Israeli Democracy Is Alive and Well: Spread the Word

It was an ugly summer no doubt for all of us. The brutal murder of three Jewish high school students, the senseless murder of young Palestinian resident of Jerusalem, the missiles flying over the county and our running to shelters, the image of Hamas soldiers emerging out of a tunnel in the midst of a kibbutz just over the Gaza border, our soldiers dying defending our country, the destruction of lives and homes in Gaza.

Reading the messages from leaders in the American Jewish community including from those who spent part of their summer in Israel and the heartfelt high holiday sermons of Rabbis concerned for the future of Israel one heard a message full of pessimism. The end of civil dialogue in Israel, widespread racism and violence towards the Arab citizenry, a massive move to the right among Israelis, a leadership that would never change, a country more and more dominated by charedim insistent on imposing their view of Judaism on the state were all part of the Israel they described.

Six months later it is clear none of that narrative is true. Israeli democracy is alive and well sometimes quirky often rambunctious as always. Whatever the specific results, two days before the actual voting, with the last public polls published on Friday, several trends are clear.

The electorate is centrist and the extremes are weak. Despite the reports of polarization and the growth of extremism, quite the opposite is the case. Two centrist parties Yesh Atid of Yair Lapid and Kolenu of Moshe Kahlon will almost certainly capture more votes combined than either Netanyahu or Herzog. On the extremes both the hard right Yisrael Beitenu party of Avigdor Liberman and the hard left Meretz are fighting to get the minimum number of votes needed to get representation in the Knesset

The Arab voice in the Knesset will be more influential than ever in Israel’s history. The emergence of a joint Arab list means that they will be at least 10% of the Knesset. They are reaching out to Jewish Israeli voters, pushing an agenda for better social services for the underserved Israeli Arab population which poll after poll tells them is what the Arab Israeli population wants them to focus on. But the joint list contains a broad spectrum of parties ranging from Islamist to moderate. They will certainly be tested both internally and externally in their new position of influence and it will be a challenge for the Jewish political leadership as well.

Free and open discussion.

Candidates have been campaigning across the country not just in phot ops but in serious forums in front of businessmen, students and diverse parts of the community on issues ranging from security to economics, the status of the Arab Israeli community to the meaning of a Jewish and democratic states.

Israel witnessed its first live television debate in well over a dozen years (unfortunately with neither Herzog nor Netanyahu present. All of the party’s leaders have been over the airwaves answering tough questions. Netanyahu who relied on surrogates throughout most of the campaign is now in nonstop appearances in the media.

Parties have produced short videos some funny, some provocative and some over the top that became viral and generate debate. A rally of tens of thousands opposing Netanyahu was held last week as was one with 10,000s of yeshiva students supporting the charedi political party. A third rally will be held today two days before the election for those of the right.

Despite all the talk of the end of civil discourse and tolerance of free debate the most disruptive incident involving a political candidate was a bottle of juice spilled on firebrand Arab MK Zoabi. The perpetrator was immediately arrested.


The decline of ethnic politics. There is no doubt that divisions remain between Israeli Jews of Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) descent and those with Ashkenazi roots. But the Shas party which at its peak captured 17 seats in the knesset as an expression of the disaffection of the Mizrachi population: religious and non religious is now marginal. It is fragmented into two parties and has become a party with a limited charedi constituency  and is in the low single digits.

Moshe Kahlon, the centrist politician of Mizrachi descent certainly appeals to many because they share his ethnic background. But Kahlon clearly and repeatedly rejects the idea of him or his party representing an ethnic group and he draws support across Israeli society.

Yisrael Beitenu, perceived as a party representing Russian immigrants is struggling  for survival as “generations 1.5 and 2.0” made up of younger members of the Russian/Israeli community no longer see their identity as defined by their ethnicity.

Fading Power of the Charedim yes the charedi parties may be crucial in determining the ruling coalition. But it is also true that the leaders of the community know that they are fighting a losing long term battle in keeping their population detached totally from mainstream Israeli society. They may win some concessions on draft laws but what are ultimately the more important trends are already in place.And their short period in the opposition has taught them that the end of the day they are far better off in than out of a ruling coalition even if they recieve less and less in exchange for their cooperation. And there are already divisions among the charedi parties about how to deal with this reality.

Some young men are volunteering for military service and some will ultimately be drafted.  More significantly, the spread of the internet and economic imperatives means that thousands of charedi men and women are getting vocational training and entering the workplace. But the long term trends of change with more charedim entering the economic mainstream are already in place.


By Wednesday morning Israelis will wake up to the results of their voting. It is clear that Israel is far from the narrative so many American Jews received from their leaders over the summer. One hopes that the Passover message they receive is that the Israel whose future they are deeply concerned about remains a thriving democracy.


About the Author
Larry Weinman is an investment advisor and recent oleh.He is active in organizations and study with groups involved in "hitchadshoot hayahadut" study and activity between dati and lo dati Israelis and in organizing activities by these groups in the United States. He is also active with other political/social change groups. His writings have been published in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and Washington Jewish Week.
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