Hebrew Hear: Speaking of speeches

By
June 25, 2009 16:29
3 minute read.

Nobody wants to be speechless (lelo milim), least of all a politician (politikai), but lately it seems giving speeches (lin'om) is the bon ton. First we had US President Barack Obama's speech at Cairo University, and then Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's address at Bar-Ilan. These "speeches of figures" were analyzed ahead of time and for days after. In advance of Netanyahu's speech, for example, I saw a headline: "Neum hayav" - "The speech of his life" - which was an example of media overkill. Netanyahu's life, even his political survival, did not depend on his way with words. Indeed, very rarely does a man's life rely on giving a speech, although I suspect a lot of grooms and their best men have been told by the bride who doesn't want to be blushing: "I'll kill you if you mention..." There are certain similarities in all speeches - that's why you can download standard formats on the Web. All Hebrew speakers, for example, are aware of the bar/bat mitzva celebrant's speech which traditionally includes the phrase: "Toda lehorai sheheviuni ad hayom" - "Thanks to my parents who brought me this far." As far as Obama's and Netanyahu's addresses go, one obvious thing they had in common was the venue (mikum). Whereas it is usually the real-estate adage that location is everything, it was interesting to note that both leaders spoke not in a parliamentary setting but from a university where there is much more control over who is invited. Parliaments have built-in oppositions, after all. Another thing that stood out was that the scriptwriters seemed not only to be putting words in their mouths (lehachnis lahem milim lapeh) - they seemed to be doing it in a different language: There was Obama speaking in English and the words sounding as Arabic as possible, and then there was Netanyahu talking in a Hebrew that was clearly made to appeal to the English speaker. Both were obviously also cautious. It was as if they were operating on that well-known Israeli principle: Af politikai lo hitzta'er al hane'um shehu lo natan - no politician regrets the speech he didn't give. Giving public speeches is a political minefield - there is no falling back on that standard excuse: "My words were taken out of context" ("Hotzi'u et d'varai miheksheram"). And no leader wants his brilliant address to the nation (neum la'uma) to turn into a valediction (neum preida). Today's speeches are often media events. It used to be that speeches were commentated on after they had been made. That was in the not-so-distant past, when it was also common to actually have a peace agreement before you had the ceremony marking it. There are, of course, speeches for both war and peace: Winston Churchill's "We shall fight them on the beaches" went down in history. So did prime minister Levi Eshkol's 1967 radio address to the nation - but for the wrong reasons. He was heard by a country whose very survival was at stake stuttering and stammering instead of instilling confidence. We now know that he was having trouble reading the last-minute handwritten additions to his speech, spooked more by the ghostwriter than by the specter of war. The late foreign minister Abba Eban was admired throughout the Diaspora for his oratorical skills but, as Post columnist and former PM aide Yehuda Avner has pointed out, Eshkol didn't like him, once reportedly saying: "Eban never gives the right solution, only the right speech." Eshkol's one-liners have been underappreciated in my opinion - here's a case of a man who probably shouldn't have stuck to the script. Mind you, Eban's "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity [for peace]," made in December 1973, is still being quoted in the comments surrounding Netanyahu's address, while Eshkol's "Ani mitpasher vemitpasher ad she'ani masig et ma she'ani rotzeh" - "I compromise and compromise until I achieve what I want" - is hardly ever quoted in any language. One wonders how Eshkol would have fared in the age of YouTube. Now you not only get to read about an important speech, you can also see and hear it. This means the message (messer) travels faster and further than ever before, but embarrassing moments live on in cyberspace forever and there's no taking back words once they are out there. Reckless politicians run the risk of being bitten by their own sound bite. liat@jpost.com


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