Israeli Politics…Chicago Style

This summer, we will mark the 20th anniversary of our Aliyah to Israel from Chicago. Moving to Israel meant that I could rid myself of our snow shovel, ice scraper, and cold weather gear. My gloves, face mask, scarves and long underwear all found new homes. Owning a smaller home meant accumulating less junk, and giving up Sundays even had a positive side — no longer did I have to watch the Bears lose each week.

Yet, there is one thing that I have tried to retain from my Chicago existence. That is a sense of political realism. Growing up in Chicago, we knew that the city was run by one man — Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago and head of the Cook County Democratic Party. It was clear to all that the mayor and his cronies were political animals, whose main goal was to accumulate political power and to advance their own self-interests. While Democratic candidates made the usual promises of helping all groups should they be elected, it was understood that their help and assistance would come only if it would be of some benefit to them. Political ideology and philosophy? The goals of the Democratic machine were to gain and retain office, and to benefit from those positions. No one had any illusions.

When the Israeli political landscape underwent a significant change this past week, with the dismissal of defense minister Moshe Ya’alon and the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman to be his successor, many on both sides of the political spectrum became distressed and concerned. Some viewed the departure of one leader as a harbinger of positive change. Others looked in despair as the hands of power were handed over to someone, whom they feel, is the wrong man for the job. Still others cannot understand how the Prime Minister’s political machinations can benefit the country. Some wring their hands in despair as the country, in their view, teeters on the brink. In the course of a live newscast on Friday night, Roni Daniel, of Israel’s Channel 2, declared, “After this week, I’m not sure I want my children to remain here.”

If one has been exposed to the realities of machine politics, as we were in Chicago, one can understand, that hiring and firing, and enlarging the size of one’s ruling coalition, is all part of the essence of the game — which is staying in office.

As a college student in the late 1970s, I studied under Professor Milton Rakove, the renowned University of Illinois professor of political science. Rakove not only knew the theories of urban politics, but understood the practicalities of politics, and practiced them as a speechwriter, advisor, and campaign strategist for Democratic candidates. He taught us many things, but I best recall his two ‘first’ rules of politics:

  1. The primary goal of the candidate is to win the election.
  2. The secondary goal of the candidate is to stay in office, and win re-election.

To a politician, all else is unimportant. Political philosophies, theories, helping the disenfranchised and downtrodden — are all praiseworthy to be sure, but only if they will help the politician win, or retain his office.

Rakove’s rules of politics likely hold true in Israel as well. For the people at the top, the main goal is getting power, and retaining it. It may sound cynical and hard-bitten, but that is the reality of politics. If shuffling the members of the cabinet is the best way to obtain a larger coalition majority, then that is what will be done. Will the firings and appointments benefit, or harm the country? It is too early to say. But to the politicians, that is not necessarily of primary importance.

While there are similarities between the Chicago machine and Israeli politics in terms of retaining political power, there was one key difference. According to Professor Rakove, providing services is essential to keeping a political machine in power. “Service to the people”, he wrote in ‘Don’t Make No Waves..Don’t Back No Losers, his classic work on the Daley Machine, “is considered one of the prime requisites of good politics.” In order for the municipal machine to retain control, it must provide basic services, and perform them well. Garbage must be collected, trees need to be trimmed, snow has to be cleared, and the alderman (the local city representative) must be responsive to his constituents’ needs.

While Israeli politicians are quite good at playing the political game, some do not yet understand the importance of providing a high level of basic service to their constituents. The understanding that all politics is local, and that providing good services can help win votes has not yet gained a foothold in the Israeli political consciousness.

I fondly recall the last local Chicago election in which I voted. The day before the election, the alderman’s daughter was canvassing the neighborhood in support of her father’s re-election campaign. She rang our doorbell, and after exchanging pleasantries, she expressed the hope that I would cast a ballot for her father.

I replied that I would be glad to vote for him, especially if we could get another garbage bin from the city. Sure enough, the next day, a new bin was dropped off outside our house. And sure enough, I voted for her father, who, of course, won the election.

While I don’t expect Sara Netanyahu to stop by anytime soon canvassing for votes, it would be nice to be appreciated a bit more by our politicians. Even if we don’t get a new garbage bin.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Rosenbaum is the vice-president of Davka Corporation (www.davka.com) one of the world's leading developers of Jewish educational software. He has lived in Israel since 1996, and writes extensively about Jewish life in Israel for the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and other publications.
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