Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another



Your weekly dose of Israelispeak

Print Email
(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’

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

shriber says:

Shoshana, how do you know that Israelis will interpret the comments the same way do?

The problem with coded lnaguages without a key is that people are free to hear what they wish.

You also make it seem as if Jews, again, use one language among themselves and one language for the rest of the world (ha-goym. This is an antisemitic view which your column is re-enforcing.

There is a book called

Jonathan Silverman says:

I have that book!

Jonathan Silverman says:

it’s super difficult to read.

shriber says:

It’s difficult because the subject isn’t simple.

Still, it’s worthwhile to work through it.

Bottom line, don’t talk about “secret” Jewish languages without proof. This is what antisemites usually do.

Robin Margolis says:

Ms. Kordova is to be commended for telling the truth. The Israelis are a separate culture from American Jews, and much of the time we fail to understand their thinking because of linguistic and cultural issues.

Ms. Kordova is simply pointing out the truth. Anyone who doubts her need only read Israeli newspapers (free, online and in English) to see the vast gaps between American Jewish perceptions and Israeli Jewish perceptions of many events.

There is nothing anti-Semitic about pointing out how the Israelis think based on their uses of Hebrew.

Jerome says:

“Ms. Kordova is simply pointing out the truth. Anyone who doubts her need only read Israeli newspapers (free, online and in English) to see the vast gaps between American Jewish perceptions and Israeli Jewish perceptions of many events.”

Speak for your antisemitic self, Robin

I am an American Jew who speaks Hebrew and Yiddish and I know that Jewish culture in Israel and here are not that different.

Of course, one would have to live in a real Jewish community to understand that. It’s obvious that Robin does not.

Not Important says:

I suggest that Ms. Kordova listen more carefully next time she overhears Israelis talking. The expression is “hisharnu petzuyim bashetach”, not “hisharnu shevuyim bashetach”. The exression means, we left (or abandoned) the wounded in the field. This makes perfect sense, whilst “hisharnu shevuyim…” does not. Captives are never left in the field, they are dragged away to unknown locations.

I just like the valuable info you provide on your articles. I will bookmark your weblog and test once more right here regularly. I am relatively sure I’ll learn plenty of new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.


Your weekly dose of Israelispeak

More on Tablet:

The Kindergarten Teacher Who Won Cannes

By Vladislav Davidzon — Hungarian actor Géza Röhrig stars in Auschwitz drama Son of Saul