SEMANTICS

11.14.12

A War By Any Other Name

Before the IDF names any other wars, they should really consult a Torah scholar. That way, they can avoid the embarrassment of picking a term that actually undermines the military operation in question, as “Pillar of Cloud” does for the new attack on Gaza.

As is already well known, the Israeli army specializes in concocting muscular monikers for its controversial military campaigns—and many of these strategic names contain scriptural references. According to Israeli scholar Dalia Gavriely-Nuri, no less than 38 percent of names given to Israeli military operations and weaponry between 1948 and 2007 alluded to the Bible. These references are designed to mediate Israeli public opinion by the associations they evoke, and to legitimize operations by “representing these activities as direct continuations of biblical campaigns,” Gavriely-Nuri writes. “Operation Yoav,” for example, “reminds one of the heroism of King David’s military commander.”

“Pillar of Cloud,” the name chosen for Israel’s latest attack on Gaza, is no exception. In Exodus, God adopts the form of a pillar of cloud to protect the Israelites and throw their opponents, the Egyptian army, into confusion. After the Israelites emerge victorious, the pillar of cloud stays with them, guiding them on their grueling trek through the desert. The name of Israel’s newest operation, then, is calibrated to evoke both confidence in a military victory and the sense of being carefully guided into a better world. Unfortunately for the IDF, though, the name “Pillar of Cloud” also has a rabbinic resonance they likely didn’t intend.

According to the Talmud, the Pillar of Cloud was a special gift conferred upon the Israelites because of the merit of Aaron, Moses’s brother. And Aaron’s quintessential quality—the quality that would have earned him this gift—was that he was, well, a peacenik. The Talmud teaches in Pirkei Avot that Rabbi Hillel said, “Be among the disciples of Aaron—a lover of peace and a pursuer of peace; a lover of all people, bringing them closer to the Torah.” Another rabbinic text, Avot d’Rabbi Natan, makes clear that this attitude should be extended not just to Jews, but to all nations: “The phrase teaches us that a person should be a pursuer of peace among people, between each and every one.”

I can’t speak for the entire Israeli public, but when I think “Pillar of Cloud,” this—Aaron’s legacy of peacemaking, and the rabbinic injunction to follow in his footsteps—is what springs to mind. So perhaps next time the IDF wants to exploit Israelis’ semantic field to sell them on a new military operation, they should do their homework first—or hire some good yeshiva students to do it for them.