Anyone who is at all familiar with the procedure customary in the various Houses of Representatives around the civilized world knows that these are governed by rules and regulations that are often very old, their roots lost in tradition. For instance, the Speaker of England’s parliament (the House of Commons) sits on something called the Woolsack, because in mediaeval times wool was a commodity almost as precious as gold (and a lot more comfortable to sit on). The order and manner in which the members of England’s parliament speak is also governed by age-old rules, and no matter in how much contempt one representative holds another, he or she is required to always refer to a colleague as ‘the right honourable,’ or ‘the respected member for x,’ or some similar expression.
Many years ago, when I was involved in translating the six volumes of the Selected Knesset Debates into English, I tried to use a similar formula for the speeches of the Knesset Members. In the first few years of the existence of Israel’s House of Representatives this was not a difficult task, as on the whole people still tended to use quite formal modes of address. Some debates did give rise to agitation and excitement, but on the whole the members were mindful of the watchful eyes and ears of the nascent nation and adhered to ceremony and decorum.
The debating tradition is not as well-entrenched in Israel as it is in England, for example, where debating societies abound in schools and universities, enabling young people to develop their public speaking skills. The absence of this tradition is sadly evident in the way the debates held in the Knesset in recent years have on occasion descended into uproar, furore, farce, and even outrageous behavior on some rare occasions.
Be that as it may, the swearing-in ceremony of each new Knesset is always an occasion when formality reigns supreme, the atmosphere is one of solemn rejoicing, and everyone is on their best behavior. The recent elections in Israel brought to the Knesset the largest cohort of new members (46 out of 120), except for that of the First Knesset, and also the largest number of women (29, though still not proportionate to their share of the population, 51 percent), and among them was a striking number of young people.
Thus, it was really heart-warming to see youngsters in their twenties who had featured prominently in last year’s demonstrations against the high cost of living taking their places in the Knesset, though not necessarily as members of the same political party. The success of TV personality Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party also brought to the Knesset nineteen new and untried members, some of them old, some young, coming from a wide range of social and ethnic backgrounds. Other parties also brought in ‘fresh faces,’ and altogether one had the impression that the wind of change was blowing through the Knesset’s august auditorium. To add to the festive air, the public gallery above the plenum was crowded with proud and excited mothers and fathers, wives, husbands, children and even grandparents of some of the new members.
There were, of course, plenty of familiar faces, too, and those who had once been young and have matured in the Knesset took their places like seasoned veterans. Let’s hope that they haven’t forgotten that they were once new to the world of discussing and forming legislation, and that they will help the newcomers find their feet in their new role.
I’m not generally a fan of ceremonial events, but as I watched the scene on television as each Knesset Member, including those from the parties representing Israel’s Arab population, was called in alphabetical order by the Speaker, stood up and swore allegiance to the State of Israel I found myself moved to tears, especially at the end, when they all stood together to sing the national anthem.