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 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Red carpet laid out for opening of 19th Knesset 370
(photo credit: 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 is.
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.
Such yihus, 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 example.
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.
Netanyahu has 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 apartheid.
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.
Given the 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 Knesset.
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 times.
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.[email protected]