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.
Getty Images
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.
  • Print
  • Share Share

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


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!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • 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.