The Hebrew of the IDF, and What It Says about Israeli Society

May 5, 2016 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

When an Israeli infantryman radios for a helicopter to remove two wounded comrades, and the corpse of a third, from the battlefield, he says, “We have two flowers and one oleander. We need a thistle.” Other militaries, writes Matti Friedman, have their own jargon that similarly obscures what goes on in war, but IDF lingo may be uniquely horticultural. “What,” Friedman asks, “does this say about Israel’s military?”

Perhaps [it says] something about the agricultural preoccupations of the kibbutz and of the socialist militias that spawned the army in the early years of the state. Even after he became the country’s most famous general and the defense minister in the Six-Day War, Moshe Dayan used to say his profession was “farmer”—the point being that war was to be treated as something you were forced to do, though you’d rather be plowing. This is still close to what I experienced as the Israeli military’s ideal approach to soldiering or command. . . .

According to the Israeli linguist Ruvik Rosenthal, author of a recent book on military language, the floral euphemisms reflect the fact that while Israelis recognize the necessity of war, they don’t celebrate it and would rather not think about it. The fact of the country’s mandatory draft means that people are too close to the army to wax romantic about the institution or what it does. There are no military parades here and haven’t been for years. So though as soldiers we did violence and had violence done to us, we were armed with peaceful language. A forward operating base sounds dangerous; a “pumpkin” doesn’t.

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