I was invited this week to a hearing of the Knesset committee of the interior. Tag Meir, with which the Elijah Institute is affiliated, needed a rabbi to address the question of the refugees and their deportation. I accepted because, as Hillel stated in the Talmud, “Where there are no others, be the man” (Avot 2:5). None of the speakers I considered were appropriate for the task could make it. It seemed like I had no choice, and so I agreed.

As it turns out, I did not speak. Rather than me having something to teach others, it ended up being a learning experience for me, and a very sad and discouraging one at that. The reason I did not speak is that the meeting ran out of time. The reason for running out of time is the subject of this post.

Characterizing Knesset Discussion

About 20 percent of the time was wasted on issues of discipline. The meeting was characterized by incessant interruptions, name-calling, calls to order, and the expelling of one member of Knesset after another, as well as members of the audience, from the hall. With the exception of one or two speakers, everyone was interrupted, heckled, and, in some cases, attacked. (Notable exceptions were MK Eyal Ben Reuven and MK Nachman Shay, who seemed like they were from some other, nobler, planet).

The true script seems to be not that one speaker speaks after another. Rather, it looks as if there is a competition for attention that reaches its climax in the act of being expelled from the discussion. The presence of cameras and the reporting of proceedings in the media create a de facto reality where the real heroes, those who are remembered and whose voices carry weight, are those who are shown being expelled or in visible and violent confrontation with another. In the process, almost anything goes. When MK Tamar Zandberg referred to others as friends of Nazis (I think the nuance of “friends of” was lost on some, leading to violent responses to her), she seemed to not really be crossing a forbidden line, but playing to the true script of this forum. Oren Hazan seems to have simply perfected the script. If name-calling and sidetracking are prevalent in the discourse, he has made these the hallmark of his parliamentary persona. He created a small storm by turning to a woman wearing a kippah (a non-Orthodox rabbi I presume) and asking her to decide whether she was man or woman. Offensive as such cheap stereotyping is, it seems to grow out of a particular culture, such as I saw in the committee.

The Particularity of Knesset Discourse

I spend my life moderating conversations. I bring together religious leaders. I convene scholars. I bring together students and large community circles. We deal with some very challenging topics, that touch upon identity, painful memory, conflict, profound disagreements. But we do so in a spirit of listening, willingness to engage difference, and, ultimately, of respect for such difference. If we applied even a fraction of Knesset-discourse to real life conversations, we would be out of business. In fact, as I watched the Knesset debate, I asked myself what other sector of life operates in this way. I can’t think of any. This would never work in the business world. Conflicts within a board room could never be resolved by tactics of name-calling, attacks, and an abysmal degree of listening to one another. Many of the members of the Knesset have a military background. I know from experience this pattern of discourse does not characterize the army. Academia too is built on other premises.

I wonder: Is this the only sector in society that can get away with a culture of non-listening, non-dialogue, substituting vocality for exchange of opinion and name-calling for thoughtful consideration? How come?

What Is Really Going On?

I am led to the conclusion that when people gather in the Knesset in order to engage a problem, they are really not interested in working it through or trying to reach resolution. They come together knowing what their opinions are, and these typically divide along party lines. There is no sense of seeking to reach resolution, better understanding or effecting change. It is as if the political game is a sold game, whose outcome has been decided by the true decision-makers, the government and its agents. If the movement of coming together is empty and does not contribute to real change, policy or decision, then such discussions simply become the field in which one’s party line is affirmed and given voice. The loud voice, whether raised, as it often was, or coming across aggressively, is a way of affirming one’s being, one’s continuing relevance. The name of the game is proving one has a voice. The voice matters, not what one says.

This is extremely depressing. Many of the people who are in the Knesset are individuals who have excelled in other areas of life. They do not seem to bring with them the best practices of those areas. Rather, they find themselves sucked into a culture of vacuous talk, that does not advance understanding. Oren Hazan, in this reading, is simply the caricature, or extreme aberration, of a deeply flawed system, almost its logical conclusion.

Imagining an Alternative

It could be different. Conversations could be structured with the goal of increasing understanding, of getting to the bottom of the truth (many people left this week’s discussion confused, unsure of facts and realities), and possibly of bridging divides. But this requires a total culture shift. It requires discipline. And it requires a sense of purpose and hope that dialogue and a healthy discourse can make a difference. In the absence of these, both idealism and frustration can only be channeled to a discourse that lacks hope, vision and the possibility of bringing about change.

As we celebrate 70, might it be time to consider whether the representative culture of our chosen representatives can be altered so as to better serve the common good for which they were chosen? The professional world outside the Knesset has tools — debating tools, moderation tools, dialogue tools, listening tools. Shouldn’t conscription into one of Israel’s highest institutions require some special training, other than learning to raise one’s voice? If these tools were applied in a self-conscious effort to reframe the Knesset’s culture, it would lead to greater mutual respect among parliamentarians and to greater respect by society at large for the institution. It is time to consider a deep transformation, one that our elected representatives need as much as does our entire society — a call to listening, respect and constructive collaboration.