Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use language: Behind the literal meaning of the Hebrew words, there’s an additional web of suggestion, doublespeak, and cultural innuendo that too often gets lost in translation. Every Friday, we reveal what is really being said.
For English speakers, the term “political process” denotes just about anything involving governmental decision-making. But the Hebrew equivalent of the term—“tahalich medini” (or, to use the definite article, “hatahalich hamedini”)—is a euphemism for a specific political process: The peace process.
As in the recent Hebrew headline “Interior Minister: Palestinians Incapable of Moving Political Process Forward,” tahalich medini generally refers to the intermittent attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, though it can also refer to talks with other Arab neighbors, like Syria. While the dictionary definition of medini is “political,” in practice it often means diplomacy or international relations, which helps explain why tahalich medini has come to refer to the peace process.
Not all local media coverage of diplomacy has to do with Israeli-Palestinian relations directly, of course; many articles concern various leaders talking about peace talks (or the prospect thereof, or the imminent demise thereof), or have something to do with the absence of peace and security (say, the campaign to keep Iran from going nuclear). And statements from foreign politicians about how friendly their countries are feeling toward Israel at any given moment tends to be linked to the vicissitudes of war and peace in the Middle East.
Take a recent story about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rather unexpected approbation of Fidel Castro, whom he credited with a “deep understanding” of Jewish history after the former Cuban president, who has traditionally supported the Palestinians, told The Atlantic that Israel, as a Jewish state, has a right to exist.
No, this isn’t directly about the peace process. But Netanyahu’s response does reflects Israel’s almost insatiable avidity for external affirmation, which must be understood in the context of the Arab world’s historical rejection of Israel and the flotilla-loads of international criticism it receives whenever the peace process is in its off-again stage. In addition, Castro’s comment can be seen as subtly enhancing the legitimacy of Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, a condition he has set for the peace talks. (The PLO has officially recognized Israel as a country, without specifying its religious affiliation, since 1993.)
So perhaps it isn’t too surprising that the Hebrew word for “diplomacy” is the same as the Hebrew term for the peace process.
But if “political process” is not the best rendering of tahalich medini, there is a far more extravagant translation pitfall embedded in the dictionary entry directly below medini. In Hebrew, medini is spelled the same as Midyani—a Midianite, or member of the Biblical-era nation of Midian.
The Midianites’ brand of diplomacy was less about handshakes than a kind of spiritual warfare that involved acquiring the Israelite-cursing services of a donkey-riding prophet (though they seem to have been mostly going along with the Moabites on this one) and having their women seduce Israelite men. The lingering question is: After the Israelites were hit by a divine plague caused by succumbing to those temptresses, was the attack they launched on the Midianites a justifiable military response, or did they act disproportionately? On second thought, maybe “Midianite process” wouldn’t be such a poor translation after all.