On Root / The Political Name Game

The names of Israel’s political parties range from bizarre to banal, but what’s in a name anyway?

Consider the names of the various political parties running in the upcoming Israeli elections. Some of them are downright bizarre. This is especially true of many of the smaller parties that have little or no chance of getting in.

Take, for example, Kulanu Chaverim Nanach. The first two words mean, "We are all friends" (or "members" – see here for the root ch-v-r), while the last one is part of the “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me'uman” incantation, which refers to the 18th century Hassidic Rebbe of Breslov, Rabbi Nachman. The tiny religious party’s platform includes faith, security, joy, peace and unity – hard to argue with that.

Or how about Mifleget Hapiratim, "The Pirate Party"? Miflagah is "party" and mifleget is "the party of"(see here for that root). Pirat (pronounced pee-raht) is used in Hebrew, as in English, to refer not only to skullduggery on the high seas, but also to "appropriating" software and digital material without proper licensing. So these piratim don't wear eye-patches, have parrots on their shoulders or say "arrrgh" a lot – they are the Israeli branch of the radically democratic international movement working for more open access to the Internet and intellectual property.

There are many other choice examples, since there are 34 separate lists running for Knesset this time. Mifleget Kalkalah is "The Economics Party” (for this root, k-l-k-l, see here). While it's nice to focus on important single issues – it may indeed be “the economy, stupid,” as former U.S. President Bill Clinton was wont to say – the party’s platforms sounds more like an academic discipline than a political agenda. I for one would love to see a linguistics or anthropology party.

But economics is a broad platform compared to those of some other Israeli political parties. For instance, there is the veteran 'Aleh Yarok, "Green Leaf," party, a perennial (literally) also-ran. What’s their issue? They want to legalize marijuana and probably promote a little peace, joy, love and unity as well.

A rose by any other name

Perhaps it's not fair to take as examples the smallest fringe parties. But larger parties, too, sometimes have names that are a little strange. Here, though, the issue is not being too "colorful" or specific but the opposite. Many of the names are so generic as to be completely nondescript.

To be fair, this is true of political or military campaigns everywhere. For instance, World War II was fought between the Allies and the Axis powers – both names that simply refer to a coalition and only have different connotations in retrospect. It is the same with the opposing sides in the American Civil War: the Union and the Confederacy. And if there were ever a serious semantic rift paralleling the political one between the American Democrats and Republicans – both of which, of course, favor a democratic republic – it is lost in the mists of time.

Similarly, in Israel, the Likud party’s name simply means "conglomeration" or "amalgamation" since it is a melding of smaller historic parties. It comes from the root l-k-d, which means "bond" or "catch." A malkodet is a trap, but we won't stoop to using that for any critical commentary here. Of course, since this time around Likud has joined forces with recently resigned Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s' Yisrael Beitenu, "Israel Our Home" (for the root bayit, “house” or “home,” see here), the pairing is being called Likud Beitenu – much less generic. But it is hard to know how Lieberman feels about being part of something called "Likud Is Our Home."

On the other hand, the historic archrival of Likud is Mifleget Ha-'avodah, The Labor Party (for 'avodah, “work” or “labor,” see here). Now there's a name with a message. The problem is that though Labor is a strong "brand," it has little to do with the actual party these days. Historically the Labor Party did aim to represent proletarians and their interests. But despite the best efforts of its leader, Shelly Yacimovich, to reverse the direction of her plutocratic predecessors, such as Ehud Barak, and put the "social" back in "social democratic," the connection between Labor's platform and the working class remains slim at best.

So sometimes it's problematic to choose a name that actually commits you to values or policies. This may be why leading, particularly centrist, parties have lately chosen almost meaningless milquetoast names that allow them to waffle and spin, or at least remain in the broad center, without limiting themselves with something as mundane as an ideology. The most prominent of the current parties to do this was of course Kadima, literally "Forward," i.e., not right or left – just forward (for the root k-d-m see here).

Tzipi Livni broke off from Kadima, which she joined after leaving Likud, and formed a new party, called simply Hatnuah, "The Movement" (for this word, and the root n-v-'ayin, see here). Not that I have anything against Tzipi Livni, but it's hard to imagine a more vague, directionless title. At least Kadima refers to some sort of progress. Where is the Movement going, exactly?

Actually, maybe there is some competition for equivocation after all. Yair Lapid's new party is called simply Yesh Atid, "There is a Future."  Well, duh. Granted, this is meant to be a response to widespread cynicism and despair, but it still sounds a tad banal, since the burning question is: What sort of future?

Short on specifics

While Hebrew, both classical and modern, has a strong affinity for acronyms, there is surprisingly little "aleph-bet soup" in the party names department. Among parties likely to pass the qualifying threshold percentage (see here for an explanation of that) and actually get into the Knesset, the main ones that go by initials are Chadash, Balad and Shas. Chadash is the joint Jewish-Arab Communist party, whose name means "new” and stands for Hachazit Hademokratit Leshalom Uleshivyon, "The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality." Balad, the Arab nationalist party, is the Brit Leumit Demokratit, which they translate as "The National Democratic Assembly," though brit literally means, "covenant" or "compact."

The religious party focusing on Mizrahi Jews, Shas is written as an acronym, though the party’s full name is Hitachdut Hasefaradim Haolamit Shomrei Torah, "The Worldwide Union of Sephardic Torah Observers." Shas is a well-known religious abbreviation, for shishah sedarim, the "six orders," of the Mishnah, and also a term that refers to the printed Talmud. If you were part of the daf yomi project, which involves doing a "daily page" of Talmud study, after seven and a half years, you would finish the entire Talmud and celebrate Siyum Hashas, the completion of all six orders from beginning to end.

The leading mainstream left-wing party, Meretz, is widely thought to be an acronym, but it actually isn't. Meretz represents a merger between historic socialist Mapam (this one is an acronym for Mifleget Hapoalim Hameuchedet, "The United Worker's Party") and Ratz, Hatenu'ah Lezechuyot Haezrach, "The Citizens’ Rights Party" (ratz is just "run" and doesn't stand for anything). With the "m" from Mapam, and the "r-tz" from Ratz, though, meretz means "vigor" or "energy," and we're back to positive words without much ideology. The Meretz party can't be accused of lacking vision, though. In the 1990s, when Rabin was running for prime minister, Meretz's campaign slogan promised to mamritz a Labor government – means both "energize" it, and make it more "Meretz-y", i.e., left-wing.

We have looked at the names of about 13 parties, less than half the number that are running – some strange, some familiar, some just bland. What's in a name, and will this aspect of the parties' images impact their electoral chances? We'll know in a few short weeks.

From names to slogans: Next week we'll finish the discussion of party names and look at a few choice jingles, buzz words and sound bites that the parties are pushing. Comments and questions here, or to: jeremybenstein@gmail.com.

AP