Analysis: When English is an afterthought in Israeli politics

This was proven once again Sunday morning, when two parties unveiled slogans that are virtually untranslatable.

January 20, 2019 22:05
2 minute read.
Yair Lapid 2019 elections campaign launch.

Yair Lapid 2019 elections campaign launch.. (photo credit: ADI COHEN ZEDEK)


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When the Zionist Union was formed ahead of the 2015 elections, extensive focus groups were held in the Arab sector to find out whether including Zionism in the new alliance’s name would turn off Arab voters.

It was important to party leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni to reclaim Zionism for the Israeli Left that founded the state. Much thought went into the name in Hebrew, Hamahane Hazioni, which was announced with great fanfare at the first joint event of the political partnership.

When the event was over, a reporter approached Herzog and Livni and asked what the party would be called in English. They responded that they had given the English name no thought whatsoever and would probably just go with the exact translation, Zionist Camp.

When the reporter told Herzog that “Zionist Camp belongs in the Hamptons or the Poconos, not a ballot box,” he was still unmoved. Only when he was told that “Zionist camp is where American Jewish teenagers go to lose their virginity in the summer,” did he agree to the reporter's suggestion of Zionist Union, which ultimately stuck.

The fact that two worldly leaders like Herzog and Livni made no effort to consider their party name in English was a powerful reminder that even if there are a quarter million Israelis born in English speaking countries and plenty of second generation native English speakers, when it comes to Israeli political campaigns, English remains an afterthought.

This was proven once again Sunday morning, when two parties unveiled slogans that are virtually untranslatable.

First came Likud, with the slogan “davka Netanyahu.”

Then-prime minister Ariel Sharon delivered a speech to the Jewish Federations of North America in 2003 about how hard it is to translate that word. He quoted an American boy who came to Israel, who said it means “doing or thinking something both in spite of and because of a given situation.” Sharon said Israel would continue to thrive davka – for that reason.

Similary, the point of the Likud’s ad was that Israelis should cast ballots for Netanyahu to spite the press, the legal establishment and whatever elites were trying to bring him down.

Yisrael Beytenu went with a slogan saying that its leader, Avigdor Liberman, “lo dofek heshbon,” which literally translates into “does not hit an account.” A Twitter debate about how to translate it included “pulls no punches” and “does not give a damn about what others think about him.”

Regardless of which translation is more correct, Liberman, who heads an immigrant party, clearly did not give a damn about how the phrase is uniquely suited to Hebrew speakers.

The translation problems once again proved the adage attributed to former US House Speaker Tip O’Neil that “all politics is local.”

But there have also been campaigns that have used English effectively. The best example is then-defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer’s successful campaign against then-Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg for the Labor leadership in 2001.

Ben-Eliezer’s slogan was that Burg would make Labor “small,” which sounds like the word for Left in Hebrew. Had he just called Burg a leftist, the slogan would have been too obvious and boring, but using English made voters think.

Perhaps before the April 9 election comes, more political strategists will use English effectively to run successful campaigns. But it is more likely they will give the language - and the voters in Israel who speak it - no thought at all.

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