U.S. Presidential Hopefuls Use Hebrew to Woo Jewish Voters

Campaign propaganda geared toward both Jewish voters in U.S. and the 250,000 Americans living in Israel.

Political campaign buttons in Hebrew are a popular way to woo Jewish votes - but sometimes things get lost (or added) in translation. When Democrat John Kerry ran for president in 2004, his transliterated name appeared on thousands of buttons, stickers and coffee mugs. To the amusement of those familiar with Talmudic Hebrew, "keri" in its phonetic spelling means a seminal discharge.

"I never heard of that, and I am a Republican," laughed Kory Bardash, the head of the party's Israel branch. Yet he doesn't shy away from fooling with candidates' names to get his message across. For the current campaign, he thought of a pun that weaves the Hebrew words for yes and no in John McCain's and Barack Obama's names, respectively ("McKen, "Lo-bama").

Campaign propaganda in Hebrew aims not only at Jewish voters in the U.S., but also at the 250,000 Americans living in Israel, Bardash said. The chairwoman of Democrats Abroad Israel, Joanne Yaron, said her group couldn't afford to distribute its own campaign material.

Barack Obama, however, sells 2.25-inch-large Hebrew campaign buttons on his official Web site (one for $3, two for $5), Yaron pointed out. So far, his Republican opponent only offers buttons in English ("Jewish Americans for McCain").

The idea of using Hebrew letters to influence Jewish voters is not new. In fact, it has been around since the beginning of the twentieth century, said Brian Krapf, an Orthodox Jew and the president of American Political Items Collectors. "This corresponds with the great immigration of Jews from Europe. Basically, they say the same as their English counterparts."

The history of the political button started in 1789. Metal clothing buttons were made to commemorate George Washington's election. Today's small, round pin-back buttons were first used in the 1896 presidential campaign. "A company named Whitehead and Hoag made the first buttons," Krapf said, "realizing that they could mass produce a candidate's image very inexpensively on a small item that people could pick up and wear." Just four years later, buttons written in Yiddish with Hebrew letters were circulated.

Yet, the political significance of campaign buttons has declined sharply over the decades. Most buttons made for recent campaigns have been produced with collectors in mind; they have become much less important for a candidate's success, according to American Political Items Collectors secretary Harvey Goldberg. "A campaign, especially a nationwide presidential campaign, can reach infinitely larger numbers of voters with a series of television commercials than thousands of people wearing buttons," he said. This is even more true in the age of Facebook and Internet-based campaigns.

Some Jewish-themed political items are extremely precious: just last month a button was auctioned off for $21,000. The piece is small and rather plain - "Eddie's Friend: Truman in '48" is all it says - but it is loaded with "tremendous historical significance," Krapf explained. "'Eddie' refers to Truman's friend, Eddie Jacobson, who sat down at his kitchen table and wrote the president a handwritten letter, discussing why Truman should support the formation of the state of Israel. Thus, Eddie's friends were American Jews who were appreciative of Truman's efforts."

However, the most valuable pieces are not necessarily the oldest ones. Usually, collectors pay between $5 and $300 per article, said Krapf, who lives in Savannah, Georgia, and has been interested in political items since he was 10. His private collection includes an assortment of pre-1948 buttons advocating Jewish causes and a Hebrew Winston Churchill poster from World War II, which was used to recruit for the Jewish Brigade in Palestine.

Until 1964, buttons were officially sanctioned by the campaigns. Since then, more and more vendors started producing their owns buttons and offering them for sale. Items not sanctioned by the campaigns can sometimes be more creative and colorful than the originals, but will not be as highly rated among collectors.

Some political items are created by people who can't even vote in the United States. Obama supporter Shahar Golan, of Rehovot, crafted a poster with the Hebrew translation of the slogan "Change we can believe in." After a smear campaign tried denouncing the Illinois senator as a Muslim, Golan felt he had to publicly declare his support for "Baruch Obama," as he calls him. "As a born and bred Israeli, my interest in the U.S. elections is mainly because American presidents tend to influence the entire world," the 31-year-old photographer and graphic designer said. "And since I cannot vote myself I create graphics that hopefully might call attention to a candidate worth voting for." Currently, Golan is working on a new poster featuring a Hebrew version of Obama's "Yes we can" slogan.

Golan knows that translations can be tricky. On his blog, he elaborated on his choice of words. "Translating 'Change we can believe in' proved to be somewhat of a challenge," he muses, "as the Hebrew word for 'we can' (nuchal) is the exact one for 'crook' (nochel)." Not wanting to repeat past mistakes, he added that "even a hint of such subliminal connections can be bad."

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