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Settle Down

Israelis have a hard time settling differences, let alone settlements

Shoshana Kordova
January 28, 2011
(Len Small/Tablet Magazine)
(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. To view all the entries in this series, click here.

Say “settlements” in the context of the Middle East and you’ll probably think of the West Bank, not the hardy pioneers who came to Israel before it was Israel and drained the swamps in their now-iconic kibbutz hats. But the Hebrew language has a rather more complicated relationship with two words for “settlement”: hityashvut and hitnahlut.

Today, “hitnahlut” (settlement) has become the standard word for Jewish areas in the West Bank, and “mitnahlim” (settlers) the standard word for those who live in them—at least if the people doing the talking (or writing) do not themselves fit in that category.

But if you’re speaking to Jews who live in the West Bank (or used to live in Gaza before Israel’s 2005 withdrawal), you’re a lot more likely to hear them talking about their yishuv, which can literally be translated as “settlement,” but is basically a town that may be located on either side of the Green Line. When speaking of settlements in general, those who live in them often refer to them as “yishuvim b’Yosh”—yishuvim in Judea and Samaria, the biblical names for the area now commonly referred to as the West Bank—rather than hitnahluyot, the outsiders’ word for settlements.

Ironically, this usage treads on the toes of the anti-settlement left, whose national heroes include the early pioneers, those secular European socialists who—yes, let’s use the word—settled the land. It’s no coincidence that yishuv comes from the same root as hityashvut, the word commonly used to refer to that early form of settlement.

Sometimes the contemporary settlement movement goes even further in what appears to be a deliberate effort to connect the dots between today’s largely religious settlers and their avowedly secular counterparts of yesteryear—in a sense, to assert that they, and not the Labor and Meretz voters whom the right accuses of caring more about where their next cup of coffee is coming from than where their country is going, are the true heirs to the heroes of the left.

For instance, Amana is a settlement movement—in Hebrew, it uses the word hityashvut—that refers to the first West Bank settlements it was involved in developing as the first “pioneering communities” it built. And an Internet forum called “Mitnahlim” explains to potential users (perhaps to counter any confusion generated by using that word) that it’s intended only for people who “support the pioneering hityashvut on the hilltops of Judea and Samaria.”

But sometimes it’s clear that use of the word “settlement” for classic Israeli pioneering efforts is nothing but a manifestation of the unusual situation in which the variety of English words to express an idea is more limited than the Hebrew options.

Take the Pioneer Settlement Museum, which says it exhibits “the largest display in Israel about settlement.” Lest you get confused, the museum goes on to say that it focuses on the Jezreel Valley and depicts values like “the laying of foundations for a secular Jewish lifestyle.” The message? Think twice before you settle on what exactly Israeli settlement entails.

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.

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