By Philologos

Published March 31, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Hitkansut. (Hit-kahn-SOOT.)

Keep an eye out for it. It’s already a much bandied about and argued about Hebrew buzzword, and it’s going to become even more of one.

It’s not an easy word to translate. According to the context, it might be rendered in English as “getting together,” “rallying round,” “gathering oneself” or “withdrawing into oneself,” and it was introduced by Ehud Olmert’s Kadima party — the victors in this week’s Israeli elections — as a campaign term for “unilateral disengagement,” the policy that Kadima has proposed applying to the West Bank following its implementation in Gaza last summer.

Not, of course, that “unilateral disengagement” lacked a Hebrew equivalent until now. It was called hitnatkut, which is roughly translatable as “cutting loose” or “breaking away,” and more formally, hitnatkut h.ad-tsdadit, the second word meaning “one sided.” This is how it was referred to by Ariel Sharon and, until recently, by Kadima’s post-Sharon leadership, as well.

Why change hitnatkut to hitkansut? It’s all a matter of verbal spin. Hitkansut is more soothing. It’s positive — rather than negative — sounding and has more congenial associations.

The verb le-hitnatek, from which the noun hitnatkut comes, implies the rejection of, or disassociation from, another person or body. It’s used in Hebrew for such things as abruptly terminating a relationship with someone (e.g., hi hitnatka mimeni, “She decided to have nothing more to do with me”); ending a telephone call (hitnatakti mimenu — “I hung up on him”); reneging on something (hem hitnatku mi’hith.ayvutam, “They renounced their obligations”), etc. The three-letter root it’s constructed from, n-t-k, has the basic meaning of pushing away or tearing away from, and it produces such other words as netek, a disjunction or lack of communication, and menutak, cut off from others or from the world.

Hitnatkut, in short, is a word that served the opponents of disengagement, whether on the left or on the right, better than it served disengagement’s supporters. It suggested the action of someone trying to turn his back on his problems, or even on reality itself — precisely what Sharon’s critics accused him of having done in Gaza. One easily can imagine Kadima’s campaign managers shaking their heads at it and declaring that it had to go.

And so, goodbye, hitnatkut — hello, hitkansut. The root of this word is k-n-s, and it yields such terms as le-khanes, to gather or collect; le-hikanes, to enter; k’nisa, an entrance; kenes, a convention or congress; bet-k’neset, a place of gathering, i.e., a synagogue (hence, too, Israel’s Knesset or Parliament); k’nesiya, a church, and even mikhnasayim, a pair of pants — since one has to place (le-hakhnis) one’s legs in them. It also gives us the verb le-hitkanes, the immediate source of hitkansut — which can have, when followed by a reflexive pronoun, a psychological sense, as it does in the renowned Hebrew essayist Ahad Ha’am’s lines: “Enough of wastefully scattering my spirit…. Rather, let me enter [etkanes] into myself.”

What Ha’am meant was that he wished to be less embroiled in outer activity and more involved in his own affairs — or, if you will, to disengage from the world and feel inwardly centered. Hitkansut as he used it has the sense of returning to one’s true essence and shaking off what is foreign to one’s nature.

For the proponents of unilateral disengagement, who see in it a way for Israel to rid itself of a long and costly conflict with the Palestinians by withdrawing from an occupation of territories it cannot digest so as to define its own borders and concentrate on its own needs as a Jewish state, hitkansut is thus a far better word than hitnatkut. It has a reassuring aura, a suggestion of spiritual improvement. Hitnatkut sounds jarring and rupturing. Hitkansut sounds as peaceful as coming home to one’s native abode after long and perilous adventures abroad.

No wonder that Kadima has been pushing hitkansut and that it instructed all its candidates to use it in Israel’s just-ended electoral campaign — or that the country’s other parties did their best to resist this and to keep hitnatkut in circulation. Several nights before election day, I watched a debate on television between a representative of Kadima and a representative of the Likud, which was in the forefront of the anti-disengagement camp. Every time the Kadima man said hitkansut, the Likud man said hitnatkut; every time the latter attacked hitnatkut, the former defended hitkansut.

In the end, of course, Israelis voted last Tuesday for a policy, not for a word. And yet whether this policy, if carried out, will prove to be a sensible one whereby Israel ceases finally to overextend itself and learns to live again within realistic limits — or, on the contrary, a rash and impulsive attempt to walk away from a conflict that will pursue the country in its one-sided retreat — is a dilemma well reflected in this contest of vocabulary. To hitkanes or to hitnatek: That is the question.

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

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