Israel: Adamah (land) or Eretz (Land)?

April 2, 2010 at 10:28 am (By Amba)

No matter where you stand on Israel, and even if it makes you mad, this is a must read, packed with astonishing insights into Jewish history and identity, the Hebrew language, and the political uses of any language.  Just a couple of startling examples to whet your appetite:

For [poet and dissident Yitzhak Laor], the essential truth underlying historical ambiguity can be found only in and through common language, and one wonders, reading him, whether the ultimate synoptic history of Israel and Palestine would not be a poet’s history, a linguistic history — a version that can be all versions, once the vocabulary has been agreed upon: vocabulary having to do with, for example, the sanctity of “life,” or chayyim, a word that in Hebrew is uniquely plural, and so, as Laor reminds us, cannot be lived by one person, or one nation, alone.

What do you know!  I’ve been saying “L’chaim!” all my life without ever knowing I was saying “To lives!”, even though I know just enough about Hebrew to know that “-im” is a plural ending, as in the familiar “seraphim and cherubim.”

If the decades following 1948 found Israelis aspiring to Aryanhood [see e.g. the blond, blue-eyed Paul Newman in Exodus], then the roots of that loathing grew from decades previous, from the Nazi desire to cast European Jewry as entirely Oriental — the infamous Der Sturmer cartoons of the fattish Jew with the hooked nose and tasseled fez, the cigar and ruby rings. Laor argues that the Nazi genocide represented a purgation of this stereotype, and that the Jew emerged from the war intensely Westernized, as if Auschwitz’s fires had burnt away all traces of Otherness and now the Jew was fit to be not just a citizen like all Western citizens but the very paragon of a polis, the Western citizen par excellence. In Laor’s interpretation, if the Holocausted Jew is today regarded as the special guardian of Humanism, then the new Oriental Other or Easterner can be said to be the Arab, and especially the rock-throwing, half-literate Palestinian.

This reminds me of the way, when I fill out any form like the census that asks for ethnicity, I always hesitate before checking “Caucasian” or “white.”  It just doesn’t seem quite true.  (I know, you don’t have to answer that question, and there are libertarians who say you shouldn’t stand up and be counted at all.  Filling out forms just appeals to my nit-picky, compulsive-copyeditor side.) This is, of course, a loaded and potentially evil point to make, because it means that Jews can now be accused of being racists and Nazis even as they are, on the other hand, still declared by Arabs and Europeans alike to be a “disease,” no matter how Western we may look and think.  (The Nazis, like the segregationists, had a “one-drop rule.”)  Despite the evil uses that are made of this point, there’s still some creepy truth in it, a truth that has something to do with the decline in American antisemitism and the embrace of the Jews by Christians who’ve found a new sinister Semite to despise.

You don’t have to be Jewish, or a critic of Israel, to find much in this piece by Joshua Cohen that is mind-blowingly enlightening.


  1. Melinda said,

    I always hesitate before checking “Caucasian” or “white.” It just doesn’t seem quite true.

    Yeah, me too.

    As Ashkenazim, however, we would be the Thurston Howell III’s in Israel.

  2. wj said,

    Actually, the biggest lack in the census is a category of “mixed.” With any luck, by the next census they will have figured out that it’s too big a percentage of the population to ignore any longer.

    For that matter, any anthropologist will tell you that “mixed” is the only accurate answer to a question on race for pretty much anybody on earth. There may still be a few (very few) extremely isolated populations left on earth which aren’t. But damn few. And almost certainly nobody in the United States — from the President on down. But then, as a previous discussion noted, any discussion of race is a lot more about “tribe” than about race per se.

  3. William O. B'Livion said,

    I just wrote in “American” under “other”.

    I mean, I’m pathologically white, probably northern European with something in my genetic past that gives me a read beard with brown hair, if I had any.

    If I was ethnically Jewish I’d put that in.

    It’s a stupid question anyway. There are larger differences within a race than between races. Idiot bean counters.

  4. amba12 said,


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