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What Israelis Talk About when They Use the Word ‘matzav’

September 26, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Hebrew word “matzav,” or situation, used to be a fairly innocuous term for most Israelis.

“Ma hamatzav,” they would ask one another — what’s up? It is a question that does not always require an answer.

Or they would say “Yesh matzav,” which can mean something is brewing.

A person can be “metzuvrach,” someone who is sad or hurting.

These days, however, if you ask about the matzav, there is only one situation in mind: the conflict with the Palestinians.

As Israel approaches the second anniversary of the intifada, the term used most often to describe the overall state of affairs is “hamatzav,” or “the situation.”

In fact, within a week after the first rocks were thrown in late September 2000, one Tel Aviv paper wrote the following headline: “Yesh Matzav,” or “There is a Situation.”

“It’s a word with a negative connotation,” says Ruvik Rosenthal, language columnist for the Ma’ariv newspaper. “According to the dictionary definition, it’s a neutral word. But in daily usage, it has a connotation of tension, sadness, problems.”

For Rosenthal, one of the nation’s word masters, matzav was the word of the year for 5762, the Jewish year that just ended. It is one of those expressions that is Israeli in its very essence. It is “our ambassador word,” he said.

According to the Yehuda Gur dictionary, the word “matzav” was first used several times in the Bible, referring to a person’s physical stance or station.

It wasn’t until the 14th century that Rabbi Yitzhak Bar Sheshet, who lived in Spain during the massacre of Jews in 1391, used the word “matzav” in a responsa to indicate one’s existential situation, perhaps referring to the persecution of the Jews, said professor David Golinkin, president and rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and one of the leading authorities on Jewish law in the Conservative movement in Israel.

“He used the word in the modern sense,” Golinkin said.

More than 600 years later, it is the word Israelis use most often to describe a situation without an obvious solution.

On, a Web site depicting the daily lives of Israelis during the conflict, the matzav is described as the situation Israelis live with every day.

It is “the mile-long traffic jam that could be a security check or a bombed bus. It’s your son, father, husband called up for mandatory reserve duty in a scary place. It’s the morbid thought that the bus or mall you are entering may be your last,” according to the site.

Even when someone says “Matzav tov,” which means everything is OK, the understanding is that “it’s good but temporary,” added Rosenthal. If you ask about someone’s matzav ruach, their state of mind, it is understood that they aren’t doing well.

“It’s hard to explain this word, hard to translate it,” he said. “Hamatzav is our friend. We know it. It is a citizen of this state.”

Before the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1948, the Jews living in pre-state Palestine talked about “the matzav” the way Israelis do today. To them, it signified the situation they all shared, namely, how to win the ongoing battle for the creation of the Jewish state.

As such, it is a word reminiscent of a certain time and place — of the prestate militias, the siege on Jerusalem and the smuggling in of illegal immigrants.

This time around, it was street usage that brought it back into the daily vernacular, but the Israeli army increased its usage when it used hamatzav to describe the increasingly violent conflict, according to Rosenthal.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon “uses it all the time, and it’s fitting for him because he’s retro,” said Rosenthal, referring to Sharon’s previous career as an army officer from the 1948 War of Independence through the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

These days, retro is in as Israelis are harking back to seemingly simpler, safer times. They want to ignore the perils of the present, and word usage is part of the technique.

For some, however, the usage of the word “matzav” indicates avoidance.

“It’s an inclusive word that refers to everything, usually an unhappy state of affairs,” said Yaron Ezrahi, a political science professor at Hebrew University. “People know something is going on, but if they use this word, they don’t have to get into a whole discussion.”

For Ezrahi, who heads the media and communications project at the Israel Democracy Institute, it isn’t necessarily interesting why Israelis use the word “matzav”; what fascinates him is why they don’t use the other words that describe the more controversial roots and causes of the current conflict.

“We aren’t used to dealing with the causes of the conflict,” he said. “So instead we use a neutral word, an economical word that doesn’t require saying anything specific about terror, occupation or the political situation.”

In a special section that appeared last week, the Jerusalem Post noted the propaganda gain for the Palestinians when their term for the two-year-old conflict, the “Al-Aksa Intifada,” was accepted worldwide.

“It specifies a locus to the conflict, a starting point, a purpose and a method” — all from the Palestinian perspective, editor Bret Stephens wrote.

Remarkable, Stephens wrote, “is the failure by Israelis and Diaspora Jews to offer an alternative vocabulary” of their own. “We speak of the matzav, ‘the situation,’ which loudly bespeaks the lack of any shared clarity about the meaning and purpose of this war. It’s as if this is one question Israelis do not have the energy, the imagination perhaps even the courage to address.”

The paper asked prominent Israelis from across the political spectrum to name the war to best express the Israeli view of the conflict. Entries included “The Oslo War,” “The Camp David War,” “The War for a Palestinian Land” and “The War Against Peace.”

Truth be told, though, Israelis don’t like talking about the situation. They might debate whether to go out because of the security situation, but once they’re sitting at a caf table drinking cappuccino, the political state of the nation is not a favored topic.

“We never talk about the situation when we’re with our friends,” one Israeli judge said when asked his opinion on the matzav.

And with good reason, explained Penina Feller, an anthropologist who specializes in ancient Eastern culture.

Words have power, and humans believe in the power of the word.

In parts of India and Africa, where famine and drought have wreaked havoc for years, Feller has found that those suffering from lack of food or water don’t talk about the drought or famine: They say “the situation” or “the tragedy.”

Feller said, “When we’re scared of something, we try not to let that word pass through our mouth. There’s a fear of describing something, so we give it a more general term.”

In Israel, there is no consensus on the security situation. Everyone has his or her own opinion on its causes, effects and future, so it’s better to speak of it with caution.

“We need something to describe what’s going on, so we choose a word that is obscure,” Feller said. “We say it, but not exactly.”

Why not use intifada, the Arabic word for “shaking off,” or uprising?

Not a chance, linguists said.

The Palestinians “use intifada because it’s their word,” Rosenthal said.

The word “intifada” was first used by Israelis in 1987 when the Palestinians waged a less lethal war of stones and Molotov cocktails, often thrown by children. The result of the first intifada was the Madrid conference, which brought about the Oslo peace accords.

But this intifada is a war of terror.

Matzav covers it all: the terror attacks and their victims, the army and its operations, the government and its decisions, the deteriorating economic situation, Israel’s international isolation.

“It’s a word that means heaviness,” Rosenthal said. “If a secondhand car is advertised as matzav tov” — in good condition — “that means it’s about to break down. Zeh hamatzav: This is the situation, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Zeh ma she’yesh” this is what there is — “and we have to make do with what we have.”

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