When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons judges over Israel. The name of his first-born son was Joel, and his second son’s name was Abijah; they sat as judges in Beersheba. But his sons did not follow in his ways; they were bent on gain, they accepted bribes, and they subverted justice.
– I Samuel 8:1-3
In Israel, all cities and towns hold their elections every five years, on the same date; the next election is next week. Last week I attended an evening devoted to discussing issues and developments in municipal politics in the Arab towns and villages. Sponsored by a few local non-profits (including Dugrinet, the Hebrew-Arabic website that I have been involved with over the past five years), the event was held in the environmental education center in the city of Sachnin. The center has an impressive green demonstration building that is often a venue for community events. About fifty people showed up, half Arabs, half Jews, the Jews mostly people I recognized from other such events, the small cadre of people who are interested, curious, and concerned enough about the other half of the population of the Galilee actually to get up from the dinner table and brave the daunting roads of the Sachnin industrial zone in the dark.
There were five speakers; the four Arabs were a professor of geography, two feminist activists, and a popular novelist/journalist; the Jewish speaker was a planner who works for an NGO that fosters justice and shared development through influencing regional planning. The Arab speakers, while recognizing the progress that has been made, were mainly critical of Arab society in Israel, for its inability to break free from traditional patriarchal, clan-based hierarchies and loyalties. Local democracies everywhere in the world – including the Jewish cities of Israel – face the same challenges of cronyism, nepotism, abuse of patronage, abuse of power, etc. Headlines about municipal corruption scandals are so common as to be boring, from the Mideast to the Midwest. And considering the situations in the countries all around us, carping about the imperfections of local democratic institutions can seem picky. But the Arabs are very aware of being on the cusp of a major transformation; they covet the individualism and openness of western culture that Israel has brought to the region, yet they understand that breaking down traditional structures can be both difficult and dangerous, with anomie and alienation, frustration and violence lurking at every turn.
The planner spoke of a fascinating initiative of her organization: assigning street addresses in Arab towns, with Sachnin as one of two pilot communities. Until now, if you wanted to visit someone in Sachnin, s/he would generally offer to drive down to the main road and lead you home. The streets are a tangled maze, with no names. Neither the local nor the national governments had ever sought to change this, despite the inconvenience or even danger (e.g., try calling an ambulance...). Moreover, in Jewish communities in Israel, your invitation to vote specifies a polling place based on your residence. In Arab towns, polling places are according to your last name, which greatly facilitates maintaining clan loyalties and pressures. The new system, which has received wide support, involves mapping the village, naming and signing streets, and assigning address numbers. Once the GPS mappers have entered this data, that ambulance driver will be able to get straight to the home of any citizen – and your clan will have much less ability to know how you voted and hence less influence in your life.
It seems that the state, for over 60 years, thought that its own interests were served by maintaining patriarchal structures, delaying the Arabs' full participation in democracy. Sad mistake. But there's no point in complaining or blaming now. We just have to do all we can to make Israel not just the best democracy in the Middle East, but the best democracy it can be.