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The Language of Protest – Accessing Insight Through the Hebrew Language

by Dr. Jeremy Benstein

Trying to follow the ups and downs of Israeli politics is hard enough at the best of times. And these are hardly the best of times. The rift in the nation is deep, pitting supporters of the democratically elected government and its projected legislation to redress perceived imbalances, against opponents who see that legislation as changing some very basic rules of the game thus making Israel a demonstrably less democratic society. My task here is not to adjudicate this dispute (though, like most Israelis, I do have strong opinions on the topic); readers who want explicit political punditry are directed to the news sources of their choice.

Rather, I would like to explore some particular Hebrew terms in the current political discourse that may shed some light on the nuances of recent developments. Of the many reasons for acquiring familiarity with Hebrew, one main one is to try to gain more insight into Israeli life and culture than is normally afforded by exclusively English-language media. For instance, the differences between the two sides are apparent from the get-go, i.e., the words each camp uses regarding what’s going on. The government claims it is promoting a רפורמה משפטית reformah mishpatit, “a legal reform” (from משפט mishpat, law). This indeed sounds innocent enough, and quite legal and on the up-and-up. But in the eyes of the millions who oppose the government plan, this is nothing less than a הפיכה משטרית hafichah mishtarit – משטר mishtar meaning “regime” and הפיכה haficha, meaning “coup”, from ה-פ-כ h-f-ch, reverse, or backwards (see here for more on that Hebrew root in politics and elsewhere).

Perhaps ironically, the two main words that are seen on t-shirts and signs, and heard at demonstrations and government press conferences, are actually not (originally) Hebrew at all: דמוקרטיה demokratiya and דיקטטורה diktatura, words which need no translation. One could claim that since the terms are non-Hebrew, the ideas themselves are foreign as well. However, the idea of the limited will of the majority with safeguards for the rights of the weak is well-established in Jewish tradition (see e.g. Ex 23:2). There is a (modern) Hebrew word for dictatorship (רודנות, rodanut, רודן, rodan, “dictator”, from the Biblical root ר-ד-ה, r-d-h, “rule over,” see e.g. Gen 1:28 and Lev 25:53), though it is less used in common parlance. And Eliezer Ben Yehudah himself proposed a new coinage to replace democracy, עַמּוֹנוּת amonut (from עם, ‘am, “people”), but it never made it out of the starting gate.

Here are a few more key terms to help parse the debate:

רוב – מיעוטRov, “majority” from the root ר-ב-ב, r-b-b, as in הרבה, harbeh, “many, a lot.” This is what the coalition (קואליציה, koalitziya) claims they have, since they do, after all, hold 64 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset (53%). However, protesters and members of the opposition (אופוזיציה, oppozitziya), by definition in the מיעוט, mi’ut, “minority” (from מ-ע-ט, m-‘-t, “few, a little”) point out that the proposed reforms were not central planks in the parties in the coalition (and the ruling Likud party, with only 32 seats is not a majority in its own coalition), and currently polls show a clear majority of  the Israeli public oppose the controversial legislation.

In brief, the main issue under discussion is a proposed change in the balance of power between the judiciary (הרשות השופטת, hareshut hashofetet, literally – “the judging authority”) and the executive/legislative branches (הרשות המבצעת והרשות המחוקקת, hamevatza’at vehamechokeket) , giving more power to the latter, and reducing the scope of judicial review (among many other things, including changing the selection process of judges, the question of legal oversight in government ministries, and more). Confronting these proposals have made these last six months quite a civics lesson for many Israelis, for it gets to the heart of what a democratic society is. In response to claims of government supporters that it is the protests themselves that are undemocratic (since the government was elected it has a right, and a duty, to govern as it sees fit – majority rule – the רוב, rov), the protesters emphasize that a democracy is the rule of the majority coupled with strong safeguards that protect the rights of the minority (מיעוט, mi’ut), to prevent the rule of the majority from becoming a dictatorship of the majority. The claim is that for Israel with no constitution or bill of rights (as in the US), or long tradition of a democratic culture (as in the UK), a strong and independent judiciary is the only thing standing in the way of an ideological government – whether right-wing or left-wing – from enacting legislation that might infringe on basic rights. The word for rights is זכויות, zechuyot, as in זכויות אזרח, zechuyot ezrach, “civil rights” and זכויות אדם, zechuyot adam, “human rights.” An interesting curiosity is that zechut also means “privilege” which is almost the opposite of a right, making it a contranym, a word that means a thing and its opposite, like “sanction” or “cleave.”

סבירות sevirut, “reasonableness.” This seemingly innocuous idea is the basis of the first piece of government legislation: preventing the courts from using “reasonableness” as a criterion for adjudicating issues like government policies or appointments. But what could be unreasonable, or objectionable about reasonableness?

First the word. If something is סביר savir, it is reasonable, makes sense. This root has many expressions in Hebrew, both ancient and modern:להסביר , lehasbir, “explain” (make understandable), הסברה, hasbara, Israeli governmental PR (“explanation” in the sense of “making the case for”), סבירות, svirut, “likelihood,” and also, traditionally, סברה, sevara, a (talmudic) claim or opinion, and סברי, savri, as in סברי מרנן, savri maranan, “with the gentlemen’s permission,” asked before making a public blessing over wine.

Traditionally, the Supreme court has used עילת הסבירות, ‘ilat hasvirut, the reasonability clause, to evaluate whether the government or its several ministries are being, well, reasonable. But given the less than precise definition of this term, the government’s claim is that the gut sense of reasonableness of a group of unelected officials, such as judges, should not take precedence over the sense of the democratically elected parliament. The opposition’s response is that this is what checks and balances (איזונים ובלמים, izunim ublamim) between the branches is all about, and the greater the majority, the greater the temptation to wield power in all sorts of fundamentally self-serving ways, if there is no one to stop them. Which would be, in a word, unreasonable.

There is of course much more that can be said and explored, both linguistically and politically. I will conclude with a section of Israel’s מגילת העצמאות, megillat ha’atzma-ut, Declaration of Independence. The Hebrew word for independence, עצמאות, ‘atzma-ut, from a root ע-צ-מ, ‘-tz’m, meaning “strength” and also “self” was coined by Eliezer Ben Yehudah’s son, Itamar Ben Avi. The fact that the word עצם, ‘etzem, also means “bone,” alludes to Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones (Ch. 37) as a prophecy of revival and return. Like the flag, the Declaration is used by the protesters to express their values. But also like the flag – can’t we all identify with what is written here?

מתוך מגילת העצמאות – מדינת ישראל…תשקוד על פיתוח הארץ לטובת כל תושביה; תהא מושתתה על יסודות החירות, הצדק והשלום לאור חזונם של נביאי ישראל; תקיים שויון זכויו​ת חברתי ומדיני גמור לכל אזרחיה בלי הבדל דת, גזע ומין; תבטיח חופש דת, מצפון, לשון, חינוך ותרבות...

From the Declaration of Independence  – THE STATE OF ISRAEL … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture….

At the very least, words like חירות, cherut, “freedom,” צדק, tzedek, “justice,” שלום, shalom, “peace,” שויון, shivyon, “equality,” and חופש, chofesh, (more) “freedom,” are good words to add to our vocabulary.


Dr. Jeremy Benstein is a senior consultant at HATC and author of Hebrew Roots, Jewish Routes: A Tribal Language in a Global World, (Behrman, 2019).

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