Translatable but Debatable — מחדל mekhdal

by Mark L. Levinson

The legal dictionary by Eliahu Moses defines mekhdal (מחדל) as “fault,” “laches,” “nonfeasance,” “omission,” or “oversight.” 

I’ve used the translation “nonfeasance” from time to time when I thought a document could benefit from the authoritative sound of an unusual word although “inaction” would carry the meaning well enough.  And “nonfeasance” sounds like a pretty despicable thing.  I think that even “feasance,” which merely means doing something, sounds kind of dodgy.

But “laches” is an even more unusual word.  Microsoft Word gives it the red “not in my dictionary” squiggle.  Merriam-Webster on line says that laches is “negligence in the observance of duty or opportunity” and “specifically: undue delay in asserting a legal right or privilege.”  When there’s an accusation of sexual harassment, for example, and the accused party says “But that was ages ago.  I can’t be expected, after all this time, to come up with witnesses and evidence,” it’s a laches defense.  The word can be pronounced like “latches,” or it can rhyme with “H’s.” 

The most famous use of the word mekhdal, though, refers to the Israeli government’s unreadiness for the Yom Kippur War. 

Martin Van Creveld‏, in The Sword And The Olive: A Critical History Of The Israeli Defense Force, writes that in fact “the term mechdal gave rise to a family of related terms such as mechdalnik (an officer who by virtue of his affiliation with the IDF was regarded as sharing responsibility for the mechdal) and  mechdalit (the car IDF officers drove).”

Yeshayahu Ben-Porat’s book about the Yom Kippur War, called HaMekhdal in Hebrew, was published in English translation under the title Kippur. English-language journalists and scholars never did come up with a thorough consensus on what to call the Mekhdal, and sometimes we see it transliterated from Hebrew and glossed in English.

  • Tzachi Hanegbi wrote in The Jerusalem Post: “That war gave birth to a concept that has accompanied us as an eternal shadow ever since – the mehdal, the enormous blunder. This one word encapsulated the public’s anger and disappointment over the unforgivable blindness that overtook the political and military leadership in October 1973.

  • Nicola Seu, in The Political Changes of the Israeli Politics after the Yom Kippur War, writes that Mehdal is the “Hebrew word for mistake used after the Yom Kippur war to describe the behavior of the government and of the army.”

  • Aviad Kleinberg, under the auspices of the Hudson Institute, refers to “what was seen as the defeat – the mehdal– the disaster of the ’73 war.”

  • Apparently Abba Eban used the Hebrew word while speaking in English, and Avi Shlaim supplies a translation while quoting him: “There is therefore a certain element of hypocrisy in the media writing about a Mechdal [Breakdown] after the ’73 War. If you look at the people who wrote about that afterwards, they nearly all were part of the majority chorus of exuberant self-confidence before the war.”

  • Ronald R. Krebs, in Narrative and the Making of US National Security, writes: “The initial stages of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973 were so disastrous that it came in Israel to be known as the mehdal – the failure – despite the subsequent operational triumphs.”  The dictionary is more specific, using the definition “failure (to do something).”  The problem in 1973 wasn’t a case of simply trying and failing, it was a case of not trying the right thing at the right time.

  • Alexander Zvielli, in The Jerusalem Post, wrote that Golda Meir is remembered by a later generation as “responsible for the “mehdal,” the Yom Kippur catastrophe, which ultimately became an Israeli victory, but at the cost of over 2,500 Jewish lives.”

  • A publication of the Israel Democracy Institute recalls that “a State Commission of Inquiry, chaired by Supreme Court president Supreme Court president Shimon Agranat, was appointed to examine the military and political decisions that led to what was referred to as the mehdal—the ‘fiasco.’

  • Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman phrase it differently in Spies Against Armageddon: “Prime Minister Meir reluctantly commissioned an official inquiry into the Yom Kippur War and the Mechdal, or ‘Neglect’— the instantly coined euphemism for the intelligence blunder that made the war a near-total surprise.”

  • Mordechai Gazit, in Israel and the Middle East, writes that if the Agranat Commission had inculpated Moshe Dayan, then “its message would have been clear and simple — that the Mehdal (blunder or fault) was entirely the army’s.”  I don’t know whether I ever saw the verb “inculpate” before, but obviously it’s the opposite of “exculpate”; and it’s in the dictionary.

  • John Maher, in a thesis for the University of London, wrote that “The Israelis, with the Agranat Commission of Enquiry after the Yom Kippur war, realised that the mechdal (Hebrew: ‘screw-up’) was largely inspired by a mixture of post-967 [sic] hubris on their part, arrogance and wishful thinking on the part of military intelligence.”

  • Ronald Rance in the Journal of Palestine Studies refers to “the Mehdal — the ‘oversight’ that had allowed Egypt and Syria to launch a completely unexpected attack.” Meyrav Wurmer in The National Review defines it as “great oversight.”

  • Sam Lehman-Wilzig, in Wildfire: Grassroots Revolts in Israel in the Post-Socialist Era, refers to “The mekhdal (debacle) of the Yom Kippur War.”

  • Michael Prior, in The Bible and Colonialism: A Moral Critique, uses the definition “culpable blunder.”

Colin Shindler writes in The Hebrew Republic: Israel's Return to History that “The mehdal (blunder) indicated a profound intelligence failure.”  Others would say that the intelligence failure wasn’t indicated by the Mekhdal, it was the Mekhdal.  Louis Rene Beres of Purdue refers to “A’man's (Military Intelligence Branch) failure to predict the Arab attack, a failure known in Israel's intelligence community as the Mechdal, a Hebrew term meaning ‘omission’, ‘nonperformance’ or ‘neglect’.”

Michel Warshawski is at least as expansive as Shindler. He writes in On the Border, as translated by Levi Laub, that the term “means both a grave error of judgment and the great crisis that follows it,” but I don’t think he’s right except insofar as any dramatic event, whether it’s the San Francisco Earthquake or the moon landing, gives its name to the rest of the story that plays out.

I think Ya’acov Levy’s Oxford definition comes closer. Its definitions include “sin of omission” and “foul-up.”  The Yom Kippur meaning is a kind of combination of those two.

Reverso provides “lapse,” quoting a Simpsons episode in which Principal Skinner is shocked by an outbreak of lice and says “What kind of parents would permit such a lapse in scalpal hygiene?” but the word lapse does need the explanatory context — a lapse in hygiene, a lapse in intelligence analysis, a lapse in something. The Oxford dictionary lists “defect” as well, another good word that can’t quite stand without explanation.

Reverso also provides the simple definition “error” and I think it may convey the meaning best, except that it’s too common a word.  It’s consistent with the fact that the authorities didn’t fail to take their responsibility seriously. They took their job seriously, but they were prey to a misconception (the Hebrew kontseptsia) and they misjudged and mishandled the situation. They underperformed.

I think that the word “negligence” covers the concept just right, except that when you say “the negligence” in English, the word doesn’t imply a specific case, it implies a continuing condition.  The language should have a noun suffix that means “a case of.”  Then instead of saying “I did something stupid,” you could say “I did a stupidcase.”  I’ve got to take that up with... well, there isn’t anybody, is there?

Having seen more than a dozen definitions of mekhdal, most of them specifically in connection with the Yom Kippur War, do you have anything to add?  If so, please use the space below. If there’s another word or phrase that you believe deserves a column, please write to me at . An index of words and phrases discussed so far is here.

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.