Why It's So Hard for Naftali Bennett to Say I'm Sorry

Statements Towards Netanyahu Defy Easy Translation

No Regrets: Israel’s minister of the economy Naftali Bennett said that he hadn’t intended to offend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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No Regrets: Israel’s minister of the economy Naftali Bennett said that he hadn’t intended to offend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

By Philologos

Published February 09, 2014, issue of February 14, 2014.
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Did he or apologize or didn’t he? The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that he did. Israel’s minister of the economy, Naftali Bennett, on the other hand, declared that he had not apologized at all, but had simply issued “a clarification” when telling an audience at a conference January 29: “If the prime minister was offended, that wasn’t the intention. I respect Prime Minister Netanyahu and his leadership.”

It’s a matter of opinion. A better question, though, might be this: What did Bennett say to offend Netanyahu in the first place?

If you depended on the English-language media, you would have found yourself in a state of some uncertainty. According to The New York Times, Bennett, responding to the prime minister’s suggestion that some Jewish settlers might end up living in a Palestinian state, accused him of “the loss of [his] moral compass.” In the foreign edition of Israel’s internationally prestigious newspaper Haaretz, Bennett declared that Netanyahu was guilty of (in one version) “ethical befuddlement” and (in another) “moral confusion.” If you read The Jerusalem Post, the charge was that Netanyahu was displaying “an irrationality of values.” If you read The Washington Post, whose reporter may have been reading The Jerusalem Post, it was “irrational values.” And Israel’s right-wing news service Arutz 7 reported that Bennett blamed Netanyahu for “a panicked loss of values.”

Not that there’s an enormous difference between any of these. Still, whether you call someone irrational, confused, befuddled, panicked or lacking a moral compass might determine whether or not that person has a reasonable right to an apology. Which was it?

Bennett, of course, was speaking in Hebrew when he made his original remarks, and what he said in them was that Netanyahu was suffering from an ibud eshtonot erki. This is indeed, for two reasons, a problematic phrase to translate. The first reason for this is that the word erki is an adjective derived from erekh, “value,” and has no exact equivalent in English, in which “value” in the sense of a deeply held principle has no adjectival form. (You can say in English that something is “valued” or “valuable,” but neither of these means “based on values.”) The second reason is that the phrase ibud eshtonot is a biblical one that, still used in modern Hebrew, has undergone modifications of meaning over the centuries, thus permitting a certain latitude in translating it.

This phrase occurs in the Bible in the 146th Psalm, which begins with a meditation on the brevity of life, and declares, “One’s spirit leaves one and one returns to earth; on that day, one’s thoughts [eshtonotav] are lost [avdu].” Here, to lose one’s eshtonot — a literary synonym for “thoughts,” the everyday word for which is maḥashavot — means no longer to have thoughts, because one is no longer alive to have them. In literary Hebrew, eshtonot continued to be used as a relatively rare synonym for “thoughts” until modern times. Yet in the medieval period, ibud eshtonot also came to signify not the loss of all thought, but the loss of clear or sensible thought, as in a line of verse by the 12th-century Hebrew poet and biblical commentator Abraham ibn Ezra that goes, “And one’s thoughts are lost and one’s years pass in vanity.” This usage persisted alongside the older one, so that one finds, for example, the early 19th-century Vilna intellectual Mordecai Aharon Ginzburg writing about Napoleon, in his history of the Franco-Russian war of 1812, “His plans went awry and he lost his bearings [ve’eshtonotav ovdot] in confronting the Czar’s new campaign.”

Moreover, it was the second of these two meanings that established itself in Israeli Hebrew at the same time that the first became archaic. And in modern Hebrew, this second meaning became more extreme, taking on the sense of losing, in a situation of pressure, the very capacity for clear thought — or in other words, panicking. To say of someone in Israel today “Hu ibed et ha-eshtonot” is the same as saying in English, “He panicked.”

Of all the translations of Bennett’s ibud eshtonot erki, therefore, Arutz 7’s “panicked loss of values” comes closest to conveying the phrase’s actual content and impact. It also goes furthest in its criticism. To panic under pressure is the one thing that the leader of a nation must never do. The captain of a ship may make an irrational decision or read a compass incorrectly while remaining a worthy commander, but the captain who panics should not be at the helm.

Should Bennett have apologized to Netanyahu? Not unless expressing one’s honest opinion is something to apologize for. Should Netanyahu have accepted an apology that wasn’t one? That may be the real place where he panicked. There’s more loss of values in letting a minister scornful of your behavior remain in your cabinet for reasons of political expediency than there is in thinking that Jews wishing to live in parts of the Land of Israel unretainable by the State of Israel might do so under Palestinian rule.

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

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