Democracy? Elections? Part 2

Israeli elections are looming. But what’s a responsible, self-respecting citizen of this “democracy” to do?  As discussed in Part 1 … if we are truly to be a democracy, some major changes must happen—and at once (not dragging on for years without resolution).

In November, we will have the fifth election in three and a half years.  On our current projection, the result will be no more conclusive, no more capable of producing a stable, representative government, than the last four.  How did we get to our current situation of going to the polls over and over again and achieving the same inconclusive result (a good example of Einstein’s definition of insanity)?  One answer to this question is the misguided notion that democracy means simply that we all vote, and the majority rules—the winner takes all.  With this approach, if the right wing half of the country manages to coalesce and produce a coalition which pleases its voters, the other, unrepresented half of the country will be sorely distressed, feel bitterly disappointed, and focus their energies on bringing down the new, duly elected government—as the disaffected right wing has just done with the Bennett-Lapid government.

Our current system pits us and our parties against each other—aptly illustrated by the term we use for those who are not in the ruling coalition—“the opposition.”  In other words we elect half our MKs to govern, and the other half to oppose them.  Could we find a better recipe for accomplishing nothing?

The fallacy in the “majority rules” oversimplification is that it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the term “democracy.”  Democracy means the demos, the people, rule.  It does not mean simplistically that the majority overrules the minority (a majoritocracy); after all, the minority are still part of the demos.  If we reduce democracy to the idea that “the majority rules” without regard to the impact on those who get overruled, we forfeit the possibility of producing either a stable government or citizens who feel represented and satisfied with how their government functions.

There are two broad aspects to the idea of democracy—people ruling themselves.  The first and most fundamental is that we, the people, as individuals, are in control of ourselves.  In other words, we take responsibility for ourselves; we are actors not victims.  We are proactive in relation to our health, ensuring that our children grow up in a supportive community, pursuing an experience of religion or spirituality that feeds or elevates us and others, nurturing the physical environment—plants, animals, soil, air, water—which supports us, educating ourselves in an unfettered search for truth, making a living or sustaining ourselves without undermining or destroying the lives of others.  In other words, we live with such goals or values not because some controlling power will hit us over the head if we don’t, but because that is who we are.  We are people who rule ourselves.  Without such a foundation among the demos, the practice of democracy quickly disintegrates into a rather cruel political game of who can get the most votes, who’s in charge, who gets the goodies.  And only with such a foundation is it possible to experience the second aspect of democracy, which is how we, as individuals who are in control of ourselves and take responsibility for ourselves, decide to govern ourselves corporately, as a group, as a nation.

I mentioned in Part 1 the need for some serious national introspection, and perhaps this is as good a place as any to discuss the focus of this introspection in relation to our upcoming elections.  If we keep going to the polls electing MKs and parties essentially to “fight” with each other, as if the Knesset were our national gladiatorial ring, then the best we can hope for is a government at “war” with up to half its citizens.  We have citizens in Judea and Samaria whose experience of life is that the Civil Administration is against them; hareidim whose experience is that the ministry of religious affairs is against them; people who regard themselves as Jewish but are rejected out of hand by religious authorities, resulting in couples who want to wed, but whose experience is that the country has no place for them; those favoring “two states” who feel threatened by “right wing” policies they believe undermine maintaining a Jewish majority in the “Jewish” state; and Arabs, Druze and other minorities who have no idea where or how or if they even want to have a place in Israel—a nation at war with itself.

We must drop altogether the notion of “government” and “opposition.”  We simply cannot survive long term with a system which pits us against each other—socially, politically, religiously or in any other way.  We must find a system which enables us to cooperate with each other, to find win-win solutions instead of winners and losers.  And I would suggest this shift must begin with ordinary citizens who value not just the survival but the thriving success of the Jewish state above the dominance of their personal political, religious, or social orientations.  Only when we, at the grassroots or individual citizen level, are able to engage with each other in the kind of genuine dialogue in which we listen to each other’s aspirations and fears, perspectives and motivations, positions and their reasons—only when we are able to find common ground instead of dismissing each other will we be able to elect representatives who can act on our behalf in the same manner.

This is not to say we must drop all our beliefs, concerns and preferences and melt into some kind of genderless, valuefree society with tolerance for anything and everything including loss of our own identity, history, heritage and raison d’etre.  Not at all.  Unless we know who we are and what we believe and why, it is impossible to engage in any kind of meaningful debate.  But debate cannot be simply a dogged attempt to persuade the other to agree with oneself.  Rather it is a striving together to find and enact ideas, approaches, policies, solutions through which we can cater for all our needs without trampling each other’s sensibilities or demonizing each other’s aspirations.

In Part 3 we turn to the topic of what kinds of structural changes we need to actually affect the relationship between us, the demos of democracy, the voters, and our government.

About the Author
Born and raised in Buddhist Thailand as a Christian missionary kid, I was also schooled in Viet Nam, Malaysia and the US. I trained and worked as a minister and educator in the US, Philippines, Thailand and Australia, discovering at 55 that I'm Jewish. A new chapter began with the bet din, bar mitzvah training and a Jewish marriage, and then we made aliyah in 2014.

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