Democracy 101: For Kids in the Back Row of the Class

Author’s note: This article was ready for publication on the morning of October 7th, when we suffered a pogrom in our sovereign Jewish state. I knew that what I wrote was applicable to the events that led up to that brutal attack, which caught us by surprise when we were most divided and unprepared to respond to it. Deferring to the national mood in the first days of the war, I decided to delay publication of this piece to the day after.

However, subsequent events have shown that our wartime unity is fragile. While the people of Israel have responded with a strong show of national solidarity and support, both for the victims of that Black Saturday and the IDF, public trust in the government is at an all-time low. The prime minister, who built his career on disunity, is now blaming the defense establishment, the Brothers in Arms protestors, the media, and everyone but himself for the massacre. This at a time when 240 Israeli hostages are being held in Gaza and our country is at war. As always, the PM’s main goal is to stay in power and out of jail, and his shameful government is continuing in the same path that tore this country apart before the war. For these reasons, the time to rethink the divisive judicial coup is now, not after the war.

Disclaimer: To the best of my knowledge, there is no such course as Democracy 101, nor is there any real discussion in Israeli or American schools about the threat to democracy. The classroom scenarios depicted below would challenge the standard policies of keeping politics out of school.

Back in the winter of ’21 we staged protests on a street corner in Netanya, three times a week in the cold and the rain. Holding “Crime Minister” signs and making a lot of noise, we drew all kinds of remarks from passersby, including obscenities and threats. But the most biting taunt was disparaging in a mock friendly way: “Why are you standing out in the cold? Go home. The elections are in April.” We held our ground, took abuse, shivered, and come April, we celebrated… Seems like such a long time ago.

One short-lived cadentzia later, I got into a political spat in the locker room at Wingate where I was heading to the shower, having drowned my sorrows in the pool. It was just after the ‘22 election, and I was among the disconsolate masses who feared that the homeland was in big trouble. Listening to the remarks in the locker room, I gathered that most of the other swimmers felt as I did, that the collective “pool” we shared had somehow turned into a sewer and we were all being sucked down the drain. But one snug character wrapped in a towel shook his head doggedly and tried to still our grumbling with a sweet reassurance:

“That’s democracy,” he stated, like he understood what the word even meant.

“You gotta be kidding me.” I said to him. “What does this wannabe fascist government you voted for have to do with democracy?”

“The people have spoken,” he clarified, with a little shrug that suggested that’s all there is to it and there’s nothing I or anyone who thinks like me can do about it. Then, as if repetition is a sure way to win an argument, he recited one more time: “Zeh hademocratiaThat’s democracy.”

There is a common thread between those hecklers in Netanya, the locker room philosopher at Wingate and today’s pro-reformers, whose favorite argument is “we have 64 mandates.” They believe that democracy is all about election results, that if a government is freely elected it can carry out any policy it wants. They are missing something, the liberal values we have shared since 1948, the very core and essence of our Jewish democratic state.

Like the kid in the back row of the classroom, these deniers of values are bored with the details, have short attention spans, are slow to catch on and cheat on exams, all of which explains why they’re hiding in the back row.

Of course, not all back row kids are like that. Those who pay attention can learn something and become good citizens. But the slackers among them, lacking any in-depth understanding of core issues, grow up to become suckers for shallow party slogans and tend to vote for two-bit politicians.

For the back row kids, the easy teachers are those who don’t make a big deal about their apathy and daydreaming, and the teachers to watch out for are those who surprise them with spot checks for signs of life. In an American high school classroom, a hypothetical teacher-student exchange can go something like this:

“Jack, we haven’t heard from you in a long time. Tell us, why did the American colonies fight for their independence?”

The teenage kid in the back of the class has a simple explanation for that: “Because Americans don’t want no kings and queens,” comes the reply, drawing scattered laughter.

The instructor calls on the kid sitting next to Jack in the back row. “How about you, Bill? What’s your take on the American Revolution?”

“They were trying to make America great, so Trump can make it great again.”

Snickers around the classroom. One kid calls Bill a smart-ass.

“Does anyone have a more instructive answer?” The teacher challenges his students. He points to a girl raising her hand in one of the middle rows. “Yes, Carol.”

The young lady talks about the Boston Tea Party, which holds the back row kids’ interest until they realize that it wasn’t really a party. When she gets into “taxation without representation” she loses them entirely.

