What the Gaza operation and dreidels have in common
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.
Go shopping online, and you’ll find items like “hard cast lead smokeless cowboy bullets” and “quality cast lead handgun bullets.” In English, we tend to think of munitions as being cast in lead, a linguistic quirk that lent a decidedly militant aura to the name that the Israeli army gave to its incursion into Gaza in the winter of 2008 and 2009: Operation Cast Lead.
But that was, to a large extent, the opposite of the intention of the operation’s Hebrew name, Oferet Yetzuka. Far from calling up images of deadly metal, the Hebrew phrase is intimately associated with—believe it or not—the dreidel.
Oferet Yetzuka comes from a popular Hebrew children’s song for the holiday—the lyrics were written by one of the greatest Hebrew poets, Hayyim Nachman Bialik—called “Lihvod Hahanukkah” (“In Honor of Hanukkah”). The original (in English translation) includes the stanza: “My teacher brought me a dreidel / made of cast lead / Do you know who it’s for? / It’s in honor of Hanukkah.”
So how did a war that resulted in nearly 1,400 deaths get named for a dreidel?
The Israel Defense Forces is widely believed to name its operations with the aid of computers. Dalia Gavriely-Nuri, a lecturer on culture and communication at Hadassah College Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University, told me that after analyzing the names the IDF gave to 76 of its operations, including Cast Lead, she thinks it would be naïve to believe that a mechanized process is solely responsible for choosing such euphemistic language.
“It’s clear that people thought about how to do this,” she said. “And even if the computer does ultimately decide, someone had to input the information in the first place.”
Oferet Yetzuka is not without martial overtones. Hanukkah is a celebration of a military victory—of the Maccabees over the ancient Greeks—not just of the miracle of the oil, so one possible connotation is the idea that modern-day Israel will emerge victorious as well.
But the decidedly non-martial connotations of the name are at least as significant. Like the IDF’s official name for the first Lebanon war—Operation Peace for Galilee—Operation Cast Lead is a prime example of what Gavriely-Nuri refers to as “war-normalizing naming,” in which military operations are given names that are intended to make them “sound as normal as possible—nicer, more legitimate—and that will make the ugly sides of it disappear.”
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