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Israel - In the Knesset, English is verboten

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Many Israelis learned after the recent elections that in order to serve in the Knesset, a politician must give up any additional citizenship he or she might have beside the Israeli one. But what isn’t common knowledge is that foreign-born Israeli lawmakers also have to abandon their mother tongues.

On Wednesday, at a Knesset session dedicated to Jonathan Pollard, the spy serving a life sentence in an American prison, MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid) wanted to personally plead with US President Barack Obama, who is arriving in Israel later this month, to pardon Pollard. To better reach the president’s heart, Lipman planned to address him in English, straight from the Knesset lectern.

“However, I learned that this is prohibited according to the Knesset bylaws and, therefore, I will address President Obama in Hebrew,” he said during his speech, held entirely in (grammatically flawless, but heavily accented) Hebrew. Lipman, who immigrated to Israel seven years ago and this year became the first US-born MK since 1984, then implored the president to “act with the American values of compassion and tolerance and free Jonathan.”

Is English really verboten in the Knesset? The parliament’s spokesperson had yet to reply to a Times of Israel query at the time of publication. But the new “Knesset Rules of Procedure,” which were approved on May 30, 2012, do not mention any such rule, at least not explicitly. Chapter 6 of section C – Business of the Knesset, paragraph 41(d) states (translated, ironically, into English): “A Member of the Knesset shall speak in the Knesset plenum in an appropriate manner, using acceptable language, and in a manner that preserves the dignity of the Knesset, and shall not perform in the plenum an act involving a slight to the dignity of the Knesset, the dignity of one of its members, or the proceedings of its debates.”

Apparently English is not considered an “acceptable language” for Israeli lawmakers. Luckily for foreign dignitaries, however, the Knesset speaker has the right, with the approval of the House Committee, to invite a head of state, a prime minister, a head of a foreign parliament or a head of an international organization in which Israel is a member to address Israel’s parliament — “and they shall be entitled to speak in their own language,” according to chapter 1, paragraph 22.

Indeed, many world leaders have spoke to the Israeli people from the Knesset podium in languages other than Hebrew, most notably Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who on November 20, 1977, addressed the plenum in Arabic.

When in 2008 German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech in her native tongue, a handful of MKs boycotted the event. “It is very, very difficult to hear German in the Knesset,” former tourism minister Yitzhak Levy (National Religious Party) said at the time.

Obama, meanwhile, decided to forgo the opportunity to address the Israeli people in the Knesset. Instead, he chose a politically neutral hall in Jerusalem.


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