Jay Rosen
It's time for an upgrade in style

Judicial & Electoral Reform Have The Same Solution

"Leave (the) Democracy Alone," one of the many signs displayed during the anti-judicial reform protests in Tel Aviv, 4 February 2023.

Photo taken by author
"Leave (the) Democracy Alone," one of the many signs displayed during the anti-judicial reform protests in Tel Aviv, 4 February 2023. Photo taken by author

“The Knesset deserves to legislate what it wants.”

This is a self-translated quote from MK Simcha Rothman, chair of the Constitution, Law, and Justice Committee, in preparing for the first vote on the judicial reform that the current government intends to pass.

And actually, of the eight words in his translated quote, he’s 5/8 correct: The Knesset deserves to legislate. Except it cannot, and not for the reason the current government is telling us. Don’t believe the hype: Israel’s Judicial system is not its weakest link, rather its most overworked. Israel’s weakest link is its legislation, the Knesset.

The solution to both the election stalemate of the past four years and the attempts to change the judicial system are one in the same, and it’s neither new nor partisan: Representation by geographic constituencies.

When people use the term electoral reform in Hebrew, they think of two things: The split vote between PM and Knesset in the 1990’s and raising or lowering the electoral threshold. The former proved to not work, and the latter invariably serves the interest of kingmaking smaller parties.

For all the banners of ‘Referendum Now’ and ‘Constitution Now’ at the weekly protests, neither will solve Israel’s long-standing dysfunction; rather, there’s one more piece of electoral reform, obvious to those coming from the West and which has been bandied about since the creation of the State: Geographic representation in Knesset.

Israel is one of three democracies which votes as one electoral district. All that diversity and opinion-slinging, which are extolled as democratic virtues, are contained in one electoral district. Antiquated, to put it mildly.

This is an urgently-needed solution as national political parties become increasingly autocratic. Only a handful of political parties hold primaries for their leadership and running lists, open to party members after paying dues and are vetted for months, as there is no mandate for parties to do so.

The three parties in the center, despite campaigning on values of liberalism, are autocratic in nature. The chairman chooses who serves in what number on the list, few if any primaries have ever been held and won’t likely any time soon.

As for the other parties, there’s cronyism to ensure the status quo remains. Likud has been purged of anyone but the most sycophantic, with its Central Committee and governing bodies reduced to titles only. And the two left-wing Zionist parties, whose ideological differences are tantamount to an inside joke in 2023, are at pains to make themselves relevant to anyone born after their initial defeat in 1977 — resulting in a demographically outdated list.

And we haven’t even gotten to the latest crisis. And while there instances of judicial overreach, the planned ‘reforms’ go far and above in correcting them. Furthermore, they don’t deal with the fact that they stem from the same indicted member of Knesset.

This is not a case of “Only In Israel,” and to throw up one’s hands in the face of moral relativism or romantic apologisms. This can be fixed.

Shifting to a system where elected representatives — our servants — are held accountable as much to an actual constituency as they currently are to a party elder has the actual potential to reform the Knesset. Consensus will come back into vogue out of necessity to survive the next elections, accountability will shorten terms, and parties will be forced to open their memberships. We could see new faces on the national scene that come with solutions and drive, rather than the cynicism and detachment that drive so many to give up on governance — not to mention to continue living here. Stop the brain drain, elect locally.

There are seven districts in Israel (“mechozot”), largely used for the district courts, which are further divided into 16 sub-districts (“nafot”). Divided evenly into 120 (number of seats in Knesset), we get 7.5 seats per sub-district. This number could either be reduced to 7, with the remaining 8 seats divvied in a system akin to the MMP model in New Zealand, or adjusted to population size — especially relevant, as the smallest district is 475,000 while the largest is 2.2 million, and the remaining five vary between 1 to 1.5 million.

