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State of Being

When used with the definite article ha, medina, meaning state, may express anger (“The state threw us to the dogs,” say the newly unemployed); disappointment (“this is not the state we dreamed of!”); wonder (“what a state! An extraordinary state!” sings the popular entertainer Eli Luzon); even love. This range of strong emotions is a little odd when you consider the formal meaning of the word. Medina derives from the Semitic root “din,” which means rule, law or verdict. According to the etymologist Ernest Klein, a “medina” is “a district of jurisdiction.”

But the emotive use of hamedina embodies an important fact of Israeli life, which is that the state is not just a complex of institutions that creates the conditions for civil society, but a crucial part of the Israeli identity. The state is the face and the body of the Zionist project. The foundational Zionist text is Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl’s “The Jewish State” (1896), and the leading Israeli patriotic slogan remains “Long live the State of Israel!”

The older Eretz Israel (“Land of Israel”) also expresses Israeli identity, but in a more charged, divisive way. To use Eretz Israel nowadays identifies you with the Settlement Movement and its ideology. It is the more neutral hamedina that, for better or for worse, joins us all together.

Ruvik Rosenthal is a linguist and writer. His latest book is a dictionary of Hebrew idioms and phrases.

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