threaten Israel’s very survival. But it is enough that eight unarmed students were murdered in cold blood. The situation has got to change and change now. The daily threat to life and limb, both Israeli and Palestinian, is far more important than whether an Israeli official invoked the Holocaust.
By saying that several hundred dead is not genocide, a statement that is certainly true, one downplays those hundreds of deaths. Surely we can all agree that even one death is at best undesirable and that even one innocent death is a tragedy of enormous proportions. This is what gets lost in the argument over using terms of genocide, Holocaust or shoah. When such mind-boggling crimes are under consideration, we run the risk of minimizing the death of one, tens, or even hundreds.
Until an ethics of human rights makes such rights sacrosanct and paramount, until any civilian death is understood to be unacceptable, the rage and violence will not be stemmed. Without stopping the violence, it is hard to see how there can be a resolution to this seemingly intractable and irrational conflict.Scroll To Top
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