Jewish Word | Israeli Elections Slogans Get Personal
With an election around the corner, it’s high campaign slogan season in Israel. As usual, Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the secular right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, has a provocative offering. In 2009, his slogan, “No loyalty, no citizenship,” was an instant hit with his base, helping Yisrael Beiteinu become the third-largest party in the government at the time. This time around, Lieberman’s using lo dofek heshbon, which literally translates to “doesn’t take into account,” but colloquially it means “up yours” or “doesn’t give a damn.” The former minister of defense hopes this combative sentiment, directed at Israel’s Orthodox and Arab minorities, will mobilize voters in his base.
Not to be outdone, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running for his fifth term as prime minister, has his own catchy campaign slogan: Davka Netanyahu. Davka is one of those Hebrew words that are difficult to translate. Literally it means “precisely,” but it is more often used as “in spite of” or even “because of.” In this case, Netanyahu is suggesting that voters should support him precisely because of the corruption charges against him—which he says are driven by his opposition. Itamar Benzaquen, a media reporter for the independent news outlet The Seventh Eye, thinks that Davka Netanyahu is “genius.” “You have the prime minister of Israel who’s been in power for ten years, the leader of the ruling party, branding the act of voting for him as an act of resistance,” Benzaquen says. “Voting for Netanyahu is the most establishment thing you could do, but they want to give you the feeling you’re protesting.”
Political slogans have a long history in Israel. Many of the country’s early political figures—from Labor’s Berl Katznelson to Beitar’s Ze’ev Jabotinsky—were journalists who knew how to harness language for political purposes, according to Yoram Peri, author of the 2004 book, Telepopulism: Media and Politics in Israel. “In its early decades, Israeli politics was dominated by the party system, and each party had a strong ideology,” says Peri, a former journalist and political adviser to Yitzhak Rabin who is now the director of the University of Maryland’s Israel studies department. “The slogans always included the party name, and many of them focused on specific ideological ties.”
A notable exception to that trend was the 1959 election rallying cry for the ruling party, Mapai. With David Ben-Gurion coming out of retirement at the age of 72, Mapai asked voters to hagidu ken lazaken—“Say yes to the old man.” This simple rhyme not only helped lift Mapai to victory, but also entered Israeli political lore. That campaign foreshadowed the trend of personalization that would take over politics a few decades later, says Rafi Mann, a longtime journalist and professor at the Ariel University School of Communication in the West Bank. “In hagidu ken lazaken, Mapai basically wanted to say ‘vote for Ben-Gurion because he’s experienced, as opposed to Begin and his other opponents,’” Mann says. “As early as the 1950s, Mapai understood the party identity was not attractive for many voters, and that it was better to market the leader’s personality.”
The shift from party to personal politics became commonplace in the 1990s.But while many identify this trend with the emergence of Netanyahu, both Mann and Peri say it actually gained prominence during Rabin’s 1992 campaign. Israel mechaka le’Rabin—“Israel is waiting for Rabin”—was Labor’s election slogan, a play on a famous Israeli folk song from the Six-Day War, titled “Nasser Is Waiting for Rabin.” As history shows, that slogan—and campaign—was wildly successful, and Rabin became prime minister for the second time.
Netanyahu learned from Rabin, and for the 1996 campaign following Rabin’s assassination, he brought on American Republican Party political strategist Arthur Finkelstein to help him beat Shimon Peres. Finkelstein had made a name for himself in 1994 by coining the slogan that helped oust then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo: “Too Liberal for Too Long.” The slogan Finkelstein developed for Netanyahu combined personalization and peace into one pithy sentence: Netanyahu—osim shalom batuach, “Netanyahu—making a safe peace.” On the heels of this slogan, Finkelstein devised a negative one targeted at Peres: Peres yechalek et Yerushalaim,“Peres will divide Jerusalem.” “Finkelstein,” says Peri,“conducted a poll to see what the public was concerned about and realized that the potential division of Jerusalem was an issue nobody was talking about. After he came up with the slogan, the Labor party dismissed it as irrelevant. They didn’t understand that Finkelstein, like Trump did with the border wall much later, had created a crisis out of thin air.”
Social media has changed political language around the world, and Israel is no exception. Peri cites the number of slogans today that use the words koach, otzma and milchama—“power,” “strength” and “war”—as evidence that Israeli political discourse has become more aggressive. “People prefer to read things that make them angry on social media,” says Peri. “You write in a way that makes people angry so you can go viral. The entire discourse is becoming simplistic, militaristic and irrational.” Confrontational language has driven the Israeli political conversation away from serious issues, says Eitan Levin, a veteran political strategist and founder of Pe’er & Levin Communications in Tel Aviv. He points to the slogan of political newcomer and former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid—who have joined forces to run together against Netanyahu—as primary examples of this phenomenon. “Gantz and Lapid’s slogan, Israel lifnei hakol, ‘Israel before everything,’ is very vague, and you’re not going to hear what their economic or social agenda is.” Levin has noticed another change. “It is also not politically expedient to talk about peace. It is much easier to motivate voters through fear.”