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The Absence of ‘Eviction’

The other day I was having an English conversation with an Israeli acquaintance, an observant Jew of American origins, when he casually said, while trying to date something that had happened in his private life some two years ago, “I’m quite sure it was before the expulsion.”

For a second, I didn’t know what he was referring to. Right away, though, I realized that by “the expulsion,” he meant what I would call “the Gaza disengagement” — or, if I were talking about the Jewish settlers forced to leave their homes and villages in the summer of 2005, their “evacuation” from Gaza. “Expulsion” is the term routinely used for these events by Israelis on the nationalist and religious right, a community to which nearly all the evacuated — or expelled — settlers belonged.

Both “evacuation” and “expulsion” are, when used in the context of the Gaza disengagement, translations from Hebrew: the former of the word pinuy and the latter of the word geyrush. Pinuy comes from the verb le’fanot, “to make room or clear away,” as when a waitress in an Israeli restaurant asks you at the end of your meal, “Le’fanot et ha-kelim?” — “May I clear away the dishes?” When, back in the late 1970s, Prime Minister Menachem Begin announced a new government plan to temporarily remove slum tenants from their homes, renovate or rebuild, and return the tenants to improved quarters, it was catchingly called “Pinuy u’Vinuy” — “Evacuation and Construction.”

Geyrush, from the verb le’garesh, “to chase away or drive out,” has, on the other hand, very different connotations. In Jewish history, it was and still is the word used to describe the expulsion of Jews from various medieval countries — the geyrush of Jews from England in 1290, the geyrush from France in 1394 and, above all, geyrush Sefarad, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. The very word geyrush is thus associated with great and cruel disasters in Jewish history. And in using it to describe the disengagement from Gaza, the religious right and its supporters in Israel are classifying disengagement with those disasters.

Although these are not my own political views, this is not the place for a political argument. I can certainly understand the feelings of those who, watching the pictures of Jews tearfully leaving their homes in Gaza settlements with their children and Torah scrolls in their arms, were reminded of the expulsion of Jews from European countries in the Middle Ages. Yet, politics aside, there is a purely linguistic argument to be made that “expulsion” is not the right word for this.

In part, it is a question of directionality. When one “expels” someone or something, the expelling force or body remains where it is while ejecting another body from its midst. This was not the case with the disengagement from Gaza, in which the same army that forced the settlers to leave withdrew together with them. Moreover, whereas the settlers were given the chance to seek legal redress and were fully compensated for their lost property, “expulsion,” both historically and as the word is used today, excludes the elements of due process and restitution. Had the Spanish government in 1492 scrupulously paid the Jewish families it drove from Spain the fair value of their homes, properties and businesses, it would still have been acting reprehensibly by forcing them to leave, but “expulsion” would be too strong a word for what it did.

On the other hand, “evacuation” doesn’t fit the facts of the matter either. Directionally, it is true, it is better. When we speak of a country’s “evacuating” its citizens from somewhere, we mean that it has brought them back to it, or to the safety of some other place, from a dangerous area, which was what was done with the Gaza settlers. But “evacuation” also implies an element of consent on the evacuees’ part that was not the case in Gaza. Someone forcibly brought out of an area of danger would at best be an unwilling evacuee.

But English also has a third word — “eviction.” An evicted person need not be in any spatial or geographic relationship to his evictor, and eviction is a form of dispossession that, even though cruel or unjust, is often carried out legally and with the possibility of appeal. Like an expellee, an evictee is made to leave his home or place of residence; like an evacuee, he has not necessarily being driven from the coercer’s midst.

Had my English-speaking Israeli acquaintance spoken of “the eviction,” I would have no linguistic quarrel with him. Unfortunately, Hebrew has no such in-between term. In Hebrew there is no separate word for an eviction, which can be referred to as only a pinuy or a geyrush, depending on which aspect of it one wishes to emphasize. Israelis must make the political choice between these two words even if they would rather not.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].

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