Lowliest Guards on the Israeli Totem Pole

How 'Blaming the Shin-Gimmel' Entered Vernacular

Man In a Glass Booth: The phrase shin-gimmel refers to a battalion guard. But it has also come to mean a scapegoat.
Thinkstock
Man In a Glass Booth: The phrase shin-gimmel refers to a battalion guard. But it has also come to mean a scapegoat.

By Philologos

Published February 10, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Multi Page

Two headlines dominated a page of The Marker, the economic section of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, on January 29. The first, captioning a straight news item, read (in my English translation): “Hershkovitz Stuns Finance Ministry: Fires Deputy.” The second, introducing a commentary on this development by correspondent Nehemia Strassler, declared: “Instead of Tackling Problems — Blame the Shin-gimmel.”

For you Forward readers, this needs some footnoting. “Hershkovitz” is Gal Hershkovitz, director of the ministry of finance’s budget division.

The deputy he fired was Eyal Epstein, the economist responsible for the budget figures that the ministry presents to the government of Israel and the Knesset. He was fired because of the unexpectedly huge deficit that the government ran in 2012, which will now lead to higher taxes and to slashes in public expenditures. “Blame the shin-gimmel” — ah, that’s a bit more complicated.

The Hebrew letters shin-gimmel stand for the words shomer g’dudi, “battalion guard.” That doesn’t mean very much in English, but every Israeli knows what a shin-gimmel is: He’s the soldier who sits in a little booth by the gate to a military base and lets no one unauthorized enter. He inspects the papers of anyone he can’t identify by sight and raises and lowers the barrier that bars or admits motor vehicles.

It’s not a thrilling or highly skilled job, which is why it’s usually assigned to the lowliest soldiers on a base. The four-hour shifts of it that I remember from my weeks of basic training were not the high points of my military career. They did, though, include one memorable incident. Late one night, a car with a military license and two passengers drove up to the barrier at which I was the shin-gimmel.

I waited, as I was supposed to do, for the driver, whose face I couldn’t make out, to present his credentials. He honked. I waited some more. He honked again. I stuck to my guns. He stepped out of the car and shouted at me to open the gate. He was, he said, the boyfriend of the base commander’s daughter, whom he was bringing home from a date. He was also, I realized at that exact moment, a cousin of mine, a pilot in the air force. We had a good laugh and met again at the wedding.

I’m not sure, however, that I would have stuck to my guns if the pilot in question had been pointing a gun at me. That’s what happened years later, on the night of November 25, 1987, to a young soldier named Roni Almog, who was the shin-gimmel at a paratrooper base in northern Israel.

Unbeknown to him, two gliders flown by members of Ahmed Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had managed to cross the border undetected from Lebanon and then land in Israel. The pilot of one was killed immediately. The pilot of the other made it to the base that Almog was guarding and opened fire. Almog panicked and ran away, and the Palestinian entered the base and killed five of the paratroopers before he was shot.

An investigation was held. The entire blame was laid on Almog, who was court-martialed and sentenced to a year-and-a-half in prison. Although no one doubted that he should have been punished, there was criticism of the investigators for not bothering to ask how the gliders had escaped radar detection in the first place. This grew fiercer when it was revealed that there had been advance intelligence of the attack but that forces on the ground had not been put on the alert — and to compound matters,

Almog’s father then successfully snuck unnoticed into the headquarters of Israel’s Northern Army Command in order to prove that its bases were inadequately protected and that no shin-gimmel should bear sole responsibility for their penetration.

The expression “blaming the shin-gimmel” resulted from “the night of the gliders,” as the event came to be known. Subsequently, it entered the Israeli vernacular as a general way of referring to putting the onus for a mishap on someone at the bottom of an organizational hierarchy while whitewashing those at the top.

“They’re out to get the shin-gimmel again,” began a newspaper article demanding that defense minister Ehud Barak, and not just naval officers, be held to account for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, in which nine Turkish civilians running the blockade on Gaza were killed. “I haven’t stopped at the shin-gimmel,” state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss announced last year, in publicizing his report on the Carmel forest fire in which 44 Israelis died.

Eyal Epstein occupied a higher office than does your ordinary shin-gimmel. Still, Nehemiah Strassler’s meaning was clear: Don’t blame the deputy when those above him, including the boss who fired him, are at fault, too. Unfortunately, if you’re looking to pass the buck, it’s easiest to let it roll downhill.

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


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.