On Root / Smoke, Mirrors and Election Slogans

As elections draw closer, parties bend over backward - in so many words - to distinguish themselves from their rivals.

It's the last day of 2012, and there are three weeks to go in the countdown to national elections. Last week we discussed the slogans of parties on the center and left. For all of them, it was some version of "Us against Them," or more accurately, "Us against Him," with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose political future now hangs in the balance) being the significant Other.

But it seems that sharpening the contrast with Bibi and the Likud Beitenu party, or criticism of them, is not limited to those to the left of him on the political spectrum. For instance, Shas, the religious party (see here for an explanation of the name) seen as being particularly representative of Mizrahim, Jews from Arab countries, also featured Bibi and Lieberman prominently on their placards. But they almost certainly support a Likud-led coalition, and their depictions of Bibi are more flattering than those created by the Labor and Hatnuah parties. Their approach seemed to say, "We know that you, our potential voters, want Bibi as prime minister. And of course he will be. But we'll tell you why you should vote Shas, to strengthen the values you want to see in his government."

Strong for the right reasons

For instance, one Shas slogan is, Rak Shas chazakah tidag lachalashim, meaning, "Only a strong Shas will take care of (lit. "worry about") the weak." There's a nice rhetorical contrast there between a Shas which is chazakah, "strong," and their concern for the chalashim, "weak" of society. This phrase captions a photo of a smiling Netanyahu, the implication being of course that a strong Bibi is also good, but he really only cares about the chazakim, the powerful and influential in society. Shas, on the other hand, is selling itself here as representing the correct mix of political right-wing and socially-minded values, that is, as being more economically progressive than Likud.

Moreover, a big Shas constituency is the newly observant, or those who have become more strictly religious in their beliefs and lifestyles. They are known colloquially as mitchazkim, which is the hitpa'el form ("to become" something, discussed here) of ch-z-k, "strong," thus those "becoming stronger" in their Jewish allegiances. This echoes a phrase declaimed at the end of the reading of each of the Five Books of the Torah:chazak, chazak, venitchazek: "[Be] strong, strong, and we shall be strengthened," based on the battle cry of King David's general Yoav (II Sam 10:12).

A Shas of Prevention

This leads us to Shas's other big slogan: Rak shas chazakah timna' hitbolelut, "Only a strong Shas can prevent assimilation." This one is accompanied by a picture of a pre-indictment Avigdor Lieberman, amazingly wearing a skullcap! Since Lieberman is the epitome of the secular Russian politico, portraying him wearing a religious head-covering is tantamount to showing their Rabbi Aryeh Deri with a crucifix. Here the message, while not subtle, is complex, and can be unpacked thus: "Okay, Bibi, we know you merged with the ultra-secular Lieberman, possibly even lehach'is, to anger or spite us (from k-'ayin-s, "anger"). But we'll show you, and him – a strong Shas in your government will keep the commitment to religious values and policies strong and prevent rampant secularization and collective assimilation!"

This slogan gives us two good words to explore. Hitbolelut is the noun of the hitpa'el form of the root b-l-l, which means "mix" or "mix up." A blil is a mixture (or batter, like for a cake, also blilah), and a doubled form of the core of the root, b-l-b-l, gives us bilbul, "confusion." So lehitbolel, "to become assimilated," is to get mixed up or absorbed in something larger, and thus to lose one's particular identity. But don't get it confused with lehitbalbel, which is, actually "to become confused."

Variations on the root b-l-l figure prominently in that great Biblical paean to multiculturalism, the origin story of cultural and linguistic difference, the tale of the Tower of Babel. The word "Babel" is itself a play on the root's sound.

The other significant word in that slogan is limno'a, "to prevent." Words from this root, m-n-'ayin, include makat mena’, “a pre-emptive strike,” bilti-nimna', "un-preventable," that is "inevitable", tzav meni’áh, “court-ordered injunction,” and emtza'ei meni'áh, "means of contraception" (yes, that sort of prevention).

But don't confuse meni'áh (ultimate stress, on the last syllable) with mení'a (penultimate stress, on the next-to-last syllable), which means almost the opposite of "prevent" – "motive," or "driver" (related to mano'a, "engine"). This word is from the root n-u-'ayin, meaning "move", as in tnu'ah, movement, the name of Tsipi Livni's party (see here for a discussion of that root and term).

Rights and Wrongs

The last slogan for this week is that of a new party called Otzmah Leyisrael, which means "power," "strength" or "force" "to Israel." (For more on 'otzmah, a synonym of chozek and a linguistic relative of ma'atzamah, "superpower," and 'atzmaut, "independence," see here.) An extreme right wing party, much of whose platform is frankly supremacist and xenophobic, its main message to the Israeli Arab public is, bli chovot, 'ein zechuyot, "without duties (or obligations), there are no rights." The meaning is straightforward: If you don't swear complete allegiance to the Jewish state, demonstrate unquestioned loyalty and fulfill all civic obligations, such as serving in the army, don't expect the basic democratic rights of citizenship that accrue by law to any other citizen. (The word chova, with its different connotations, was discussed here.)

The word zechut in this context is interesting, since it can mean two things that are seen as very different in English. If something is yours by right, you mean exactly the opposite of it being granted as a privilege. Yet zechut means both those things: You can say that introducing a distinguished speaker, say, is a great zechut, "privilege," just as you can say that some well-deserved honor is yours bezechut, velo bechesed, "by right, and not from grace (or benevolence)." Historically it meant "acquittal" in a court case or "favor" and is common in expressions from rabbinic times such as zechut avot, "the merit of the fathers," or ladun lechaf zechut, "to judge favorably" ("give someone the benefit of the doubt").

Israeli Arabs are rarely judged in that way, but are instead often thought guilty until proven zakai, "innocent." Moreover, basic rights such as equality in resource allocation and representation in decision-making bodies are indeed treated as privileges to be granted or withheld at will. But citizenship is indeed something that should belong to the citizen bezechut velo bechesed, not dependent on some politically loaded quid pro quo.

Now there's a slogan. One can only hope that other parties will adopt it.

More election elocutions, party palaver and political punditry coming up next week. Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com