Government of Israel: Vocabulary

Image: The Israeli Flag, by PublicDomainPictures.

Following the news from Israel can be very frustrating if you don’t know some basic facts about government there. Americans are sometimes particularly puzzled by these facts, since there are terms that sound similar but mean quite different things. Here is a list of basic vocabulary that may help; if you want to know more about any item, follow the links within it.

Knesset – (k-NES-set) The Knesset is the legislative branch of the Israeli government. Israel is a parliamentary democracy.  The Knesset is its house of elected representatives. Bills become law via a fixed process through committees of the Knesset and then a vote by the plenary session. Knesset means “Assembly.”

Prime Minister [Rosh Hamemshalah]  – The Prime Minister heads the executive branch, the Government of Israel. Elections for Prime Minister are held at the same time as elections for Knesset. After the elections, the Prime Minister has to form a government, that is, put together a coalition of parties that he will present along with a slate of Ministers to the Knesset. This coalition must contain a majority of the votes in the Knesset. The current Prime Minister is Benjamin Netanyahu.

President [Nasi] – The President is elected by a secret ballot of the Knesset for a term of five years. It is largely a ceremonial position; the President is the public face of Israel. The current President is Reuven Rivlin.

Supreme Court [Beit Mishpat Elyon]- The Supreme Court sits atop the judiciary of Israel. It hears criminal and civil appeals from lower courts, and appeals from individuals who believe they have been wronged by a state authority or office. The lower courts include district courts, military courts, labor courts, and religious courts. There are religious courts for each of the four main religions resident in Israel: Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze.

Basic Laws – Israel is a young state that has come into being at a time of continuous turmoil and considerable difference among religious and secular parties. As a result, while its Declaration of Independence forms the basis for much of its law, Israelis have not written and signed a Constitution. Instead, the Knesset enacted a body of laws called the Basic Laws which are intended to form the basis for a Constitution.

Elections – National elections are held at least once every four years, more often if the Prime Minister’s coalition falls apart. Every party running for election offers a slate of candidates for Knesset; how many of those individuals will actually become Members of the Knesset (MK) depends on the percentage of the popular vote the party receives. The Jewish Virtual Library offers a list of the parties in the current government and those who have figured prominently in recent elections. This list is particularly useful because it gives links to specific information about each party.

That’s enough for one post. I’ll follow up with another with more terms in future.

To my readers who are Israeli citizens: If I have done a poor job of explaining something, or offered downright misinformation, please correct me via the Comments!

To my readers who are not Israeli citizens: Your questions in the comments will tell me what the next such post needs to cover!


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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

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