Sunday, May 31, 2009

Famous Example 2: Holocausting Palestine

What exactly did Matan Vilnai threaten the Palestinians with a bigger one of? Ynet says a “Holocaust”, the BBC is more cautious: it gives the Hebrew word and explains it. But what is a “Shoah”? Even without the BBC’s help, you should still be suspicious of the word “Holocaust”. Firstly, we are talking a word of immense cultural significance, and one that naturally has very different significance to Jews and non-Jews. Whatever word it is may be impossible to translate reliably. Secondly, we are dealing with a Greek lendword, which you would not generally expect Hebrew, Arabic or other languages without Christian roots to use as much. So, as a non-Hebrew speaker, before you even click on the BBC link you should expect to see an entirely unknown word, probably ending in ‘h’ and full of ‘sh’s and unpronounceable things at the back of the throat. Thirdly, did he threaten “a” holocaust or “the” Holocaust? Many languages, such as Russian or Japanese, do not use ‘a’ or ‘the’. A subtle distinction, but is it one Vilnai or the translator added? Finally, ‘Holocaust’ is a very general word used for a very specific event – you can have nuclear holocaust, cannibal holocaust, zombie holocaust, but take away the adjectives, add a capital and you have a very real event. Expect other languages to do similarly, which means there may be alternative connotations and alternative usages.

This turns out to be the case – the BBC tells us that the Hebrew
שואה shoah
means “catastrophe”. (Although there is also the word ‘Churban Europa’, or ‘European destruction’ and actually coined earlier in Yiddish). ‘Catastrophe’ is a fairly everyday word. So expect its non-genocidal connotations to be more common. But how serious a catastrophe? Motorway pile-up serious? Or red wine on a white dress serious? I don’t know. The only way I can think of of finding out is to see what the reaction in the English-language Israeli press is. Haaretz only seems to mention it in passing, and the Jerusalem Post treats him as an indiscrete, Duke of Edinburgh figure. From this we can conclude one of two things. Either
  1. the Israeli press, even left-wing publications like Haaretz, is so murderously callous towards Palestinians and has such little perspective on its own history that it thinks almost nothing of threats of genocide in Hitler’s own words, or
  2. it’s not such a powerful word, being closer to ‘catastrophe’ and therefore more mundane in its associations, and Vilnai is just a cretin who needs to be kept away from sensitive situations at all times.

The reaction of Vilnai himself confirms the second. He tries to backtrack. He says that he didn’t mean genocide. Imagine this in English. Nobody, not even Prince Phillip, could threaten an entire people with a “Holocaust” and put it down to poor choice of words. Some might argue you could get away with it in a hot-house of hate like Israel, but even if that were the case, could you still survive on the world stage? Nobody would even try. From this we have learned that, as one would expect, in Israel the language of the Holocaust works in a rather different way to in Europe, and we’ve also gleaned a new, slightly untranslatable Hebrew word and the vital knowledge that we should treat it carefully if we don’t want to look like an arse.

Interestingly enough, ‘catastrophe’ is one of the ways
النكبة al-nakba
is translated. Could Vilnai have been ineptly referencing that “catastrophe” instead of the Nazi “catastrophe”? Let’s have a look. Go to the Wikipedia linked above. Go to ‘languages’ and click on ‘עברית’. That’s Hebrew for ‘Hebrew’, as you can tell from here. Ignore the article and look at the title. You’ve got a translation into Hebrew written by a native speaker. This is a good trick with wikipedia. But you probably don’t understand any of the funny Hebrew squiggles. No problem. Just google ‘Hebrew alphabet’. Lots of Jews are keen to help you. So that first one is a ‘h’, the next one is an ‘n’, then we’ve got a ‘k’, a ‘b’ and a ‘h’. So it looks like we’re dealing with ‘nkbh’. But, even though Israelis say
הנכבה ha-nakba
as well, I imagine they’re taught in school or from the papers that it means ‘catastrophe’/‘shoah’. So that could still be a factor. Or it might not. Who knows?

So why can’t we trust this ‘Holocaust’ story and what did we learn?

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