Elections And Politics – Hebrew Style
By Dr. Jeremy Benstein
The Choosing People
Both the Israeli and American publics are going to the polls this month, to take part in that supreme ritual of democracy – elections. The word for “elections” in Hebrew is bechirot, from b-ch-r (בחר), “choose.” We are able to choose our representatives because politically we have zechut bechira (זכות בחירה), “the right to vote.” Some might argue that even more fundamental is the belief in bechira chofshit (בחירה חופשית), “free choice” (or “free will”).
While a mivchar (מבחר) is simply a “range” or “selection,” something nivchar (נבחר) is “chosen” or “select.” For example, the nivcharim (נבחרים) are “those chosen to represent,” for instance in Knesset; and a nivcheret (נבחרת) is an “all-star team” in sports.
In Israel, though, we vote for party lists, not individual candidates. This sounds more fun in English: it’s about parties! Here we have miflagot (מפלגות),“political parties,” from p-l-g (פלג), a root meaning “to divide, split.” The rabbis called the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) “Dor Hapelaga” (דור הפלגה), “the Generation of Division” (or divisiveness). In its own babbling way, with twenty-some-odd parties (and some are quite odd!) and the likes of Bibi and Benny, Yair and Yvet, Merav and Betzalel (and Ayman and Mansour), Israeli politics is indeed plagued by palganut (פלגנות), “disputes” and “divisions,” “fracas” and “fray.”
Affairs of city and state
But not all election related words are Hebrew in origin. For instance, the word “politics” itself, in Hebrew, politika (פּוֹלִיטִיקָה). Coming from the Greek for city, polis, it refers to running civic affairs. In Hebrew, it can appear in a number of forms: a politician is a politikai (פּוֹלִיטִיקָאִי), and if an issue or organization has become politicized, it has experienced politizatzia (פוליטיזציה). There was even once a political commentary television show called Popolitika (פופּוֹלִיטִיקָה), whose distinctive and very vociferous combination of politics and populism made it very, well, popular.
Another Greek contribution is demokratya (דֵמוֹקרָטִיָה). There is no single Hebrew word that means democracy, though it is usually defined or glossed as shilton ha’am (שלטות העם), “the rule of the people” (as in the Greek roots: demos, “people,” kratos, “rule”). Here, too, we see a variety of forms: there are states which are demokratyot (דמוקרטיות)(plural), and others undergoing demokratizatziya (דמוקרטיזציה).
In elections, the parties struggle for every seat in the Knesset, known as mandatim (מנדטים). This time from the Latin, a mandate is a commission or authorization (from manus and datum, “given over into the hand”), and elegantly expresses the idea of representative democracy – demokratya yitzugit (דמוקרטיה ייצוגית)– that the MKs are there because we sent them there: they are emissaries on our behalf.
Let’s make a (democratic) deal
Sometimes in order to wangle a place on a party list that is considered reali, that is, “realistic,” or likely to get in, a politician will need to wheel and deal, finagle or otherwise coax and cajole his – or her – way there. This may involve a promise of quid-pro-quo arrangements known in Hebrew as dilim (דילים) (“deals”). Though it’s all part of playing the political game, the shadier dilim may be, or become, quite scandalous. These are two more loan words you may be likely to read on the op-ed pages: intrigot (אִינְטרִיגות) and skandalim (סקנדלים). Even though skandal has a lovely Hebrew equivalent – sha’aruryah (שַׁעֲרוּרִיָה) – it has not been completely replaced.
Unite and rule
The ruling coalition of parties who form the government is called – what else? – the koalitziya (קוֹאָלִיצִיָה). Those not in the koalitziya from the opozitziya (קוֹאָלִיצִיָה), the opposition (whether loyal or not). These are examples of words for which the Hebrew Language Academy has proposed Hebrew equivalents, but which simply have not stuck. Impress your Israeli friends with the words yachdah (יחדה) and negdah (נגדה) which are the official Hebrew terms for “coalition” and “opposition,” respectively, from y-ch-d (יחד), “together” (see here), and n-g-d (נגד) “against, opposed.”
But despite all this, there’s more Hebrew than not in political palaver. The main ancient political institution that the State of Israel revived with its founding is the Knesset, taking its name from “the Great Assembly” (k-n-s (כנס)– “assemble”) of the first return to Zion from Persian times almost 2500 years ago. For a discussion of “Knesset” and related words, see here.
Going behind the curtain
To insure privacy in the voting process, we go into a booth behind a curtain, which is called a pargod (פַּרגוֹד). Coming into Hebrew from Greek back in Talmudic times, the pargod was a sort of metaphysical partition between humans and the deity, and hearing something from meachorei hapargod (מאחורי נפרגוד), “behind the curtain” (or screen) meant eavesdropping on God, hearing something from the heavenly sphere. More recently (1969-2005), the word began referring to a more theatrical curtain – for example, the Pargod club was an edgy fringe theater and jazz nightclub in Jerusalem.
But the cultic association continues in the voting process. While behind the curtain, we take one of the many slips of paper, representing the different parties, put it into an envelope and slip it into a slot of a big box – which is the kalpi (קַלפֵּי) (or kalfi). Also a Greek term from the rabbinic period, kalpi originally meant an urn for drawing lots, such as the lots to decide the fate of the two goat sacrifices on Yom Kippur. One was to be sacrificed on the altar, the other driven out to a place called Azazel (which has since become an epithet for “hell,” as in “go to…”) – becoming the original “scape-goat”. So, where our forebears removed slips of paper from the kalpi, we put ours in, but perhaps the result – choosing a scapegoat – isn’t all that different…
The some of its parts
Once the process is complete, the votes are tallied, and the mandatim are apportioned. The head of the party with the best chance of creating a coalition (usually the biggest party) will be approached by President Herzog, the nasi (נָשִׂיא) (another Biblical word) to engage in harkavat hamemshalah (הרכבת הממשלה), the process of “forming the government,” literally assembling it, using the same verb as putting together a puzzle.
The classical associations continue, for this is often known in the press as ma’aseh merkavah (מעשי המרכבה), meaning “the act of assembly,” but referencing a Jewish mystical concept meaning something like “the works of the chariot.” This is a theosophical doctrine, also stemming from the rabbinic period, based on Ezekiel’s vision of the divine throne or chariot (Ezekiel 1). Because this is indeed a complex mystical idea, colloquially, it has also come to mean “no easy feat.”
And indeed translating the will of the people (or the range of wills of the range of voters) and coming up with a group of people who can govern the country is exactly that.