Blood Lines

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published March 19, 2004, issue of March 19, 2004.
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‘No one,” recently wrote political commentator Yosi Verter in the Hebrew newspaper Ha’aretz, in an article on the attitude of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s fellow Likud politicians to the financial scandals threatening him, “wants to appear to be dancing on the blood.”

By “dancing on the blood” — roked al ha-dam — Verter meant taking pleasure in, or exploiting, Sharon’s distress, as some of his Likud rivals who have hopes of replacing him might have done. This rather gruesome Hebrew expression, despite its archaic ring, is a new one in Israel and has not been around for many years; yet, radiating from Israel, it is already beginning to spread into English. Writing before the 2003 Israeli elections in the magazine Counterpunch, for instance, left-wing political commentator Michael Dahan stated, “Of course, a series of bombings and attacks prior to the elections will play into the hands of the right, particularly [Benjamin] Netanyahu…. who has made a career dancing on the blood of innocent people.”

Where did “dancing on the blood” originate? A backward look indicates that its application to politics or other non-violent situations is a secondary development, and that its roots lie in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in images of Palestinians or Israelis dancing with joy when the blood of their enemies has been spilled. Indeed, this conflict still remains a context in which the expression is frequently used. Thus, in a statement made after the 2003 elections about the role played in them by Palestinian terrorism, Sharon’s campaign adviser Ayal Arad remarked that the left “danced on the blood after every terrorist attack and accused the prime minister of being responsible.” Similarly, following a suicide bombing in May 2001, the Hebrew daily Ma’ariv ran a front-page photo of a Hamas member handing out candy in celebration with the caption, “Dancing on the Blood.”

That blood has literally been danced on during the course of the current violence is, alas, a matter of record. As correspondent Larry Derfner reminded his readers a while ago in the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, this happened during the lynching of two Israeli soldiers by a Palestinian mob in Ramallah in October 2000. By the time the soldiers were dead, Derfner wrote, “the crowd had grown from 1,000 to 2,000. Some danced on the Israelis’ blood.”

Yet this lynching was not the source of the expression, which is at least several years older. The earliest documentation of it that I was able to find was the statement of Jewish settler leader Elyakim Ha’etzni in 1998 that, “Every loss of ours [to a terror attack] is the loss of an entire world, and yet apart from a few disturbed individuals, we do not dance on Arab blood.”

What “disturbed individuals” was Ha’etzni referring to? Possibly he had in mind settlers in his own town of Kiryat Arba, the Jewish suburb of Hebron, who reportedly danced upon hearing of Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Palestinians in a Hebron mosque in February 1994. Although in all fairness that day happened to be Purim, on which observant Jews frolic anyway, reports of the settlers’ behavior shocked many Israelis, as they did people around the world. “Dancing on the blood” may date to then, although it’s also possible that it originated in the same vicinity, known for its nationalist extremism, in November 1995, when inhabitants of Kiryat Arba and Hebron’s Jewish quarter are said to have danced after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.

Or does the expression go back even further, to the 1990-91 Gulf War? Then, as Saddam Hussein fired missiles at Israel and Palestinians marched in the streets chanting, “Ya Saddam, ya habib, udrub, udrub Tel-Abib” — “O Saddam, O our love, hit hard, hit hard at Tel Aviv” — there were stories in the newspapers about inhabitants of the West Bank ascending to their rooftops at night and cheering and dancing each time a missile flew overhead on its way to Israel’s coastal plain. The problem with this theory, however, is that there wasn’t any Israeli blood to speak of in the Gulf War, the only fatality of Saddam’s attacks having been a heart-attack victim. Moreover, the expression in those days, to the best of my memory, was “dancing on the rooftops” and not “on the blood.” The music was the same, but the words were different.

Meanwhile, “dancing on the blood” shows signs, in English, of morphing into “dancing in the blood” and extending to non-Israeli contexts. An Internet search turns up the politically conservative bulletin Neal Knox Update declaring, at the time of the serial shootings in the Washington, D.C. area in the autumn of 2002:

“That horrendous terrorism attack… has the entire region on the edge. Naturally, the gun-haters are again dancing in fresh blood to promote their favorite ‘gun-control’ schemes….”

If the Hebrew roked al ha-dam indeed stands behind this sentence, it may signal the beginning of a trend that would comprise the only instance known to me of English borrowing an entire idiom, as opposed to an isolated word, from Israeli Hebrew. (Hebrew has borrowed dozens or even hundreds of English expressions). It’s a pity it couldn’t have been a more cheerful one.

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






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