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Ah, Democracy!

Ah, Democracy!

[In the dispute over the impurity of Achnai's oven, Rabbi Eliezer ruled that the oven was pure; all the other rabbis ruled the opposite.] Rabbi Eliezer said: "If the law is according to my view, let it be proven from heaven!" And a heavenly voice called out, "What is your quarrel with Rabbi Eliezer? The law is always according to his view." Rabbi Judah arose and said, "'It is not in the heaven...' -- we do not pay attention to a heavenly voice, for You already wrote in Your Torah, '...follow a majority."'

-Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 59

So here it is just a few days until elections (March 17). Interesting times. Election ads in all the media, and media commentary on the media, and media commentary on the media commentary in an endless vicious cycle, bombard us on every side. Scandals are discovered and then seem to drop from view; all actions of the government, from economic policies to military actions to diplomatic maneuvers, are scrutinized for the possibility that they are somehow election gimmicks (and how can they not be, in some way?). It feels like living in a sort of unreality show, where the truth is very elusive, and what you see is never what you get.

The dominant tone, again in this election, is negative. The incumbent parties play on themes of fear and betrayal (these are traditional themes on the Right, since the "Right wing" in European politics has always represented nationalism as opposed to the Left's universalism); the opposition emphasizes failure, incompetent leadership, and corruption. I guess experience has taught those who run campaigns that negative campaigning is effective, so that's what they do. But the question arises, effective at what? If the folks buying the ads and advising the candidates see fit to leave us all feeling that we are left to choose the least among evils, that there is no positive vision of our future that is worth speaking about (because only sissies would do that), then perhaps they will be effective in eking out more votes for their candidates, but the level of public discourse, and the public mood, and the confidence in the government (any government, any politicians) are sacrificed on that altar.

This frustration is compounded by the electoral system in Israel, wherein one votes for a party, not for an individual, and there is no direct regional representation. If a party gets 25% of the votes, nationwide, they'll get 25% of the seats in the Knesset, to distribute as they see fit. Some parties hold primaries to choose and rank their candidates; others use smoke-filled rooms. Since no party has ever gotten a majority, coalition government is the rule, so that small parties often have disproportionate leverage in setting policy or in choosing cabinet ministers. And because being part of the coalition carries significant patronage perks as well as policy leverage, it is not surprising for parties to seem to forget their do-or-die principles when the jockeying for coalition partners begins. Of course, Israel is by no means unique, and the same phenomena can be observed in every democracy, whatever electoral system they use.

Here's a little exercise you can do at home, to see how difficult it is to break out of the negative mentality that permeates this moment: Imagine that a voice from heaven appointed you prime minister of the Jewish state, and gave you a magic wand, to make the state conform to your rosiest vision. No enemies, no obstacles, no excuses. What would it look like - with respect to: "Jewishness;" religion and state; minorities and their cultures; social welfare policies; borders; relations with Palestinians; form of governance; education system? See - negative campaigning is so much easier…

Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein, the author of Galilee Diary: Reflections on Daily Life in Israel, grew up in Highland Park, IL, at North Shore Congregation Israel. His first visit to Israel was as a high school student in the first cohort of the NFTY-EIE program in 1962. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1975, and received his Ph.D. from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in modern Jewish history, while a Jerusalem Fellow. In 1990, he made aliyah, moving to Moshav Shorashim, a small community in the central Galilee. Until his retirement, he served as executive director of The Galilee Foundation for Value Education, a seminar center that engages in programming to foster pluralism and coexistence, and as director of the Israel Rabbinical Program of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem.

 

Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein
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