On Root / Haves and Have-nots on the Hebraic Campaign Trail

In the days before the election, Israel’s political parties are trying to get the last televised word in.

While television campaign ads aren’t as old as the paper ballots – printed with a Hebrew letter, or two or three – that came into being with the state, they may be outmoded sooner, thanks to the Internet and social media. But the tashdirei bechirot, “televised campaign ads” being aired the three major Israeli television channels every weeknight in the run-up to the January 22 elections, still manage to create air-waves.

A tashdir is a "broadcast," from sh-d-r, an old root meaning "send" (related to sh-g-r, "launch"), that has been pressed into modern service in the world of electronic media. A shadran, “TV or radio announcer or host,” is beshidur, when he or she is "on the air" – and beshidur chai, when it's a "live" broadcast. The clips however are all “pre-recorded,” muklatim.

Ranging from savvy to surreal and from clever to cliché – depending on the size of party, their media budgets, and their willingness to embrace the “nothing-to-lose-let’s-just-get-some-attention” ethos – they show a slice of political life that is hard to see anywhere else. So what are some of the messages that are being beamed out to the electorate?

Press star for racism

The Shas party has been responsible for the biggest waves so far this year. In a landscape dominated by talking heads and shopworn slogans, a little skit seemed like a breath of fresh air. The controversial ad depicts a short, bearded groom standing under the chuppah, or Jewish wedding canopy, with a tall, blond bride. The groom asks the bride why they received a fax machine – placed in front of the couple – as a present. In a thick Russian accent, she explains that she has but to call the conversion hotline to get her official certification of Jewishness.

In Israel, the button you press before dialing shortened telephone hotline numbers is the asterisk, called the kochavit, "little star," in Hebrew. The word for conversion is giyur (for giyur and ger, see here).

So the bride dials "kochavit giyur" and immediately, the fax comes through with her conversion papers. Panicked, the groom says: "Wait, you're not Jewish!?" "Now, I am!" she responds and leans over to kiss him. He turns away in shock and dismay.

The blatantly racist stereotypes and message of the spot were not lost on the public, nor on the Elections Commission, which banned its continued airing. The greater paradox however is that Shas basically controls state-sanctioned conversions, and if there is some problem with accessibility or legitimacy – they have only themselves to blame.

Something from nothing

Another Shas theme is their claim, "Anachnu bishvil eileh she-ein lahem," meaning, "We are [here] for those who don't have” (or perhaps, "those without") – i.e., the destitute and disadvantaged. For those who know basic Hebrew, this is a very simple sentence. But if Hebrew is Greek to you, this construction bears explanation.

Hebrew is what is known as a "non-habere" language: It doesn't have the verb "to have" (Latin, habere). How can it not have "have"? How then does one "have" anything – a headache, a job, a future? Are there no "haves" and "have-nots" in Israel?

The Hebrew uses the words yesh, "there is," and ein, "there is not.” The literal translation of the Hebrew for "I have," yesh li, is "there-is to-me," and ein li, "I don't have," literally means "there-is-not to-me." For instance, the name of Yair Lapid's party is Yesh Atid, "There is a Future." If it were Yesh Li Atid, that would mean "I Have a Future," a statement Lapid will test for himself in one short week.

Yesh and ein (or ayin) also mean "something" and "nothing," as in yesh me-ayin, "something from nothing," or "creation ex nihilo." Given the new revelations about the unexpectedly massive national deficit, that is about what it's going to take to provide basic welfare service for eileh she-ein lahem, those "have-nots" that Shas is so concerned about.

Keeping it real

Another use of the ubiquitous yesh is in the opening line of the ultra-orthodox Yahadut Hatorah party’s television campaign ad: Yesh 'reality' veyesh metziyut. To understand the joke here, you need to know both that loazit (foreign words) often acquire their own specialized meanings, and that the Hebrew metziyut literally means "reality." Metziyut is "what is," or "what is found," since it is from the root m-tz-aleph, "find."

This line then seems to mean: "There is reality, and [then] there is reality." But when used as a Hebrew term, "reality" means exclusively "reality TV shows." So Yahadut Hatorah, inexplicably reaching beyond their base to young hip Israelis who actually watch reality programming, is saying, "There is the so-called reality one sees on reality TV – wealth, glitz and hype – and then there's the real reality in Israeli society – more poverty, despair and exclusion." Their apparent hope of garnering socially progressive, non-Haredi votes with this type of message hardly seems metziyuti, "realistic."

Decapitalizing the capital

The award for the most "lyrical" campaign goes to the small, new Eretz Chadashah ("a New Country") party, whose theme is changing the system that favors the massive influence of the rich in politics and the media. Their five-word slogan, containing four rhyming words, is Hon shilton 'iton 'olam tachton, which means roughly: "[connections between] capital, government, the press, [equals] 'underworld' (i.e., organized crime)."

Hon is "capital' or "riches" with the Hebrew version of a long "o", somewhere between "hun" and "hone." Ba'alei hon, who might be called today "the 1 percent"- literally "masters of capital," possess the political clout that comes with massive economic resources and influence. One of the ways they wield this influence is directly in the corridors of power, i.e. the shilton, "government." From the root sh-l-t, and related to the Arabic word sultan, the shilton is headed by the shalit, "ruler." But when deals are cut and decisions are seemingly handed down from outside, it can feel like strings are being pulled from a distance, as if with a shalat rachok, "remote control."

Another channel of influence is in the realm of media and public opinion, through hishtaltut (hitpa'el form of sh-l-t, meaning to "gain control" or "take over") and monopolizing media franchises. When the several richest families own the 'itonim, "papers," the public doesn't always find out what it needs to know. 'Iton, "newspaper" is a modern neologism, from 'et, "time." The -on suffix gives us a form for all different sorts of periodicals: 'alon, "newsletter" ('aleh, "leaf," also as in leaflet); shavu'on, "weekly" (shavu'a, "week"); yarchon "monthly" (yerach, "month," related to yareach, "moon"), and more recent additions: mekomon, "local paper" (makom, "place," mekomi, "local"); chinamon, "free paper" (chinam, "free," "at no cost"), and tzehubon, "tabloid" (tzahov, "yellow," as in sensationalist journalism). All these and more make up the 'itonut, "the fifth estate," "journalism" or "the press."

The unholy alliance of all three in the opinion of the Eretz Chadashah party is equivalent to Mafia-style dealings, and is thus equivalent to 'olam tachton, literally "the underworld," or "organized crime." From the foregoing it may seem like tachton should be a sort of journal. But it really just means "below" or "under," just as tachtonim are "underwear," which you wear on your tachat, "behind." I think with that we've reached the tachtit, which is either "the subway," "the saucer" or “the very bottom.”

Next week: Elections will be behind us and a new government ahead (?), but with Tu Bishvat, the new year of the trees, coming up, a column called "On Root" just has to deal with some more "rooty" and fruity ideas and other arboreal expressions.

Comments and suggestions here, or to jeremybenstein@gmail.com.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Eliyahu Hershkovitz