In Israel, there’s no such word as “bully”
The limits of our language, according to Wittgenstein, are the limits of our world. If we do not have the words for something, we find it much harder to conceive of it. Astute googling reveals all kinds of language omissions: American Indians have no word for “religion”; Tibetans have no word for “guilt”; and Russians have no word for “privacy”. I am sure that philosophers and cultural commentators have written reams on what these language omissions say about American Indian, Tibetan, and Russian culture.
I got thinking about this last week, when I discovered that Hebrew has no word for “bully”.
One of my children was the victim of a bullying incident at school, and that, through a series of emails and conversations with his teacher, led me to the discovery. In Hebrew, it was extraordinarily difficult to describe what was really going on. We were using words like alimut (violence), korban (victim), meitzik (harass), ba’ayati (problematic)… but the word “bully” has a semantic range in English that makes it very clear what is being described, who is the guilty party, and what steps should be taken to rectify the incident. Speaking in Hebrew, without the benefit of that word, prevented me from saying what I needed to say: that kid is a bully.
How can this be? Israel is full of bullies. You see them every day on the road, driving their cars aggressively. You see them in government ministries, enjoying making people’s lives that little bit harder. You see them at the Kotel, using their political power to intimidate those in weaker positions.
But my biggest fear is that, while I see bullies all the time, I don’t know the half of it. My guess is that most of the bullying in this country goes on between Jews and non-Jews: soldiers bullying Palestinians at checkpoints; Jewish residents bullying Arabs in Bat Yam; politicians, businessmen, and bureaucrats bullying foreign workers.
Bullying is not the same as being violent or aggressive. It’s not the same as hitting or teasing or using verbal threats. It’s not the same as being discriminatory. It usually involves a combination of all of the above, but its particular twist is that the bully seeks to make up for his or her own lack of self-esteem by putting down, dehumanizing, and eliminating empathy for the bullied party.
My son will be fine; the situation is working itself out. But it saddens me that Israel has become a country of bullies. Perhaps one important step towards rectifying the problem is to name the problem. Hebrew needs a word for bully. And when we have a word for a bully, maybe then we can start to figure out how to stop so many Israelis from becoming one.