Real Israel: The Jewish homeland’s House
What makes the Knesset different from all other parliaments?
Red carpet laid out for opening of 19th Knesset Photo: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
There is only one Jewish homeland – although that seems to be one too many for
our numerous enemies – and it has only one parliament. Naturally, it has its own
distinct style. Equally naturally, we can argue about what that
Recently I was asked about what made the Knesset different from all
other parliaments. And the answer is – a lot.
Starting with its name and
number. The Knesset takes its name from the Knesset Hagdola – the Great Assembly
– of the fifth century BCE, when Ezra and Nehemiah convened a representative
body of scribes, sages and prophets in Jerusalem as part of the return from
Babylonian exile. The number of members in the contemporary Knesset is fixed at
120 to reflect the composition of the ancient body of rulers.
or pedigree, however, does not necessarily make today’s Knesset more
distinguished, just distinct.
One obvious difference between the Israeli
parliament and all others is that its official language is Hebrew. (Arabic is
accepted but rarely used as a second official language.) This leads to a degree
of informality almost unimaginable anywhere else in the world. I heard a note of
incredulity when I explained on Radio New Zealand’s Nights show that not only
are the elected leaders regularly addressed by their first names, some are known
mainly by their nicknames.
Take the temporary Knesset Speaker, for
Until the next government is formed and the top jobs are
allocated, the oldest serving MK is automatically appointed Speaker. For now,
that is Fuad. Of course Fuad has a full name – Binyamin Ben-Eliezer – but it
would feel strange to use it, even though he has served as a government minister
and is a former Labor Party leader.
Fuad replaces Reuven Rivlin. Over the
years, he was occasionally referred to by his proper name in the press, but in
the Knesset corridors he is more likely to answer if you call “Ruby” than
Reuven. Calling him Mr. Rivlin would sound like a joke.
In a translation
course I took many years ago at the Hebrew University we noted a significant
cultural difference in political discourse. Whereas politicians in the
English-speaking world (and elsewhere) are usually addressed by title, in Israel
it is so rare it is a linguistic red light.
It is a sign of respect to
refer to the British prime minister, for example, as Mr. Cameron. Were the
Hebrew press to write about “Mr. Netanyahu,” however, it would be so
ridiculously formal that the ironic tone would be obvious.
also tried to improve his image abroad over the years by dropping his nickname,
but being referred to in the Hebrew media as “Bibi” is still less irreverent
than the obviously sarcastic “Mr.
And I remember the
uproar Defense Minister Ehud Barak caused by when he paternalistically tried to
clip Tzipi Livni’s wings by insisting on calling her by her full name, Tzipora,
which means bird.
As for other titles, they are also too pretentious for
the Israeli parliament. Although there are several doctors in the House, it is
rare to hear them addressed as such.
Dr. Ahmed Tibi is a particularly
rare bird. It is not unusual to hear Arab politicians berating Israel for
perceived “racist” policies – but Tibi has been in the special position of being
free to do so from the Knesset podium while serving as deputy Speaker – enjoying
a salary (and parliamentary immunity) from the very same body he accuses of
Israeli politicians have also developed unique dining habits.
I doubt parliamentarians anywhere else in the world regularly hold court around
a cafeteria table. The concept of “liftoah shulhan” – literally “to open a
table” – fits well with the informality of miznon haknesset – the Knesset
cafeteria. Press conferences are held here, contacts made, policies formulated
and deals done.
As a vegetarian parliamentary reporter, I didn’t find the
food anything to write home about (except, perhaps, for the couscous), but the
Knesset must be the only parliament in the world where kosher food is not just
an option but the standard fare.
The Knesset is definitely the only
legislature that marks its birthday according to the Hebrew calendar, on Tu
Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees when it is decorated with flowers and
baskets of dried fruits.
It is also the only one that has a Passover
recess or celebrates Hanukka with candle-lighting ceremonies (and doughnuts).
And the Knesset hosts the annual Independence Day celebrations on Mount Herzl
where the Knesset Guard helps put on a good show.
The most prominent
external symbol of the Knesset is the large bronze menorah situated close to the
Rose Garden, the seven-branched candelabrum providing another reminder of the
Temple. It is decorated with themes of Jewish history, and engraved with the
passage “Not by strength and not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord who
rules over all” (Zechariah 4:6). It was presented as a gift to the Knesset by
the British Labour Party in time for Independence Day in 1956.
current atmosphere in the United Kingdom, I doubt they would be so generous
today, even if we made an extraordinary effort to be polite and remember to
address the honorable members by title.
As a reporter in the House, I
covered lots of committee meetings, including the Foreign Affairs and Defense
Committee meetings. These are closed to the press, but journalists receive an
official briefing and unofficial leaks as a matter of course. The most secret
committee (or the least known) committee, however, is the va’adat kishut,
responsible for determining the artwork and temporary exhibitions that grace the
A side benefit of working (or serving) in the House is the
wonderful art. Popular permanent pieces shown to visitors include the three
giant tapestries designed by Marc Chagall depicting Jewish history from the
Bible through Exile and the Return to Zion – a remarkable story told in
Chagall’s inimitable style, one stitch at a time. The Seven Species Menorah by
Eliezer Weishoff also has its fans.
A personal favorite is Reuven Rubin’s
A Mountainous View of the Galilee which dominates the Cabinet Room in the
Knesset. Whenever my mind wandered as I waited for meetings there to start, it
almost inevitably journeyed up North.
The Knesset is popularly – or
populistically – known as a place where little work is done and politicians
frequently come to blows. Like every workplace, there are those who work harder
than others but, as I noted in another recent column, its image as a slackers’
paradise is ill-deserved. Apart from the strange alliances created by coalition
politics, there are other broad coalitions formed to pass legislation even when
the main beneficiaries can’t express their thanks.
For example, a law by
former Labor MK Eitan Cabel that passed in the previous Knesset and came into
force last month bans the import, marketing and sale of cosmetics, toiletries
and detergents whose manufacture involves animal testing.
The Knesset, in
fact, is a wildlife sanctuary – and I mean that in the nicest sense. I believe
it is the only parliament in the world that has a bird observatory and urban
wildlife center stationed in its grounds; I occasionally popped out of my office
to see birds being weighed, ringed and released. I am positive it’s the only one
where resident porcupines live in a cave dating back to Second Temple
Strange birds, prickly members and a unique historical link. It’s
only fitting that the Jerusalem Bird Observatory enjoys a special status within
the Israeli parliament.