This turns out to be the case – the BBC tells us that the Hebrew
שואה shoahmeans “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
- 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
- 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-nakbais 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-nakbaas 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?
- Media reactions to the word were not as you'd expect in English.
- There’s a huge amount of particularly sensitive intercultural translation involved.
- 'A holocaust' or 'the Holocaust'? Or just 'holocaust', uncountable, like soup? Hebrew doesn't have an 'a'.
- It’s a general word for a specific historical event.
- There’s a huge focus on one word, which could well have differing connotations.
- There’s a lot to learn from the Wikipedia trick.
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