Hebrew Hear-Say: On the House

Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik - Madame Speaker as she would be known in posher places - is trying to improve the image of the Israeli parliament. You've got to hand it to her: The lady with the gavel has guts.

Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik - Madame Speaker as she would be known in posher places - is trying to improve the image of the Israeli parliament. You've got to hand it to her: The lady with the gavel has guts. As part of her Sisyphean efforts at what is being called "The parliamenting of the Knesset," employees are being offered free English lessons, on the House, as it were. MKs, incidentally, have been allocated a budget for private tuition, including English, since 1991, though most it seems would prefer to study through frequent trips abroad rather than through in-House lessons. Rumor has it, in fact, that the second English lesson in the Knesset was canceled as so many MKs and ministers and their staff were attending the United Jewish Committee's General Assembly in Los Angeles last week. Most parliaments have their own language and parliamentarians everywhere nowadays seem more concerned about terms of office than terms of endearment. Still the potential students in our own House have a lot to learn and need to forget what they've seen in the raucous caucus (si'a in Hebrew, meaning faction). In linguistics, there is a phenomenon known as "speech acts." These are cases, such as the phrase "I promise," when the actual utterance is itself the deed. The Israeli parliament has its own version of speech acts: speaking about an Act. Former Knesset Speaker Shevah Weiss often mournfully noted the tabling manners of MKs submitting bills. Instead of Hatza'ot Hok (proposed laws), MKs submit Hazharot Hok - "proclamations of bills" - he complained. The headlines generated are more important than whether or not the bill ever made it into the books. The press is indeed full of "good" stories coming out of the Knesset, few of them, unfortunately, having anything to do with improving the lives of the voting public. The Knesset in recent years has given a new meaning to the terms parliamentary privilege and political convictions - it might even be worth setting up a police interrogation room to save travel time. Forget the phrase "private members." There is nothing private about Israeli members of parliament, Havrei Knesset (often abbreviated to "Hakim.") Almost everything leaks out sooner or later. But back to the English lessons. Here, the Knesset is really in a class of its own. It might take a while to help explain to local parliamentary aides, for example, the true meaning of "ideology" (defined by the Legislative Assembly of Ontario as: "a set of political and economic principles and beliefs about society.") Tell that to a roomful of Knesset staff whose bosses' principal principle seems to be survival. No wonder Hebrew doesn't really have a word for it, relying on "idiologia." MKs are meant to "toe the party line" but this often mistranslates into "towing" it: dragging it in a completely different direction. Being a whip in the Israeli parliament is not all it's cracked up to be. There are 120 MKs, each in his or her mind an independent member, an opposition in their own right. The Knesset goes through the motions, of course, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the work gets done. Bills come up for discussion and get (too literally) shouted down. There's no "The ayes have it"; here it is too-often the "I"s have it - individual egos shouting out "here, here" instead of "hear, hear." The frequent votes of no-confidence ("Hatza'ot i-imun") are a point in (dis)order. Although rarely has the plenum witnessed fisticuffs, heckling can include the most unparliamentary terms. There's no House of Commons, but we get common enough. Years ago I witnessed a memorable exchange of insults between the late Moledet leader Rehavam Ze'evi and the late Tawfik Zayyad (Hadash) who hit the "bottom" line when, during a debate on child allowance benefits, Ze'evi described Zayyad as "a toilet" and Zayyad countered "and you're the shit in the toilet." Talk about a floating vote (kol tzaf). Questionably, the Knesset's behavior would improve if there were an established question time: but it would first have to ensure the relevant minister was present. Israel frequently discusses the "Hok HaNorvegi," the Norwegian Law under which ministers would resign their Knesset seats in favor of the next person on the party list, arguably giving the ministers more time to focus on their government portfolios. Actually, the plenum ("meli'a") is where the action might be, but MKs sit down and do the hard work in the standing committees. Theodor Herzl was a visionary. Not only did he envisage the Jewish state, he also predicted the state of its ruling body. In Altneuland, Herzl described the Jewish Assembly, the forerunner of the Knesset, as a "monkey's cage" and it is still regularly described as a "circus" or a "zoo." But, for all its faults, we still love it. It might have recessive tendencies - but it's the only parliament in the world that has a Passover break, "pagrat Pessah," and has a menora as its year-round symbol. And the Knesset is young enough to still make amends, not just pass amendments. liat@jpost