Why the Word “Poodle” Was Banned from Use on the Floor of the Knesset

Israeli politicians have in recent decades become obsessed with calling each other poodels.



June 3 2020
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“I’m no poodle. I stand here today as prime minister with his head held high,” said Benjamin Netanyahu before his arraignment in a Jerusalem court on May 24 on charges of bribery and breach of public trust. Poodle owners may have been indignant, but to tell the truth, there are not many of these in Israel, where the loan word poodel is more often used for people than for dogs.

This is not, of course, just an Israeli usage. To be somebody’s “poodle” or “pet poodle” can be a derogatory expression for being someone’s plaything, lackey, or stooge in English too, as it can also be in French, in which être la caniche de quelqu’un has much the same meaning, and undoubtedly in other languages as well. Although poodles were originally bred for hunting purposes as retrievers of water fowl (“poodle” derives from the German verb pudeln, “to splash about,” which is related to English “puddle”), they were also, as far back as the 18th century, miniaturized to be lap dogs, the laps they cuddled on being invariably those of women. Standard-sized poodles, too, have often been manicured, pedicured, coiffed, and beribboned at feminine behest as pit bulls and German shepherds rarely are.

By the late 19th-century, one finds terms like “poodleish” and “poodledom” being used in England to describe men, or the condition of men, who are henpecked and reduced to servility. Hence also the now archaic British slang expression “a poodle-faker,” meaning a man (especially, according to Eric Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, a naval or military officer) who insincerely seeks to ingratiate himself with women for sexual or other motives. The poodle-faker was a Rottweiler pretending to be a lap dog for the favors he hoped this would bring him.

An equally striking but more contemporary expression is “attack poodle,” popularized (and possibly invented) by the American media critic James Wolcott in his 2004 book Attack Poodles and Other Media Mutants. Poodles, miniaturized or not, are not aggressive dogs, so that an “attack poodle” is a comical oxymoron. As used by Wolcott and subsequently others, the term denotes a media personality or other public figure who, fawningly subservient to his superiors, viciously assails whomever they bid him to.

Yet the satirical trope of the attack poodle, though the word “attack” was missing from it, considerably predates 2004 and can be traced to the renowned British politician David Lloyd George. In June, 1907, while a Liberal member of Parliament and head of the Board of Trade, the future British prime minister rose to speak in the House of Commons in favor of a bill, fought against by the Conservative opposition, that would have curbed the power of the House of Lords. Addressing the argument that the House of Lords was a “defender of property,” Lloyd George cited, in replying to an interruption by the aristocratic Conservative member of parliament Viscount Edward Turnour, several cases in which it had been no such thing and declared:

This is the defender of property? This is the leal [loyal] and trusty mastiff which is to watch over our interests but which runs away at the first snarl! . . . A mastiff? It is the right honorable gentleman’s [Turnour’s] poodle! It fetches and carries for him. It barks for him. It bites anybody that he sets it on to.

A year later, referring to the former prime minister and Conservative opposition leader Arthur Balfour, Lloyd George called the House of Lords “Balfour’s poodle,” a phrase that stuck in the public’s memory more than did “the right honorable gentleman’s poodle.” But the most memorable accusation of poodledom in British political history was not directed at the House of Lords. It was aimed at Tony Blair.

This happened in March 2003, during the run-up to the American-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq, which was joined by the United Kingdom under Blair’s leadership. Blair strongly supported President George W. Bush’s intention to go to war, and in July 2002 he was pitilessly caricatured by the British singer George Michael, whose best-selling single “Shoot the Dog” was accompanied by a video cartoon that depicted a fatuously grinning Blair riding a poodle on the White House lawn, being tickled in Bush’s lap, and sitting astride an American-fired missile on which was written “Good Puppy.” The epithet “Bush’s poodle” was to haunt Blair for the rest of his political career.

Before Bush’s poodle, however, came Shimon Peres’s—and this was the moment when poodel in its all-too-human sense entered the vocabulary of most Israelis. The year was 1990. The accused was Peres’s junior political ally Yossi Beilin, soon to be a chief architect of the Oslo Accords. The charge of poodleishness came from Yitzḥak Rabin, Peres’s arch-rival for leadership of the Labor party. Rabin made this charge in the context of Peres’s attempt to overthrow the Likud government of Prime Minister Yitzḥak Shamir by a Knesset vote of no-confidence and install himself in Shamir’s place.

In the end, after some devious political manipulations, Peres succeeded in his efforts by persuading the Knesset member Avraham Sharir to abandon his center-right splinter party and join a Labor-led coalition by promising him a cabinet position. Beilin was a key figure in the negotiations that led up to this, which earned him the sobriquet of “Peres’s poodle” from Rabin—who, equally immortally, labeled Peres’s move “the stinking maneuver” [ha-targil ha-masri’aḥ]. Both phrases entered, and have to this day remained in, the Hebrew lexicon.

Since then, it’s been open season on poodles in Israel. Peres was himself labeled “[Ariel] Sharon’s poodle” in signs held by demonstrators outside his home in 2006, when he served as Sharon’s deputy prime minister. Similar signs called Avigdor Liberman, head of the heavily Russian-immigrant-supported Israel Our Home party, “the Russian mafia’s poodle.” Ex-Minister of Justice Ya’akov Ne’eman was accused in a prominent newspaper ad of being the poodle of Supreme Court chief justice Dorit Beinish. To Benjamin Netanyahu has been publicly ascribed an entire kennel of poodles, including the former energy minister Yuval Steinitz and the state comptroller Matanyahu Engelman.

Indeed, as far back as 2001, the poodling of Israel had gotten so bad that the Knesset Committee on Ethics, chaired by the Labor party parliamentarian Colette Avital, included “poodle” in a list of words and phrases that it banned from debates on the Knesset floor. (Some of the other verbotens, all presumably heard in the Knesset up to that point, were “idiot,” “anti-Semite,” “traitor,” “fifth columnist,” “fly’s egg,” “pig,” “monster,” “well-poisoner,” “Nazi,” “Trojan horse,” “leech,” “mentally defective,” “backstabber,” and “a nothing in spades.”) None of which kept Avital in an interview a few years later from calling her fellow Labor-party Knesset representative Ami Ayalon “a backstabber” and his colleague Avishai Braverman—yes, you guessed it—“a poodle.”

No one, one would think, has ever accused Benjamin Netanyahu himself of being the poodle he proudly affirmed that he wasn’t. One would, however, be wrong. Placards held aloft by the roadside as a cavalcade he was in drove through the settlement of Efrat in 2012 proclaimed, “Netanyahu, you’re the poodle of Mike Blass.” Malkiel Blass, in case you’ve forgotten, was a legal advisor to the government whose opinion against routing a section of the new Tel Aviv-Jerusalem train line through the disputed territories Netanyahu accepted. With a woof, the settlers would have said.

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