‘Settling’ the Score

On Language

By Philologos

Published July 01, 2009, issue of July 10, 2009.
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In a long opinion piece column in the June 22 New York Times, New York University professor Tony Judt — who in recent years has been only slightly better-disposed toward the State of Israel than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — writes about the settlements in the occupied territories. Essentially, he claims, they are a continuation of the same “settler myth” that energized Zionism from its inception: a myth that once, in pre-1967 Israel, centered on the “settlements” known as kibbutzim. Now, Judt writes, “the settler myth has been transposed somewhere else — to the Palestinian lands seized in war in 1967 and occupied illegally ever since.”

But the question of the relationship of Israel’s post-1967 “settlements” in the West Bank and Gaza to Jewish settlement in pre-1967 Israel and pre-1948 Palestine is a far more complex one than Judt lets on. For the most part, Israeli society has never regarded the two things as equivalent, as is borne out by the linguistic fact that the Hebrew words used by it for the pre- and post-1967 “settlements” have been entirely different.

In the very earliest years of rural Zionist settlement in Palestine, which effectively began in 1882, the private Jewish farming villages established were known by the European term kolonyot or “colonies” — a word, however, that soon gave way to its Hebrew substitute moshava, coined from the verb yashav, whose primary meaning is “to sit,” but which can also mean “to reside” or “to inhabit,” and in its reflexive form of hityashev, “to settle.” When, after World War I and the onset of the British Mandate, communal farming villages became the vogue, the totally collectivized form of them was called a kibbutz and the partially collectivized form a moshav. Both types together were known as yishuvim, and the project of Zionist agricultural settlement on the whole as ha-hityashvut, or often, ha-hityashvut ha-ovedet, “the laboring Hityashvut.” Similarly, the entirety of Zionist Palestine was commonly referred to as ha-yishuv or “the Yishuv.”

None of these terms had any particular biblical resonance, even though the verb yashav often has the sense of “to inhabit” or “to settle in” in the Bible. They were secular in connotation and did not imply any sense of religious mission. For this reason, the religious settlement movement that developed in the occupied territories after 1967, and that was responsible for many (though by no means all) of the Jewish towns and villages established in the West Bank and Gaza, chose another terminology entirely, callings its settlements hitnah.luyot (singular, hitnah.alut), the act of settling in them le’hitnah.el and the settlers themselves mitnah.alim. All of these words derive from the noun nah.ala, a word occurring many dozens of times in the Bible and denoting the territory allotted by God to the people of Israel in the land of Canaan, and specifically, the individual tribal territories that each of the 12 tribes was called on to conquer and occupy upon entering the Promised Land following the Exodus from Egypt.

Thus, while both can be translated as “to settle” and “settlement,” the verbs hityashev and hitnah.el and the nouns hityashvut and hitnah.alut have very different ideological nuances. One set of words denotes coming to live in a place, whether for Zionist or other reasons, and having no necessary sense of ownership or intention of dispossessing those already there; the other set, taking possession of land that is one’s rightful inheritance and to which others have no legitimate claim. It is no accident that on the Golan Heights, also settled by Israel after 1967 but by largely secular Jews, the word hitnah.luyot was rarely used for the settlements established, which were called yishuvim in the pre-1967 tradition.

By focusing on the English word “settlement” rather than on the different Hebrew terms of which it is a translation, Judt thus overlooks the fundamental sense of discontinuity that most Israelis, secular and religious alike, have about the pre- and post-1967 settlement movements. For secular Israelis on the political left, indeed, the words hitnah.alut and mitnah.alim have an automatically negative connotation that hityashvut and mityashvim never had. This is no doubt why the post-1967 settlement movement has lately been manifesting regret over giving Israeli Hebrew these words, and even has been attacking the blanket use of them for West Bank settlements. Increasingly, one encounters the demand from their supporters that these settlements, too, be referred to as yishuvim in order to emphasize that there is fundamentally no difference between an Israeli living in a Jewish village in the mountains of the Galilee, say, and an Israeli living in a Jewish village in the Judean Hills.

Judt briefly lived on a kibbutz in the Galilee in the 1960s, and he seems to think that this makes him, to this day, an expert on the history of Jewish settlement in Palestine/Israel. A few Hebrew lessons would do him no harm.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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