I was educated in American schools, understood what the founding fathers fought for long ago, appreciated that we had freedoms so many people around the world can only dream about. When I made aliyah in ’85, I got the impression that Israel has a somewhat paler version of democracy. No constitution to speak of that isn’t being made up as we go along under the guise of “basic laws.” No separation of religion and state, with consequential religious coercion and preferential treatment for sectarian constituencies. But in spite of these serious flaws, I always maintained that we had a clear advantage over our Arab neighbors, and was not ashamed to say out loud and write on these pages that “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.”

Then one day it dawned on me that living in a democratic country is a privilege I had always taken for granted. I had never thought that I would have to fight for democracy in my lifetime, until I sensed that it was under attack.

The signs were clear as far back as 2019, when Bibi Netanyahu led Israel to three consecutive elections without conclusive results in barefaced bids to hold on to power for the purpose of getting out of his legal mess. This entailed a long police interrogation that culminated in separate indictments for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. In the meantime, Bibi’s un-American counterpart Donald Trump had refuted all media criticism of his unpresidential ways, crying “fake news,” presenting “alternative facts” and signaling that he would abuse his power to put himself above the law.

Now we are several stages past that and things are getting much worse. Every new indictment against Trump, including falsifying business records, mishandling classified documents and conspiracy to overturn the results of a national election, only increases his popularity among his frenzied supporters. If re-elected, Trump can conceivably use the power of his office to pardon himself for the crimes he is accused of. There is nothing in the constitution that says he can’t. Apparently, the founding fathers couldn’t foresee a president like Donald Trump. But for many or most US citizens, one thing is getting clearer by the day: This is not the kind of democracy that George Washington fought for.

In Israel, the contentious “judicial reform,” an agenda that would strip the High Court’s power to check discriminatory and otherwise unreasonable laws proposed by the most fanatical government in our history, has in effect turned the PM’s court case on its head, from “the State of Israel vs. Bibi” to “Bibi versus the State of Israel.” Multitudes of good Israeli citizens are crying out loud: This is not the Jewish democratic state that Hertzl dreamed about.

What is going on with two of the western world’s venerated democracies?

In a nutshell: The US and Israel are both self-imploding and self-healing: Both societies are waking up, hopefully before it’s too late, to the imperfections in their respective systems of rule of law.

The issues are complex. We all have questions to ask, solutions to find and lots of explaining to do, to each other, to the next generation. And it has to start in the classroom.

A hypothetical classroom discussion in an Israeli high school can go something like this:

“So, Itzik, we haven’t heard from you in a long time. Why are so many citizens out in the streets demonstrating, week after week, nine months straight since the start of the judiciary reform?” the teacher challenges him.

The back row kid knows just what to say: “Because they’re sore losers and leftist traitors.”

“Are you repeating what you heard from your friends, from your parents, maybe?”

“I’m saying what everyone is saying.”

“Sounds like you’re spewing political aphorisms. Can you substantiate what you’re saying?”

“Don’t regurgitate, substantiate” the class comedian says in English with an Israeli accent.

The kid in the back row recites: “We won, we’re the majority, and we have the last word.”

“Nice to hear from you, Itzik. Who wants to respond?”

The rejoinders come one after the other from all over the classroom:

“The Israeli left built this country…”

“The protest isn’t all left. A lot of right-wingers support the protest… Gidon Sa’ar, Bogie Ayalon, Avigdor Lieberman, Limor Livnat, Dan Meridor, Beni Begin. Are they traitors too?”

“My father fought in the Six Day War, and was badly wounded in the Yom Kippur War. He has always voted for Labor. Are you calling my dad a traitor, Itzik?”

“When you call a large part of the population “traitors” that’s incitement, Itzik.”

“And when you call the protestors sore losers, you’re just showing your ignorance. We accept that we lost the elections. We blame Yair Lapid and Merav Michaeli, who used poor judgment and ran a losing campaign. That’s not why we’re protesting. In what world do sore losers go out to the streets to protest by the hundreds of thousands for nine months, without an end in sight? Get real, Itzik.”

“We’re protesting because you can’t trust a Jewish supremacist to run the economy and a Kahanist terrorist to be in charge of national security.”

“We’re protesting because you can’t trust religious fanatics, racists, homophobes, corrupt ministers, a convicted criminal and a criminal suspect under indictment to run a judicial reform.”

“We’re protesting because a prime minister who’s desperate to have his criminal charges dropped is getting his hands all over the courts. To say that he’s acting under conflict of interest is an understatement. He’s aiming to strip the High Court of Justice of its power and independence, and our democracy of its one layer of checks and balances, just so he can save his ass. It’s a no-brainer.”