The Supreme Court will still need to weigh in on the constitutionality of laws passed, but the frequency of such a mechanism can be dramatically lessened with constituency-based representation. Many of the rulings that are deemed ‘activist’ stem from the Knesset’s inability to weigh in on the realities of Israeli society — racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. — due to ideological- and coalition-based concerns. Most of Israel’s vaunted treatment of its LGBT population, for example, stems from judicial review and popular opinion, while the Knesset has done little for said community via legislation. If a Member of Knesset would actually have to listen to their constituency’s opinion on matters, on par with their party elder(s), think what other issues could be advanced through the legislature alone! Think what other issues could be accepted by the majority through consensus, rather than rushed and forced through coercion!

We’re not being forced to invent anything new — we have lots of models to emulate and synthesize from other democracies for our fractured reality. Furthermore, Israel’s Left and Right have brought up the topic of geographic representation in some form — single- vs multi-representative constituencies, partial or complete overhaul of the Knesset’s 120 representatives, etc. The irony is the Knesset’s own website has a detailed history of every time such reform has been brought to the table, including why it failed — lack of interest and/or a more pressing issue taking precedence, i.e. security.

The social protests of 2011, and stop-gap defense mechanisms like Iron Dome and the Separation Barrier, show that Israeli society is capable of prioritizing more than one issue at a time, blowing the cover of many politicians who’ve built a career on fear mongering and one-issue pandering.

In our current system, there is no “losing” and “winning” based on democracy — the post-election, behind-the-scenes sausage making of coalition building is the furthest stretch of democracy imaginable, essentially erasing whatever mandate the voter has given on Election Day. The high horse that the current government’s members claim is made of straw, just as the previous government was, proving the need for more direct representation than this country has ever seen. We know this because of how the past government collapsed, after Yemina who promised not to join forces with Yesh Atid not only did, but sat in a government with *clutch those pearls* Arabs!

And we know this because those who still vote Likud in the hopes they’ll return to their once-vaunted platform of liberalism are shocked — shocked! — at the coalition agreements and legislative agenda being pushed.

Fellow Immigrants By Choice, we are the only wave of Aliyah that was born and raised in democracies. The exhaustion that drives Sabras to “relocate” can be made up with our irrational choices to be and remain here, so long as we share our democratic upbringings — and, with the exception of those from the two other countries voting as single districts, our geographic-representational models — out loud *and* in Hebrew, across our ideological differences.

We can stop the insanity of screaming ’til high heaven that there’s a mandate, when there isn’t much of one; of governments with a bloated cabinet; of coalitions which expediently put the burden of taxation and education on one sector at the expense of another; fellow citizens who threaten to move; and all the other phenomena that befits a young democracy, but not one with a growing pool of highly-educated and motivated immigrants by choice.

It is never enough to declare what we don’t want without providing what we want instead. This is evident in our own tradition, as the holidays of Pesach and Shavuot are inextricably linked — freedom from bondage is tied into accepting the Torah. That the current Opposition in Knesset has failed to take the mantle of leadership at the protests, much less propose anything like the above or different; and that the President is straining his voice to be heard by both sides, is the cue for us to help our beleaguered Sabra neighbors; let them take a quick break to get refreshed; and upgrade the fight with tangible and long-term solutions. Maybe even with new and inspired voices from all parts of Israeli society, no longer afraid of dirtying their hands in centralized political party politics, rather than recycling the same personalities for the past 30+ years.

The Knesset deserves to legislate, let’s let it do so: I promise to do my part and translate this into Hebrew and into the mainstream — what will you do to pay our democratic upbringings forward?

About the Author
Originally from Washington, DC, Jay became a full-time Israeli in 2006. The founder of Ḥayyati, a cross-cultural communications consultancy providing tailor-made solutions across sectors and demographics, Jay also leads workshops for students and young professionals eager to get a better understanding of Israel and their own potential. In addition to volunteer teaching everyday Hebrew to hundreds of potential and new immigrants every week, Jay has founded several social initiatives including The Here & There Club, a series of salon gatherings to promote civic involvement among fellow immigrants.
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