(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)

Israelispeak is the way Israelis and the Israeli media use Hebrew. Behind the literal meaning, 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.

I was at the playground with my two daughters this week, near our home outside Tel Aviv, when I heard another mother make a comment that would not have been out of place in a war zone.

“I think we left behind some captives in the field!” she said casually in Hebrew. A moment later she held up the “captive”: A doll with yellow pigtails that had been briefly forgotten in the plastic tunnel that leads to the slide.

But while captives, or shvuyim, are an everyday point of reference for Israelis, that’s not the word they typically use to describe Gilad Shalit, probably Israel’s best-known soldier in captivity. Shalit, who was seized on June 25, 2006, by Hamas-allied militants who infiltrated southern Israel by crawling under a tunnel from the Gaza Strip, has been making headlines in Israel again recently, because Hamas and Israel have announced the resumption of negotiations for his release.

The international media often refer to Shalit as having been taken captive. But the Israeli media, along with the many Israelis campaigning for his release, tend to describe him as hahayal hehatuf, the kidnapped or abducted soldier. The word for abductee was further cemented into the cultural consciousness by a TV show called Hatufim, about two reservists’ reintegration into Israeli society after spending 17 years in captivity, which won best drama in Israel’s equivalent of the 2010 Golden Globes.

The term hahayal hehatuf is nearly inescapable in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refers to the “hatifa” of Shalit, and the Shalit family objects to the use of any other word to describe him. Gilad Shalit’s father has spoken out against the Goldstone Report’s finding that he meets the requirements for prisoner-of-war status, insisting, “Gilad is not a prisoner of war. Gilad is an abducted person and a hostage.” A ben aruba.

Shaul Shay, author of the 2007 article Islamic Terror Abductions in the Middle East, notes that Israeli soldiers taken captive by the army of a sovereign state—like the hundreds of POWs held, and then released, by Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon in Israel’s first three decades—were referred to as shvuyim; the confusion began during the first Lebanon war, between 1982 and 1985, when non-state terror groups like Hezbollah started entering the picture.

Some see the widespread use of the word for abductee, as opposed to captive, as a subtle way of framing Israel as the good guy, or of generating more sympathy for soldiers like Shalit. “Someone who’s abducted is viewed as passive,” writes Eyal Zandberg, a lecturer in the School of Communication at the Netanya Academic College. The terminology, he adds, reflects the view that “the opposing side is the initiator, the one that causes harm, the abductor, while ‘we’ are always defending ourselves.” This view is perhaps bolstered substantively by the fact that, unlike capturing prisoners of war, taking hostages is a violation of international law.

The extensive public support for Shalit’s release, possibly reinforced by the sympathetic connotations implicit in the term hahayal hehatuf, might have been expected to pressure the Israeli government to reach a deal. But prominent peace activist Uri Avnery argues that the government’s own use of the word hatuf has helped create an excuse for its failure to secure Shalit’s release. “Prisoners of war are not left in captivity,” he writes. But abduction, he argues, is “altogether different,” because people are expected to ask whether it’s worth paying the ransom—thus setting the stage for lengthy, and possibly futile, negotiations.

Shoshana Kordova is an editor and translator at the English edition of Haaretz. She grew up in New Jersey and has lived in Israel since 2001.

Earlier: ‘The Peace Process’
No Confidence
‘After the Holidays’