That quote from an unnamed White House official has got everyone talking, and while the story has been a big deal in the United States, in Israel it's even bigger, with many news outlets dropping their other coverage to focus on U.S.-Israel relations — which have not been especially friendly amid Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s expansion of settlement activity in the West Bank and his building policies in Jerusalem.
For the Hebrew-language media, the story presented a special conundrum: How exactly do you translate the insult "chickens--t"?
English words are common in modern Hebrew, and many publications transliterated the word itself, before adding a description. Israel Hayom, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country, called it a "derogatory slang term, meaning coward." Haaretz's Hebrew edition translated it simply as "coward," though U.S. editor Chemi Shalev expanded on the word, which he called a "vulgar nickname."
Meanwhile, Yedioth Ahronoth published an entire article explaining the meaning of the phrase. The newspaper's Web site concluded that the term had come from World War II and was initially used to describe military bureaucracy. "Over the years, the phrase has lent more weight towards the chicken," the paper explains. "That is, a coward but with reinforcement. It emphasizes the pettiness of the coward."
As Ben Sales at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency noted, none of these words offered quite the right meaning. " 'Coward' is what you’d call someone before a duel," Sales notes. "'Chickens--t' is what you’d call someone before a bar fight."
Israel's English-language press didn't have the same problem and was able to use the English-language word. Writing in the English-language edition of Haaretz, Shalev used it to make a pun: "The chickenshit, if you’ll pardon the expression, has hit the fan." And some Israeli Twitter users began using the hashtag #ChickenS--tGate to let their thoughts be known on the subject, with some fiery responses.
Ultimately, the harsh language seems to have led to both outrage and despair. Many seemed concerned that U.S.-Israel relations could have plunged as low as this. "Truly a dismal state of affairs, with potentially dire repercussions — most especially for Israel, which needs the US far more (diplomatically, militarily, economically, existentially) than the US needs Israel," David Horovitz, the founding editor of the Times of Israel, wrote in an editorial. "Truly a fractured alliance." Other analysts, however, have suggested that the use of such a vulgar insult could lead people to rally around Netanyahu.
A number of Israeli politicians have publicly supported the prime minister. Gilad Erdan, a member of the security cabinet, gave an interview on radio in which he said it was ridiculous and sad that U.S. officials would use such offensive language when talking about a world leader. In a Facebook post, right-wing Economy Minister Naftali Bennett said that "Israel is stronger than all of its defamers" and urged the United States to reject "these gross comments."
Unusually, Netanyahu himself has addressed the remarks directly, "Despite all of the attacks I suffer, I will continue to defend our country," he said while opening a memorial ceremony in parliament on Wednesday. "I will continue to defend the citizens of Israel."
Meanwhile, the White House has distanced themselves from the insult.
"We think such comments are inappropriate and counter-productive," Alistair Baskey, Deputy Spokesperson for the White House's National Security Council, said to Haaretz, "Prime Minister Netanyahu and the president have forged an effective partnership, and consult closely and frequently, including earlier this month when the president hosted the Prime Minister in the Oval Office."
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this post.