Gilbert Weinstein

I am a settler

Well, actually not quite yet. I only signed a lease to rent an apartment in the “West Bank Israeli settlement of Ariel” as it is known in most Western media. Whatever the case may be, I will be one – a settler – in short order. So I thought I would start a series of posts on settlements. This is the first in the series and it deals with language.

Some Israeli culture is imported from the US, and the word settler is one such cultural import. In American culture, settler used to be a positive term. The American holiday of Thanksgiving, a favourite in our family, which celebrates the harvest with a delicious meal of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans and corn bread – yum! – is often cause to remember the early settlers. Of course one would have to say that these early settlers integrated better into the existing environment and in fact even befriended the indigenous inhabitants, unlike later settlers and their army who mostly massacred the American Native population.

The Hebrew word for settler is מתנחל, read mitnachel. The root is nun, chet, lamed, same as nachala, which means inheritance. A mitnachel is one who takes possession of his inheritance. I know of no English word which conveys the same idea. Is it because there was never any need for it? Jews were expelled from their land by the Romans some two thousand years ago, and have for the past century been in the process of reclaiming their inheritance. There is no analogous experience in the history of any nation. Interestingly, the word has its origin in the Torah, for example in the Book of Numbers 33:54 – “You shall apportion the land…” – not as a noun but as a verb. Since nachala which appears in the same verse clearly means inheritance, the simple understanding here, must be that after the original conquest from the Canaanite inhabitants, the land was to be passed down the generations as an inheritance. Clearly, the translation of mitnachel as settler is a very poor rendering, although there is hardly a better one.

The early Zionists were settlers. The term hitnachalut, referred to settlements in all of the land of Israel. Settling was an ideology. It depicted someone leaving behind a comfortably sheltered life, pulling up his sleeves, and engaging in backbreaking work drying marshes, building roads, planting orchards, and causing the desert to blossom. Later, a brigade of the IDF was named Nahal, because its units were made of ideological youngsters who combined their military service with the establishment of agricultural settlements. Only after 1967, did settlements come to refer solely to townships beyond the 1949 armistice line, aka “the Green Line”.

Today “settler” is almost synonymous with “extremist”. It often connotes a foreign invader, a land thief, a colonial usurper, a fanatic. This is true not only in the Western press but mostly also in the left-leaning Israeli press. So a wholly positive Hebrew word got translated into a marginally related English word, originally also mostly positive, then both took a downturn and ended up laden with stridently negative connotations. I guess imports are not always the rave they claim to be. Of course, some of the blame for the downturn is because “settlements” have for decades been depicted as the main obstacle to peace. Since peace is good, settlements must be bad. But are they really the main obstacle to peace? This is for a future post. I feel compelled to add that although being a settler today is not as appreciated as it used to be, to say the least, it is also not as arduous. Except for the inconspicuous guard at the entrance, the city of Ariel does not have the feel of a settlement, and has in fact, most of the amenities of a small town.

While still on the subject of language, I must address the ridiculous circumlocution which is the name “West Bank”, which often accompanies “settlement” or “settler”. Ariel is 35 kilometres from the Jordan river, nowhere near a bank of the river. The West Bank town of Elkana is 46 kilometres from the Jordan river. Beit Shean is 5 kilometres west of the Jordan river but is not a West Bank city. These semantic acrobatics are required in order to avoid using the historical name of the region: Samaria. It is the linguistic equivalent of what the Waqf are doing on the Temple Mount, rushing to clear away as much of the archaeological evidence of a connection between the Jewish people and Jerusalem before anyone notices.

About the Author
Gilbert Weinstein is an academic who spent almost three decades abroad. In Fall 2013, he will return to Israel to take a position at Ariel University.