December 17, 2004

Begin arming Israel

Ours is a rather serious and academic household, Barbara's and mine, with interests in language, linguistics, and philosophy. It isn't all that often that one will find Barbara and me lying on the floor laughing till the tears roll down our cheeks. At least, not from reading about lexical differences between Biblical and Modern Hebrew in The New York Review of Books. But Amos Elon recently had us in this unusual state. Don't read on, though, if you are easily offended, or if doctors have specifically warned you against falling on the floor laughing.

When writer Amos Oz was a 12-year-old boy, we are told in Elon's review (NYRB 12/16/04, 22-24), he once sat with his father and his grandfather, along with other right-wing Israelis, in the front row at an event where a speech was given by Menachem Begin. Like most right-wing politicians of the time, Begin spoke a rather classical Hebrew, reminiscent of the Bible, not of the street. The front three rows were mainly intellectuals, but the people behind them, the great majority of the audience, were working-class immigrants to Israel from Middle Eastern countries, and they spoke the colloquial "street" Hebrew of the Jerusalem area. Now, it turns out that in biblical Hebrew, though not in the Jerusalem vernacular, the same word was used at the time for "weapon" and the male sexual organ. And in the vernacular, though not in Biblical Hebrew, the verb "to arm" (to slip someone your weapon, as it were) had acquired a new meaning: it was used to mean "to fuck". Says Elon:

Begin, a great orator, was attacking the readiness of the great powers to arm the Arabs.

In rising, melodic cadences Begin was, for most of those present, complaining that Eisenhower and Anthony Eden were "fucking" Nasser day and night. "But who is fucking us?" he asked in an outraged voice. "Nobody! Absolutely nobody!" A stunned silence filled the hall. Begin did not notice. He went on to predict that if he were to become prime minister everyone would be fucking Israel.

A pitter-patter of applause came from the Zionist scholars in the front three rows. Most of the audience, though, maintained a stunned and horrified silence. Only the 12-year-old Amos Oz was apparently unable to contain himself, and burst out in helpless laughter.

Same for Barbara and me, I'm afraid. Sorry. Normally we're serious people, but... (Can't write any more. Got the giggles just imagining it.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at December 17, 2004 09:06 PM