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X-Rated Dispute in Knesset

Not Fit for Kids: Most Knesset debate is not fit for children?s listening. But the debate between a right-wing female deputy really got dirty. Or did it?

This week’s column, you should be warned, is X-rated.

Don’t blame me for it. You can blame firebrand Anastasia Michaeli and gasoline-tongued Ahmad Tibi, both members of Israel’s Knesset. Soviet-born Michaeli — an ex-telecommunications engineer and fashion model who married an Israeli, immigrated to Israel in 1998 and converted to Judaism — belongs to Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beteinu (literally, “Israel Is Our Home”) party. Israeli-born Tibi, a former gynecologist, is one of the founders of the left-wing Arab Renewal Party. The two of them are, one might say, a match struck in heaven.

You may have read about it in the papers, minus the linguistic details that aren’t fit to print. Michaeli, co-sponsor of a bill now before the Knesset to restrict the decibels of the electronic prayer calls that are broadcast from Israeli mosques, got into an argument at a committee session with Arab Knesset member Raleb Majadele, who called her a “fascist.” She left the room in protest, came back a minute later, filled a paper cup with water from a bottle on the table and dashed it in Majadele’s face — misbehavior for which she was punished with banishment from all parliamentary proceedings for a month.

Read Forward correspondent Nathan Jeffay’s news story about the Tibi controversy.

It would have ended there had not Tibi — a veteran Israel basher, though a man with a sly smile and a puckish sense of humor — decided to read from the Knesset floor a day or two later a short Hebrew poem composed in Michaeli’s honor. And this, dear readers, is where I must offer my help to those of you who are over 18, since without it you may have trouble understanding why Knesset Member Tibi has now been banished for a month, too.

Tibi’s versicle went, in as literal a translation as I can manage:

“Anastasia, / Who has a problem with her plumbing, / Grew in the dung beds of our home Israel — or shall I say, Russia? / From there it was a short way to the Law of the Muezzin, / Which meanwhile has been / Turned into a joint Bibi [pronounced by Tibi bibey]-Anastasia project, / A thoughtless use of water in time of drought / When every drop counts. / Israel is drying out / But is not ashamed. / Anastasia ran amok and poured / Water on a colleague. / And so I’ll call a spade a spade, / That is, a cup of frenzy.”

That may not make a whole lot of sense to you, much less seem a literary gem — but that’s only because you don’t have the original before you. How many delicate little touches you would notice if you did! The rhyme of “Anastasia” and instalatsia (“plumbing”), for example; or the play on arugot ha-bosem, “spice beds,” from the Song of Songs (“My beloved has gone down into his garden, unto the beds of spices”) and arugot ha-zevel, “dung beds”; or the pun on “Bibi” and bivey, “sewers”; or the inversion of mityabeshet, “is drying out,” and mitbayeshet, “is ashamed.”

The last of these calls for additional explication. Israel has for several years now been suffering from a severe water shortage, the result of overconsumption and below-average rainfall, and for quite some time, television stations have been running a series of government-sponsored “save water” ads featuring actress and dancer Renana Raz, who is shown saying “Israel is drying out” or “yisra’el mityabeshet” while the skin of her face slowly cracks and breaks into furrows like parched earth. Tibi’s allusion to this would have been familiar to any Israeli.

But the crowning glory of his water imagery is still to come. The Malay word amok exists in English, too, of course, as the adverbial “amok” of “to run amok,” but in Israeli Hebrew it functions as a noun meaning “frenzy.” Tibi’s concluding kos amok or “cup of frenzy,” therefore, was a perfectly good way of describing Michaeli’s dowsing of Majadele. Yet that’s not all that it was, because it was also, with a very small change of vowels, the vilest oath in the rich vocabulary of Arabic curses, one that can be translated, in genteel language, as “the intimate sexual organ of your mother.” It’s the Arabic version of “F— you,” a swear phrase known to all Israelis because it’s widely used in Hebrew, too.

You can’t say it wasn’t funny. My own daughter, who heard it while listening to her car radio, was laughing so hard when she told me about it over her cell phone that I barely understood half of what she was saying. I only understood the other half when Tibi’s remarks were printed the next day in the morning newspapers. Reading them, my first thought was, “How blessed I am to live in a country in which an Arab Member of Parliament can wittily abuse a Jewish colleague, an anti-Arab Russian convert to Judaism, in a Hebrew that causes my Israeli-born daughter to convulse with hysterics.” (Not, mind you, that Michaeli’s proposed “Muezzin Law” isn’t a good one. Having been forced to listen countless times at 4 a.m. to the faithful being called to prayer in the Arab village near the Jewish town in which I live, I consider it a welcome piece of legislation.)

With Tibi banned for a week and Michaeli banished for 30 days from the Knesset, it promises to be a dull month.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected]

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