“That’s why Itzik doesn’t understand what’s going on,” the class comedian chimes in.

“We’re protesting because when Bibi Netanyahu says that the reform will strengthen our democracy, we have absolutely no reason to believe that is his real intention.”

“We’re protesting because the reform and the corrupt liars who are shoving it down our throats present a clear and present danger to our democracy.”

“We’re protesting because we can’t let what happened in Poland and Hungary happen here.”

“We’re protesting because the people who got elected have no respect for equal rights, irrespective of race, religion or gender, as written in our Declaration of Independence.”

“We’re protesting against 225 proposed laws under the reform which discriminate against Arabs, Druze, women and the LGBTQ community.”

“We’re protesting because the reform prohibits the High Court from challenging the reasonableness of proposed laws that discriminate against minorities.”

A teen named Dov, who regularly demonstrates on Kaplan Street with his friends, has another angle:

“We’re protesting against the populations that stand to benefit from the reform, the settlers who want to build outposts on every hill top, ruling out any future settlement with the Palestinians, and the Haredim who seek exemption from IDF service, refuse to work and expect tax-paying Israelis to go on supporting them while they learn Gemara all day in their yeshivas. We’re protesting because our Finance Minister thinks he can herald the coming of the Messiah by diverting funds from health, education and defense and handing it over to the haredim and the settlers. In truth, we’re protesting because we can’t let Israel turn into Iran.”

“Leftist anti-Semites,” Itzik rejoins, rolling his eyes. No eye meets his.

Standing at the head of the class, the instructor, who says that “adults should never underestimate high school kids,” realizes that his students are repeating things they heard at home, and respects them both for their depth of understanding and teenage idealism. Above all, he is aware of the great challenge they are facing. Their future is spelled I-D-F. In another year they will all be in uniform. Unlike his own initiation into Army service, and for the first time in the nation’s history, many kids joining the IDF will question what kind of Israel they will be expected to represent, and if need be, defend.

The teacher knows his students. He has let their barrage continue long enough to wake up Itzik, but there are others in the class with more attentive ears who haven’t spoken.

“What do you think of all this, Shmuel?” he encourages a student packed into one of the middle rows in the overcrowded classroom.

“We need some kind of judicial reform,” the teenager says in measured tones. “The Supreme Court has been in the hands of elitist liberal activist judges for many years. A lot of people in this country feel that the courts don’t do anything for them.”

This rebuttal is met with more comebacks, both for and against, but now the tone is different, with less bite.

The conversation continues after class, as Shmuel and other like-minded students participate in a dialog with the “protest kids.” Itzik is more or less dragged into the discussion. They are all friends, on the soccer field, in the gym, at parties, and soon they will all be soldiers in the IDF. No reason why they can’t air out their differences. They gather in the park, sit in a circle on the grass and have a good talk.

The protest kids have some explaining to do to the kids who say they feel like second-class citizens. There is an understanding that these feelings run deep, and go back many years. There is talk about Ben-Gurion’s great accomplishments, along with the mistakes he made that all Israelis are paying for to this day. There is talk about Jabotinsky, the great liberal who called for equal rights for the Arabs in pre-state times, and was inconceivably shunned by Ben-Gurion. This show of empathy resonates with the pro-reform kids. One kid says that BG should have formed a unity government with Begin instead of making concessions to the Haredim. Everyone agrees that if the old man had the foresight to close ranks with Begin’s Herut party, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in now.

Then one kid says that Jabotinsky and Begin must be turning in their graves over the judicial reform led by “this awful government,” a remark that reinforces the collective inferiority complex which is inherent in many pro-reformers and passed down to their kids.

“There’s your condescending attitude again.” Shmuel charges. “Stop talking down to us. These are the leaders our parents voted for, and their votes count. The majority rules.”

“Then why are you still whining about patronizing liberal elitists?’ How much longer are you guys going to play victim?” one of the protest kids bursts out.

“Just like the Trumpers in America,” one of the hevra remarks.

“Do you realize that ever since Begin won the election way back in ‘77, the right has been in power for almost all that time? The right’s been running the show for roughly 35 out of the last 47 years, and you guys are still crying victim, you still feel like second-class citizens?”

“What kind of majority rule is that?” one of the teenagers asks.

“Why aren’t your leaders doing something to advance the periphery? Why are so many right-wing voters as economically disadvantaged as they were fifty years ago?”

