Why we need to adapt our government to Israel’s civic spirit
After the horrific massacres of October 7, 2023, the second question Israelis asked each other is “how can I help?” Most Israelis came out to volunteer, many more than once, to house the internal refugees, to heal the wounded, to feed the hungry. These volunteers filled a vacuum left by a dysfunctional government unable to mobilize in times of need, leaving many to ask the question: why do we need the government anyway?
A month into the war, however, we are learning it is unrealistic to believe citizens who need to feed their families can replace the mechanisms of the state. One can only volunteer for so long. The question is, therefore, not why we need a government given such an incredible civil society, but rather how can we get the government our civil society deserves?
I believe the answer lies in Israel’s past. Unlike other modern nation-states who grew out of conquered kingdoms or landed aristocracy, Israel was founded as a State by civil society, by a people with over a millenia of experience building robust, sustaining communities in the diaspora. Wherever we lived – with the exception of Persia under the Resh Galut – Jewish communities built and maintained civic structures that were inherently pluralistic, self-determining, and networked to one another.
This is why our modern State was founded by a coalition of self-governing towns, villages, workers cooperatives, and kibbutzim, supported by an international network of donors and supporters. The Yishuv – the representative body of these communities – was first and foremost a supportive infrastructure for the volunteer-based communities that were founded in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the Land of Israel. Our State was built on-top of this network of self-determining communities, with the assumption that collective liberalism and communal autonomy would remain a core dimension of Israeli politics.
Over our 75 years, however, power corrupted. Politicians from both Left and Right sought more power. Israel went from the anarcho-syndicalism of the Yishuv to become one of the most centralized states in the OECD.
The government failures of 2023 drove Israelis to realize we are not well served by our current system of government. While some may pin the failures on particular people in charge, I believe the problem is much more fundamental. If we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future, I believe it is time for us to reflect on how we, as a People whose identity is most fully actualized in moments of civic action, can best benefit from the tools of government. A call to imagine new mechanisms of collective sustainability, one that cares for us as individuals while recognizing our inherently unique communal lifestyle.
A blueprint for building a prosperous Israel out of the destruction of 2023 needs to include efforts to adapt our government and its institutions to reflect our spirit of independence and independent action. To achieve conditions that enhance our civic independence (‘Atzmaut’) as opposed to strengthening a coalition’s rule (‘Meshilut’). One that keeps us safe and healthy to enjoy prosperity, together.
We don’t need a bigger government. We need a broader government. A more connected government. A government that knows how to multiply civic energies and focus them to achieve common aims. A government that is flexible and can scale to the needs of the moment.
Practically, I recommend we begin by building on the wave of civic engagement and the disappointment with our current government’s functioning by creating processes that enable civil society to address national issues. This can be done in a few different ways, including:
- Regional Citizens Assemblies: given the rock-bottom faith Israelis have in their elected representatives, it is time for us to adopt new tools for democracy: sortition-based citizen assemblies. We should start by bringing together deliberative bodies composed of citizens of regions most affected by the war to address the collective challenges they face and develop a shared vision for a safer and more prosperous future.
- Democratic infrastructure investment funds: Participatory grantmaking enables communities to collaborate with foundations and funds to ensure investments in public infrastructure reflect civic needs. Instead of relying on the government we do not trust to determine where our taxes are invested, participatory mechanisms complementing the work of citizens assemblies can provide the capital civil society needs.
- Technology to bring us together as opposed to pushing us apart: Social media definitely enabled volunteers to come together and act quickly; it also deepened our divisions. We need new technologies that do not profit from polarization, that enable civic coordination, organization, and citizen-to-citizen-to-government communication loops and ensure accountability. Technology for citizen assemblies, participatory grantmaking and investing, and public education to ensure our communities have the information they need to make the decisions they deserve to make about their future.
2023 will be remembered as one of the hardest years in the history of the Jewish People because Israel does not have a government it deserves. Changing the people in charge will not fix that: this problem is structural, not only personal. We need to put an end to the idea that there is a division between civil society and the government.
The government we deserve should be a reflection, extension, an enabler of civil society. A blueprint for a post-2023 Israel needs to therefore include a restructuring of Israel’s government to build on the strengths of Israel’s spirit. A recognition that we are not a people to be ruled. A celebration of our communal richness balanced by our need for independence.
How can you help Israel evolve a government that works with, and is strengthened by, civil society? Sometimes it feels like democracy is no more than a contest between elites, and that our voices can only be useful if we root for one team or against another. In this particular case, it’s important for our voices to call for a recrafting of our politics as a whole. Here are a few ways you can use the tools of public diplomacy to create the conditions for a evolution of Israel’s government:
- Demand more from politicians and political parties. The issues that split us apart in a pre-October 7 world will naturally feature in upcoming political campaigns, as these are in the comfort zone of existing political actors. We cannot allow politicians to stay in their comfort zone. As the political campaigns spin up towards the inevitable next elections, we should demand politicians and political parties focus on what brings us together, not tears us apart. Demand they move beyond old slogans and share a vision for how we never return to the same lows of 2023.
- Question not only what decisions were made, but how they were made. We’ve now seen a complete failure of our government to keep its basic promise of security and stability. Most of the public focus will be on the bad decisions that set the stage for those failures. While we must hold responsible those who made those ill-fated decisions, we also need to review how those decisions were made. We need to ascertain whether it was the process itself that resulted in poor decision making. Which voices were reflected in debates prior to the decision? How were different perspectives taken into account? Who were the primary beneficiaries of the decision making process and its results? Without asking these questions and demanding a rethinking of our public decision making process we may find ourselves in similar situations in the future.
- Strengthen civil society calls for a more responsive government. Seeing how non-responsive our government has been to the challenges of 2023 should inspire all of us to join civil society’s call for new mechanisms to enable citizens to demand the mobilization of State resources in-between elections. It can’t be that we accept that we vote once every few years and based on that one action we hand-over our influence on how our civil service serves our society. By lending our vocal support to calls on the government to be more responsive to the needs of our fellow citizens we can amplify the expectations that civil servants remain accountable to the people and not just their political bosses.