On Root / Coming Together, at Least for Elections

With elections approaching, political parties are scrambling to form coalitions, but unity doesn’t always mean unanimity.

Unity and unifications seem to be the order of the day. Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and Foreign Minister "Evet" Avigdor Lieberman rocked the Israeli political world last week when they announced they were joining forces in the upcoming elections. Analysts have predicted this unified front – already being referred to in some circles as "Biberman" – could garner as many as 45 seats, making it by far the largest bloc in the Knesset. Centrist and left-wing parties are scrambling to come up with their own alliances, confederations and mergers.

Israel is notorious for its plethora of political parties. No less than 33 separate parties ran in the last elections, and 12 of them passed the minimal threshold to enter the Knesset. (There are now 13 factions, since Ehud Barak split off from Labor and formed his own party, called Atzmaut).

The American pledge of allegiance states that the United States is "one nation, indivisible." We, too, pride ourselves on being 'am echad, "one people." The question is: Why from one come so many? And shall out of so many come one?

One and Lonely

Likud and Yisrael Beitenu remain separate "parties," miflagot," but they have formed a single joint "list," reshimah, for the January elections. The history of Israeli politics is one of mergers and divisions – the word miflaga comes from the root p-l-g, meaning to "divide" or "split" (as in p'luga, a military "company").

But now we are speaking of unifications. Bibi and Lieberman are indeed running "together," beyachad. The word "one," echad, is from the root alef-ch-d, "one" or "solitary." When two become one, the related root, y-ch-d, meaning"together," is used. Somewhat paradoxically this root too can mean "single," as in yachid, "sole" or "individual," or yechidah, "unit," in the army.

Many parties and organizations take their names from words that share the root alef-ch-d. For instance, the new "Biberman" amalgam may need a new name to run, but though it is a "union," ichud, it can't use the generic name Ichud Le'umi, National Union, since it is already the name of a party with four Knesset seats.

Similarly, in the 50s, there was a massive schism in the kibbutz movement (around ideological points now largely forgotten), which divided many kibbutzim and led to the growth of two parallel movements, each of which claimed to be "united." Kibbutzim split, and suddenly there was, for instance, Ein Harod-"Ichud" and Ein Harod-"Me'uchad." By the early 80s, the factions overcame their differences, and merged into the TaKaM HaTenu'ah Hakibbutzit Hameuchedet, the United Kibbutz Movement. Moreover, these groups are descendants of the Achdut Ha'avodah, The Union of Labor.

Given that the nouns ichud (with its adjective meuchad),achdut and alsohitachdut, mean roughly the same thing, "union" or "unification," the kibbutz conflict can seem to the uninitiated like the People's Front of Judaea versus the Judaean People's Front (a la Monty Python's "Life of Brian").

Unity is, of course, very different from achid, "uniform,"orachidut, "uniformity." For instance, in a reshimah meuchedet, a "united list" such as Likud-Yisrael Beitenu, they will want their message to be chad-mashma'i, "unambiguous" – from chad, "single," and mashma'ut, "meaning." But there are so many disparities among the party members that unity will not mean unanimity – deciding peh echad, "with one mouth." No ichud, "union," can be totally achid, "uniform."

If this results in a large gap between platform and values, between what candidates have to say and what they really believe, they can be accused of being echad bapeh vechad balev, literally, "one in the mouth; one in the heart, "i.e." disingenuous, "even" hypocritical."  But for politicians, this could be considered an occupational hazard, and hardly unique (meyuchad, also from y-ch-d, here meaning "singled out") to members of a merged list.

Drawing battle lines

This brings us to the idea of the "list," reshimah. The very productive root here is r-sh-m, which means "draw," "write" or "make an impression." If you nirsham, "sign up" for something, you will be rashum, "signed up" or "listed." A list is itself something you write or draw up, a rishum is a "drawing" and a tarshim is a "sketch" or "diagram." So these are all things you roshem (stress on last syllable), "write" or "draw."

If you want to "make an impression", roshem (stress here on first syllable), on someone, you have to be marshim, "impressive." Only then will that person mitrashem, "be impressed." You can really impress folks if you know how to say "tape recorder" in real Hebrew. Most Israelis just say "teyp," but the real word is reshamkol ("voice impression"). Though it may be official, the word is about as old-fashioned as the device itself.

An "official" thing, whether a word, document, or otherwise, is rishmi (implying that which is officially documented). The use of this word in this sense comes from the Arabic cognate rasmi, which is actually what most Israelis say. So it turns out rishmi is actually the official way to say "official."

How will the elections turn out, once every party "enters the lists" by entering their lists? There are many possible perspectives and narratives regarding the different eventualities. One might say that regarding all the political reshimot (pl.) – it's quite a "Rashomon." But that's a different battle, with different warriors.

NOTE: There are 11 more shopping weeks until the elections on January 22nd, and it has been suggested that until that magical date this column focus on words connected to some aspect of our political life. I am willing to take the challenge – but I need your help! Please send in suggestions for roots, words, concepts or issues that you think would make good fodder for future "On Root" columns. Looking forward to hearing from you! Post here or write at: jeremybenstein@gmail.com.