“Why are your leftist leaders so incapable of looking us in the eye and treating us like equals?” demands Shmuel.

Dov, who knows that the question has merit, sees an opening for resolving the issues and reaching an understanding.

“Okay, point well taken, so our leaders lack people skills. But the ones your parents voted for five times in the last five years are the ones who screw you every time. Look, in the last election Bibi promised more security and to lower the cost of living. He didn’t say anything about tearing the country apart over a ‘reasonableness standard’ that no one even heard of before last November. Where are we now? The cost of living has gone through the roof and security has gone down the toilet. The Crime Minister forgot his campaign promises and you got suckered, again. And you’re telling me that our guys should stop patronizing you?

“Look, Shmuel, we have to come to some kind of understanding about “majority rule.” You guys are the majority, for now, but you have no real clout. You get conned every time. Where’s the affordable housing Bibi promised twelve years ago? Where’s our security after all those ‘strong right-wing governments?’ Do you realize that a generation of kids in Sderot and Netivot grew up wetting their beds over the many years of rocket attacks from Gaza, under Bibi’s watch? I’m sure you know that Bibi gets lots of support from the trusting folks in Sderot and Netivot. I’m sure those very same freierim say they need the judicial reform. Do you know who made it mandatory to put in bomb shelters in the schools near Gaza? The Supreme Court took care of that, back in 2006, by invoking the reasonableness standard to veto a government policy switch not to put in the shelters because of budget constraints.

“I wish I was a fly on the wall when that decision was made. I can just hear a Supreme Court judge telling some government lackey: ‘You can’t find the money for bomb shelters to protect school children? Spend less on yeshivas for draft dodgers…’

“So Shmuel, pal, let’s agree on something. How about putting some teeth into this majority rule you’re so keen on? Where’ your outrage? How about demanding some accountability from the leaders your folks voted for? Isn’t that what you would expect after a free election in a democracy?”

Shmuel shakes his head and asks. “How are we supposed to do that?”

“Don’t just go home after the election and say meaningless things like ‘the people have spoken.’ Use your voice to say something that comes from the gut. When promises are broken or forgotten, get angry. Don’t leave the protesting to the losing side. You guys voted for them. Make them keep their promises.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“No, not easy at all. We know how hard it is. We’re the ones out in the street, doing your job…”

Shmuel is about to object, but Dov keeps talking.

“Majority rule is not just about election results. It’s about the values that the majority agreed on and put in writing in our Declaration of Independence. Liberal values based on equality for men and women, religious and secular, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, values which we don’t always live up to, but at least we aspire to. And now this shameful reform is making a mockery of all we stand for. That’s what happens when you make up bogus laws that serve the interests of crooked politicians who have the gall to call them ‘basic laws,’ which is supposed to take the place of the constitution we never had. That’s another mistake Ben-Gurion made that we’re still paying for.

“Running a country without a constitution is like playing soccer without a rule book. Imagine what that would be like. Don’t think too hard, that’s what we have now. Think how absurd it would be to start a ‘referee reform’ while we’re playing the game without rules. Imagine a ref unable to penalize a team with a red card after a player gives an opponent an unreasonable kick in the crotch. What’s next? Why even bother with referees if we don’t have rules?”

The pro-reform kids look at one another, waiting for someone to say something. They notice that a change has come over Itzik, who for the first time looks interested in the discussion around him. Dov’s sports metaphor got to him. One can almost hear a faint click, like the old phone token dropping. Shmuel, the group’s spokesman, has run out of bumper sticker slogans. No more majority rule, 64 mandates, leftist elitists and second-class citizens. In place of these jingles, the rationale of the protest kids is starting to sink in. One doesn’t have to agree with them to understand them. It’s not about election results, it’s about what happens after the elections. It’s about the social contract between the people and those who represent them, promises kept and policies carried out; it’s about shared values cherished by the majority of the people, protecting the rights of minorities, freedom of religion, freedom from religion, separation of state and religion, separation between government and the judiciary, and a strong system of checks and balances, all codified by a constitution. That’s democracy. And if teenage kids can grasp these principles before they serve in the IDF, and before they are old enough to vote, then Israel may find its way to a brighter future.

About the Author
Avi Shamir is a freelance writer, editor, translator and the author of "Saving the Game," a novel about baseball. A Brooklyn College graduate with a BA in English, Avi has contributed to the Jerusalem Post, The Nation, Israel Scene, In English and The World Zionist Press Service.
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