Here’s What ‘Pillar of Defense’ Actually Means
The name of the IDF operation references a famous midrash
Today, the IDF launched Operation Pillar of Defense to stem the tide of rockets from Hamas-controlled Gaza. Where does the name come from? In Hebrew, the campaign has been dubbed עמוד ענן (“Amud Anan,” or “Pillar of Cloud”). The phrase is a direct biblical allusion to the divine cloud which guided the Israelites through the desert and shielded them from those who might do them harm. As a couple representative verses from Exodus 14:19-20 state:
Then the angel of God, who had been traveling in front of Israel’s army, withdrew and went behind them. The pillar of cloud also moved from in front and stood behind them, coming between the armies of Egypt and Israel.
They [the Egyptians] shot arrows and catapult stones at them, but the angel and cloud caught them.
For a campaign intended to halt the barrage of rockets currently raining down on southern Israel, “Pillar of Cloud” is thus a particularly apt title. Just as the cloud protected the Israelites from Egyptian projectiles, so to does the IDF hope to protect Israel’s citizens. However, a literal translation of עמוד ענן—i.e. “Pillar of Cloud”—fails to convey the meaning of the biblical allusion to a lay audience. As such, the IDF chose “Pillar of Defense” as the campaign’s English designation, a conceptual translation which makes clear the intended meaning of the Hebrew.
But don’t tell that to John Cook. Writing at Gawker in a post subtly titled “Israel Names Its New War After Biblical Story About God Terrorizing Egyptians,” Cook—who admits he does not know Hebrew (let alone, one can safely assume, midrash)—lists a few Googled biblical verses in which the pillar of cloud appears and concludes:
So that’s what a Pillar of Cloud is: A worldly instantiation of an all-powerful, vengeful God seeking to demonstrate the primacy of his chosen people, to guide them in their affairs, and to confound their enemies. And that’s what the people who conceived and executed this wave of strikes against Hamas officials and Gazan civilians chose to call them. If anyone was worried about the increasing religious and ethnic fanaticism of the Israeli leadership, they should still be worried. Did Israel launch this attack because there was no other rational route to maintain its security? Or was it pursuing a broader agenda rooted in ancient mysticism?
In light of the above, I think we can safely answer “no.” And perhaps we can also conclude that individuals who know nothing about Judaism should avoid publishing mendacious misreadings of its texts and traditions on prominent web sites.
There is fanaticism here—but it isn’t the fevered fiction conjured by Cook. It’s what inspired Hamas to fire 12,000 rockets at innocent civilians.