The lead-up to Tuesday’s municipal elections was very depressing for all those working to promote a more mature democratic culture. Such a culture is the bedrock of a more cohesive society, improving the prospects for a better shared future for all of Israel’s 8.9 million citizens.
As we all know, adolescence can be brutal, both for those going through it and for those subjected to the often incendiary fallout. It is a time of extreme passions and binary thinking – black and white, good and bad, love and hate, them and us. Far too much of the campaigning for Tuesday’s elections displayed the adolescent traits that have characterized Israel’s democracy from day one. For example, the Likud and Bayit Yehudi (the Jewish Home) “them or us” campaigns, which targeted Israel’s Arab minorities in “mixed” cities like Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Ramla respectively, shamefully pitching neighbor against neighbor and citizen against citizen. Such binary, tribal, and demagogic politics characterizes an immature democratic culture. And within it, democratic procedures and even fundamental values – free speech no less! – are coopted to undermine the “danger” of imagining, let alone shaping, a common civic vision. With one tribe’s fantasy framed as another’s nightmare, any collective hope for a better shared future – what some democratic theorists call the “common good” – is snubbed out.
A mature and robust democratic culture, on the other hand, nurtures shared values, identities, and interests while also accommodating profound disagreements. It acknowledges and embraces the reality that every individual possesses countless dynamic identities, be they national, religious, ethnic, communal, sexual, familial, ideological, and others. Such maturity appreciates that at one moment – a family wedding or a heartbreaking community-based trauma – familial and communal identities are paramount, while at another moment – in the work-place for example – elements of professional identity are more central. When individuals everywhere and citizens anywhere are reduced to two dimensions, namely, them and us, black and white, Jew and Arab, left and right, prospects for more successful shared futures in our unprecedentedly crowded and interconnected world are extinguished.
The establishment of the State of Israel as a democracy was in and of itself a remarkable achievement, with the Declaration of Independence its aspirational crown jewel. But however impressive; this was an institutional and procedural democratic success story. Given the era and the desperate circumstances surrounding its birth, Israel’s nascent democracy could realistically never have possessed the traits associated with a mature democratic culture. Indeed, during Israel’s first decades of frantic state-building and struggle for survival, Israel’s democracy was to all intents and purposes a one-party democracy, which, as I wrote in my recent book, A Place for Us All – Social Cohesion and the Future of Israel, “is not very democratic at all.”
So what a pleasure it was to wake up to the municipal victories of two women (no coincidence I think!) in Haifa and Beit Shemesh, two towns that symbolize Israel’s internal “tribal” divides, between Jew and Arab and Jew and Jew respectively. In what was reported by the Times of Israel as a “trouncing,” Einat Kalisch Rotem defeated three-term mayor, Yona Yahav, in Haifa, causing a “major upset.” In Beit Shemesh, religious-Zionist challenger Aliza Bloch unseated the incumbent ultra-Orthodox mayor, Moshe Abutbul, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
Bucking adolescent convention, both newly-elected mayors (and they are not alone) had dared to reach beyond traditional tribal divides and won. In an interview on Reshet Bet, Einat Kalisch Rotem, an architect whose winning political design was a broad-span coalition across traditional divides, spoke about her desire to build a diverse and representative leadership. In Beit Shemesh, educator and activist Aliza Bloch triumphed over an ultra-Orthodox incumbent, who enjoyed backing from across the ultra-Orthodox political and rabbinical spectrum. In her campaign video Bloch made a firm commitment to working for all the town’s residents equally and putting an end to tribal decision-making.
Seedlings of a more mature democratic culture thus seem to have sprouted, and not only in predominantly Jewish towns. In the Bedouin town of Lakiya in the Negev, my friend Ibrahim Nsasra, a successful businessman, social entrepreneur, and philanthropist, is through to a second round run-off. This is an extraordinary achievement given that his campaign committed to transcending Bedouin family-based voting patterns and offering a better shared future for all of Lakiya’s “tribes.”
This evolution, however, is no act of nature. In addition to some welcome signs of fatigue and even disgust with tribal politics among the general population, over the past decade Israel’s robust and inclusive-minded civil society has been working hard to knit together communities and cultivate the language of shared citizenship. Non-Government organizational initiatives like Kulanana (in which I was happily involved), Living Together, Co.Lab, Gvanim, Israeli Hope, Shacharit, and others have been busy designing a more inclusive civic landscape. Shacharit has focused specifically on the municipal space and on cultivating a new generation of local leadership that is motivated and equipped to promote the common good. From the moment of his election in 2014, President Reuven Rivlin took it upon himself to champion of this cause. His 2015 “four tribes” speech was the clarion call, presenting an inclusive vision of shared citizenship in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence that he is now advancing through the Israeli Hope program.
These and other initiatives have helped nurture shared civic awareness and build the inter-communal relationships and trust (what the American sociologist Robert Putnam calls “bridging capital”) that allow citizens nationally and residents locally to imagine and build a more successful shared future. There is a long, long way to go, and there will be fierce tribal resistance every step of it. But maybe, just maybe, on this municipal Election Day, October 31, 2018, Israel’s adolescent democratic culture showed welcome, age-appropriate signs of growing up.