On Root / This Means War

All's fair in politics and war, and often the same vocabulary applies.

In last week's column focusing on the reshimot, or lists, that characterize Israeli party politics, we used the term "enter the lists," an old English term meaning "to enter into battle," or in other words, "to join the fray."

It was timely: Last week, the two biggest parties in the United States fielded their champions in the democratic version of single combat, in the climactic confrontation of a long and arduous campaign, to determine who would emerge victorious.

In Israel, though, politics are more like group warfare, with dozens of lists of candidates vying for public support.

There are many aspects about politics that are reminiscent of war, including much of the vocabulary. Ballots may have replaced bullets, and armored tanks have made way for think tanks, but campaigns are still strategized and waged, just like battles. Candidates drum up funds for their war chests, and maps with pushpins delineate friendly and enemy regions to mark out plans of attack.

The similarities get even more interesting in Hebrew.

Armored chairs

The big news from the Labor Party this past week was that their central committee approved party head Shelly Yacimovich's proposal not to reserve slots on the party list in advance. This practice is known as shiryun, from the word shiryon, meaning armor. On the one hand, we have the armored division of the army, cheyl hashiryon, and on the other, parties undemocratically "fortifying" their list for individuals with particular perks and privileges, or representatives of various sectors.

This word is also used in everyday speech when you want somebody to "save the date" for a special event – you will ask them lesharyen et hayom ("to set aside the day"), and they will confirm by saying "shiryanti oto," "I have reserved it."

In politics, though, this practice is of course problematic, giving preference to individuals or groups over the perceived will of the constituents – otherwise why would they need to reserve them spots?

The system also makes a great incentive for all sorts of backroom deals, in Hebrew called dilim ("deals") and kombinot (lit. "combinations"). Those words will be addressed in a future column devoted to loazit, foreign words in Israeli political parlance, including koalitziya (no, not government by cute Australian bears), opozitziyah, and others.

Blocs, blocks and blockades

I have many colleagues who are active in a particular party (which shall remain nameless) which failed to get into the last Knesset, and will be trying again this year.

What does that mean in practice? Last time, they did not receive the minimal number of votes, and so did not pass "the qualifying threshold percentage," achuz hachasimah.

Brief explanation: There are 120 seats in the Knesset. Therefore, technically, each seat represents 0.8 percent of the vote. In order to discourage tiny fly-by-night parties, the Knesset set the minimum share of the vote a party needs to get elected at 2 percent (up from an original 1 percent). So for instance, in the last elections (2009) there were 3.37 million votes cast – making one seat (a mandat, from "mandate") worth around 27,000 seats. But the minimum needed to get into the Knesset in the first place was about 67,500 votes – that is the minimum qualifying percentage. Out of the 33 parties that fielded candidates, 12 indeed passed this threshold, and 21 did not.

One of the implications of hordes of people voting for a full 21 parties that don't even make the cut is that more than 103,000 votes – almost four Knesset seats worth! – end up not counting for anyone. This should serve as a heady warning for those voters who wish to endorse the smallest and most fledgling parties in the bunch.

Chasimah, from ch-s-m, meaning "block" or "obstruct," is used in a number of military contexts. Every foot soldier carries around as basic equipment a length of rubber that in an emergency serves as a tourniquet, a chosem orakim, (lit. "artery block").

A different kind of artery is involved when a road is nechsam, or chasum letnu'ah, "blocked to traffic." This could be because of a run-of-the-mill fender bender, or because of that quintessentially Israeli military installation known as a machsom, "roadblock."

(The organization called MachsomWatch, by the way, is dedicated to making sure legitimate security needs that make roadblocks and checks at border crossings necessary are not abused or exploited in oppressive ways.)

Back to politics: This root also shows up to describe how some parties can block others from their goals. For instance, the biggest party after the previous elections was not Likud, but actually Kadima. But Likud deftly maneuvered enough parties to block Kadima's bid to lead a government coalition, forming a gush chosem, literally – a "blocking bloc."

Gush is an interesting word, known in the press in Gush Emunim, the "Bloc of the Faithful," the name of the organization spearheading settlements in the territories. It has a range of meanings, including lump, hunk, mass, dollop and clod – depending on just what substance is being referred to. The West Bank settlements themselves are built in clumps or blocs, gushei hitnachluyot.

Gush is related to the word gibbush, which means "crystallization" or "coalescence." A gavish (the medial "b" and "v" alternating) is a "crystal," like salt or quartz.
But this word is also used, both in and out of the army, to describe an intense group building process, of the kind that takes place in army training. And believe it or not, this word gibbush is a close cousin of the similar sounding kibbush, which means "conquest" or "occupation."

In the meantime, the candidates are waging their own quasi-military campaigns, hoping to "conquer the hearts" (kibbush levavot) of the public. It's hard to know if Carl von Clausewitz's dictum that "war is the continuation of politics by other means" is true. But at least in the discourse, it seems that the reverse is definitely the case.

NOTE: There are 10 more weeks until the Israeli elections on January 22, and until then this column will focus on various verbal aspects of our political life. Send in suggestions for roots, words or issues that you think would make good material for upcoming "On Root" columns. Looking forward to hearing from you! Post here or write at: jeremybenstein@gmail.com.

Nir Kafri