Kalanter Banter

On Language

By Philologos

Published December 30, 2009, issue of January 08, 2010.
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An eponym is a word formed from someone’s name. Most languages have them, and English alone has hundreds — some that are clearly so, and others disguised as ordinary-looking words. You don’t have to be an etymologist or a newspaper reader to guess that “Ponzi scheme” probably derives from a man named Ponzi. On the other hand, how many of us are aware that “bloomers” are called that because of the feminist Amelia Jenks Bloomer (1818–1894) who espoused an early form of them for the greater comfort of women? Or that “lynch” was given to us by the Virginia planter Charles Lynch (1736–1796), who convened irregular courts during the American Revolution that sentenced Loyalist supporters of the British to death? Or that “bowdlerize” is the gift of Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825), whose “The Family Shakespeare,” published in 10 volumes in 1818, was purged of all words that might have brought a blush to the cheeks of tender children and their mothers?

Hebrew has its eponyms, too. One that has been bandied about a lot these past days is kalanterizm, which is defined in Volume I of Dahn Ben-Amotz and Netiva Ben-Yehuda’s semi-facetious 1982 dictionary of Hebrew slang as “a widespread custom, in this country of political coalitions, of running for office with a small independent list of candidates that sells its seats after the elections to a larger party. (After a Mr. Kalanter, the inventor of the method.)”

Kalanterizm might be more accurately defined as the defection of one or more members of a political party to another party in return for the promise of jobs, positions of influence or other remuneration, and the word certainly fits Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent attempts to get a number of Knesset members belonging to opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party to jump ship to his own Likud. Yet who was Mr. Kalanter himself, and what did he do to deserve the honor of thus enriching the Hebrew language?

Ma’aseh she’haya kakh haya, as we say in Hebrew — the story goes like this:

Rahamim Kalanter was a politician of Bukharian extraction living in Jerusalem who, when municipal elections were held in 1955, convinced the newly formed National Religious Party to put him high on its list of city council candidates in return for pledging to deliver to it thousands of Bukharian votes. Although this pledge was largely an empty one, and Bukharian voters paid it little heed, he was elected to the council on the NRP ticket.

Back in those days (the law has since changed), Israeli mayors were, like prime ministers, chosen not by popular vote but by the legislators to whom they were answerable — that is, by a ruling coalition of city council members. The coalition that formed in Jerusalem, led by the country’s largest party, David Ben-Gurion’s socialist Mapai, included the NRP, and 16 of its 21 council members chose as mayor Mapai stalwart Gershon Agron, founder and editor-in-chief of the English-language Jerusalem (originally, Palestine) Post.

Agron, however, had hardly settled into office when a fierce controversy broke out. Arriving in Jerusalem, the renowned American Reform rabbi and biblical archeologist Nelson Glueck, then president of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, announced that he planned to establish a Reform rabbinical school and congregation in the holy city. He won the backing of Agron, who proposed allocating a plot of land on King David Street, next to the King David Hotel, for the purpose. To this, the six council members of the NRP and the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisra’el party were fiercely opposed and, joined by the five members of Menachem Begin’s right-wing Herut party and the right-of-center General Zionist Party, they commanded 11 votes in the council. Not only was Glueck’s plan in danger of being defeated by a margin of one vote, but Agron himself was on the verge of being ousted as mayor.

To the rescue came Councilman Kalanter. In return for the post of deputy mayor, he gallantly — or should we say “kallantly”? — left the NRP, went over to Mapai, and restored Agron’s majority. Agron’s mayorship was saved, the Reform rabbinical school and synagogue were built (visitors to Jerusalem can see their handsomely designed-and-gardened complex on King David Street to this day), and Avraham Kalanter so earned Mapai’s undying gratitude that with his stint as deputy mayor ending when elections came around again, he was awarded a lifelong job in the ministry of religion, where for many years he presided over nothing in particular.

The method invented by Kalanter was such a success that it was permanently adopted by the Israeli political system. Perhaps the most famous case of kalanterizm occurred in 1995, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, struggling to ratify the second stage of the Oslo agreement and lacking the votes, bought two right-wing Knesset members, Alex Goldfarb and Gonen Segev, by appointing the latter (who later served a prison term for drug smuggling) to be minister of energy and infrastructure and the former to be deputy minister of housing. The second stage of the Oslo agreement passed by their two votes.

What worked so well in 1955 and 1995, one imagines, should work in 2010, too. Happy New Year!

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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