How Gaza War Puts Hebrew Language on Front Lines

Why Do Israelis Call War an 'Operation'?

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By Gon Ben-Ari

Published August 31, 2014, issue of September 05, 2014.

One of the more surprising things about the war in Gaza is the fact that most Israelis still don’t call it a “war.” In Israeli media, the war is largely referred to as mivtza, which translates as “operation” but is rarely used to mean that in vernacular Hebrew. Outside of referring to military actions, the word mivtza has only one meaning: “a sale,” in the commercial sense. As in “Flip-flops on sale” or “End of season sale. Everything must go!”

After three weeks of fighting, more news outlets finally began to use the Hebrew word milhama, “war,” though only as a set headline, superimposed on the upper-left corner of the page. In the rest of the text, as well as in the round-the-clock reporting of news anchors on the TV and radio, the war is still referred to solely as a mivtza. As I write these words, the main article on the popular Israeli news portal Walla! repeats the word four times, in three stories on the conflict and in an advertisement at the bottom of the page for a Domino’s Pizza sale.

In Israeli military language, the word mivtza is used to mean “operation,” and in another more common form — “mivtza’i” — to mean “operation ready.” But the army language stays secluded in the army until Israel is engaged in a fighting situation. Then the military dialect leaks out to become the dominant dialect of the state.

Originally, the word mivtza belonged to the world of commerce. Some claim the source is Arabic, from Bcha’a, meaning “merchandise.” Some note its Jewish roots: In the Hebrew bible, the root of the word mivtza (beit-tzadik-ayin) appears in the word betza, meaning “profit.” The profit it signifies is a specific sort, gained in an immoral way. The first time it appears in the Bible is in Genesis 37: Debating whether or not to kill Joseph, Judah suggests to his brothers they should sell him, because “what profit [betza] will we have if we kill our brother and cover his blood?”

In reality there is a definite correlation between the term mivtza and actual commerce: in Israel, areas afflicted with “war” are said to be entitled to a certain amount of financial help from the state, while those afflicted with a mivtza are entitled to less. The question of whether Israel is engaged in a war or a mivtza reached the Knesset Finance Committee many times during the last month, as Israeli politicians and business representatives asked the committee to declare the current mivtza a war (milhama) so that those on the Israeli side who suffered from it may receive proper compensation.

The Israeli equivalent of the IRS claimed in return that the compensation would not change according to the terminology, and that in order for an area to be eligible for indirect compensation due to the fighting, it needs to be declared a “special case” by the military. As a result of this definition, even after the Israeli government finally declared the Second Lebanon War a milhama, the numbers of those entitled to compensation did not grow, as the military did not declare areas “special cases,” and so the tax agency refused to recognize them as such.

In his popular language columns in Israeli newspapers, Israeli author and linguist Reuven (Ruvik) Rosenthal has been writing about the use of Hebrew throughout the conflict. He is now completing a comprehensive study of Israeli military language.

“In general,” he says in a phone interview with the Forward, “armies and political systems involved in war tend to create a linguistic structure which serves the narrative and interests of the fighting country. The military views this strategy as legitimate, and I agree with them. The problem in Israel is in the media, which mostly adopts the military’s terminology without ever commenting on it, or criticizing it.”

Israeli Hebrew is a new language, or at least a recently thawed one, still in the midst of its rapid modern evolution. Its malleability makes it even more open to manipulation than other languages. Not long ago, Israelis were introduced to new words through the morning paper — “From today forward, don’t say ‘tomato,’ say ‘agvania’!” — and by night, everyone was using the modified vocabulary. Modern Hebrew has always been dynamic, and its governmental updates were always delivered to the public via the media.

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