On Root / Political Signs of the Times

With elections fast approaching, the war of words between Israel's political parties is escalating.

With a scant month to go before elections, the campaigns are revving up and the slogans are flying. Israel is being papered over with party mottos and catchphrases praising their sponsors and lambasting their opponents. Sound bites have been reduced to nibbles with one- or two-word characterizations and castigations. But before we look at the slogans, let’s examine the “sign”-ificance of the word “slogan” itself.

"Slogan" in Hebrew is sisma, and like many of the words we recently explored regarding Hanukkah (discussed here two weeks ago), it is Greek in origin. The term, which first appeared in ancient Jewish literature (there meaning "signal"), comes from syssemon, meaning “bringing together signs.” "Sys-" (or "syn-"), means "bringing together," and semon means "signs," as in the English words "semantics," and "semiotics." The common, and more Hebrew-sounding, word siman, meaning, "sign," "mark" or "indication," has the same Greek derivation.

Slogans are meant to be pithy and catchy. While only some of them have a siman kri'ah, "exclamation point," their job is not to leave you with a siman she'elah, "question mark” about their meaning. Rather, to use an old Israeli expression, they try to “lehapil et ha-asimon,” "to make the asimon fall,” or in other words, “to convince you” or “to make you realize the truth.” The asimon was the slotted token with a hole used for public phones, retired a number of years ago in the wake of the growing ubiquity of cell phones and concomitant demise of payphones. Most youths today give you a blank look when you mention one, which is appropriate since the name means literally “no sign,” and originally meant a worn coin, blank or slug.

The left’s safe house

We'll begin with Meretz (for a parsing of this name, see here), which is the saman smoli, the "left-wing marker" of the "mainstream parties." (In Israel, any party known as an Arab party – even an explicitly joint Jewish-Arab party like Chadash – is ipso facto considered fringe by most of the public). They have raised the flag of the left with gusto, feeling that Labor has abandoned it to compete for the center against Kadima, Hatnuah, and Yesh Atid.

Meretz has two main slogans now. One is particularly clever, “Smolanim Habaytah!Smolanim are leftists, and habaytah is from the root b-y-t, "house" or "home," (discussed here) with a suffix that means "toward." So while it sounds like they're yelling at all those leftists "Go home!" in reality they are trying to cajole them, "Come [back] home!" to your natural party.

Their other slogan claims that a vote for Meretz is“Hakol habatuach shelcha neged Bibi,” "Your [only] safe vote against Bibi." Vote in Hebrew is kol, which also means "voice." (For batuach, "safe" or "sure," also related to bitachon "defense," and havtachot, "promises," see here.) They are trying to make the case to their people – who are united in their opposition to Netanyahu and his policies – that all the aforementioned centrist parties might enter into a coalition with Netanyahu, et al., thus selling out on progressive values.

The Bibi-all, end-all

Judging from the slogans of all the parties, Netanyahu is the Bibi-all, end-all of the campaign. Every party talks about him and refers to him on their signs and posters – and his Likud party hasn't even launched its campaign yet. For instance, Hatnuah and Labor have nearly identical campaigns comparing their own platforms to his policies. Hatnuah has dichotomous signs that say things like, “Bibi veLieberman – sakanah; Tzipitikvah,essentially saying, Likud Beitenu is a "danger," but Tsipi Livni promises "hope." It helps that "the hope" is the name of our national anthem (Hatikvah) and that the current president of the United States once ran on a ticket of "hope."

Another sign says, "Bibi will lead to ason, while Tsipi will bring shalom." Shalom needs no explanation – peace, wholeness, well being. An ason, on the other hand is a "disaster" or a "catastrophe," as in ason teva', "a natural disaster" (for "teva," not sandals or drugs, but "nature", see here). One can only guess what disaster(s) await us in Bibi's near-inevitable next term of office, according to Hatnuah. 

My favorite, at least linguistically, is "Bibi means balagan, while Tsipi is (or has) shikul da'at."This requires more explanation. Balagan is a solid Israeli slang word that means "mess," "confusion" or "turmoil." It is from the Persian balachane, meaning a wooden booth in a market, and by extension, the kind of disorderly cacophony created by merchants hawking wares. Shikul da'at, on the other hand, means something like "prudence" or "good judgment." Da'at is "knowledge," related to de'ah, "opinion," and shikul is connected to shekel, the coin of this realm, through the idea of weighing or balancing (see here) – thus "a balanced opinion."

From the Labor party, we have a single phrase so far: “Bibi tov la'ashirim, Sheli tova bishvilcha/bishvilech.” "Bibi is good for (or to) the rich; Sheli is good for you." (You, sing., masculine or feminine - the unpointed Hebrew orthography allows both until it is read aloud. For 'ashir, "rich" or "wealthy," see this discussion.)

The key term here, though, is the simple, yet productive word, tov, "good." Tov is the adjectival form, tuv, the noun, "goodness," and tiv, also a noun, more like "quality," "character" or "condition." In a more political vein, a tovah is a favor, and hatavot are "benefits" or "perks" – which have been the focus of most of the corruption trials in the last few years. It seems that when you are good to the rich, they are then good to you.

If these are sismot tovot, "good slogans," only the election results will tell. And if there is a siman tov, a good sign or portent, in this whole election, history will have to be the judge.

More slogans: Shas also uses Bibi et Lieberman, but in a different way. What they and some other parties are saying in their sloganeering, next week. Comments and questions here, or to: jeremybenstein@gmail.com.

Tomer Appelbaum