The problem with Israel

Israel is a small country, and yet it commands so much attention. Each day countless of opinions, from within and without this land, focus solely on a single issue; the conflict with the Palestinians. There is no doubt that this is a serious subject worthy of the attention it gets. As the country copes daily with terrorists trying to kill civilians using guns, knives and cars as their weapons, as Israel retaliates by demolishing homes and rogue citizens take to vigilantism, the reactions from around the world are loud sparking heated debates on social media. Make no mistake this is a big problem, although it is not the most existential threat to Israel’s existence today. What threatens Israel more than Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Palestinians in general is the political system under which it is governed.

When the founders of the modern state convened to draft the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, they envisioned a land that was governed by a set of laws that were fair and democratic in the spirit of the great democracies of the West. These laws were to be coupled with laws based on “freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets or Israel.” In fact, the Declaration itself gave a deadline of October 1, 1948 for a constitution — a deadline that long has passed with no satisfaction to the requirement.

The founders had intended to create a State that would protect all of its inhabitants, granting everyone within the land “complete equality of social and political rights…irrespective of religion, race or sex.” It was to be a society that respects the beliefs of others by guaranteeing “freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” It was to adhere faithfully to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations. In fact, today the famed Declaration of May 14, 1948 is often quoted by Israel’s politicians as proof that Israel was, is and always will be an open and tolerant society — a fact that is quite debatable given the proof.

When Theodore Herzl, often seen as the father of modern day Zionism created the framework for the modern State of Israel, he was specific about not intermingling religion and state. In his 1896 blueprint entitled Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), Herzl stated that “Faith unites us, knowledge gives us freedom. We shall therefore prevent any theocratic tendencies from coming to the fore on the part of our priesthood.” He continued, “We shall keep our priests within the confines of their temples in the same way as we shall keep our professional army within the confines of their barracks.”

Nearly 120 years removed from that blueprint, the State of Israel is in fact, controlled by religious creed. As 8% of the population identifies themselves as ultra-Orthodox and 12% as Orthodox, the remaining 80% of the Jews in the country have to live in a land that has rules based on rabbinical interpretations of Scripture. The modern state has no public transportation on the Sabbath, businesses are forbidden to open on the Sabbath and holidays and if they choose to do so, which many do, they are levied a hefty fine. The right to marry or divorce in the country is controlled by a government sanctioned entity called the Rabbinate which is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox; a problem which affects so many that their only recourse is to leave the country in order to marry.

While the State of Israel considers a Jew anyone who has at least one grandparent who was Jewish, many of the laws enacted by a religious minority in government prevent these citizens from many civil liberties because according to their beliefs, these people are not Jewish. In fact, many reform and conservative Jews, obviously religious to their own degree are not accepted as Jews by the Rabbinate and therefore are at the mercy of those that feel that their brand of religion is inauthentic. Meanwhile the ultra-Orthodox refuse to perform their mandatory army or national service, choose not to work and pay taxes and are granted overly generous subsidies exclusive to their community. The irony of this all is that a small minority holds such sway although many of them on a fundamental level do not believe in the Jewish State. It is the contention of this community that only the Almighty God can return the land to the Jews during the coming of the Messiah. They spit in the face of Zionism and her spawn all the while they maintain a chokehold on her people and accept the reluctant generosity of its citizens.

In knowing this, one would believe that the problem are the religious, however this is only a symptom of the overall problem. The reason why a small minority holds such sway is a direct result of the nature of the political system itself. Israel runs on a parliamentary system, meaning the party in the majority gets to form the government after elections. However, it differs in that citizens vote for parties and not people, meaning there is no adequate representation on the local level for citizens to gain help. In contrast, England too runs on a parliamentary system; however each representative is elected by a local constituency. In Israel it is not uncommon for parties to gerrymander their lists, pre- and even post-election, meaning who you vote for might not actually represent you even if their party wins.

Israel has many political parties including religious institutions that act as political organizations. In most true democracies that boast of a separation of church and state, this is taboo and often outright illegal. In the past two elections alone the majority party did not get to form the government because they were unable to form a majority coalition. The government was only formed as a result of promised givebacks and financial concessions to minority parties and their constituents that contribute to the high tax burden many in the country have to bear.

This system also leads to cronyism and a very large bureaucracy in many levels of the civil government. As an example, one of the most basic rights of any open society is the right to drive, yet in Israel to get a license is very expensive for the average Israeli. It is not as simple as getting a permit, learning with your parents or in school and taking a test as the system involves contractors who are the only ones authorized to teach. A minimum of 28 lessons is required before one can take a test and the test can only be taken once the contractor says the student is ready. Many times the contractor takes advantage of this and “extra” lessons are required.

Even the banking system is out-of-control in Israel, as lawmakers turn a blind eye to the exorbitant and often inexplicable fees and interest that is charged on even the most basic of accounts. There is no such thing as free checking in Israel, and in fact, it is not unheard of for a savings account that is dormant to be levied a fee for non-usage. Even refinancing a mortgage is expensive and oftentimes the fees and penalties one needs to pay to do so negate the better rates that are the goal of a refinance. Even the government is in on this one as when you refinance, you must go to the land department and pay for another land title which if you are going for refinancing, is obviously still yours.

There are little to no price controls in Israel, meaning the cost of goods can fluctuate dramatically based on the whim of the manufacturer. Import taxes for goods are astronomical too, oftentimes close to 100% of the cost of the item. Imagine paying $100,000 for a Volvo, or $70,000 for a standard model Ford Explorer, or $150 for a pair of basic Nike sneakers that do not adorn the Jordan or Lebron logos. This is the cost to most Israelis. The average Israeli salary is said to be around 9,300 shekels per month ($2,300) and most families, nearly two-thirds of the country (63.5%) live in debt at least part of the year while 1/3rd are constantly in the red.

Certain industries such as the cement manufacturing industry and even tuna canning industries are controlled by one company under government approval and these are only two examples of the cronyism that exists in this land. Recently the Israeli government which applauded the finding of natural gas wells off the coast of Israel as a find that will help “ease the burden of all Israelis,” voted to allow privatizing the wells with no public support. In fact, there are public demonstrations in front of the Knesset daily even today to no avail. There is a myth rooted in truth that five companies run all industries in Israel, anti-trust is not a priority and this comes at the expense of the Israeli worker.

The army, which is often billed as the backbone of Israeli society pays their conscripts less than $200 per month. Meanwhile the Knesset which recently tried to block a nominal increase in this wage voted themselves a pay increase that sees them now earning more than 3.5 times more than the average Israeli. Since the year 2000, Israeli Knesset members have seen their pay increase over 100% while the average wage increase for Israel’s citizens was negligible. In fact, according to one major publication, the wage was a few hundred shekels lower in 2013 than it was in 2001.

What is most alarming about the current system is that the people who are on top of the leadership in this country have been so for close to 20 years. Even former ministers who were convicted of bribery and similar offenses and spent time in prison as a result are allowed by law to run again — and have and are now back in the leadership roles they once had.

The judicial system too is fatally flawed. As there is no clear constitution and thus no truly Israeli laws, the courts use a mix of Ottoman era, British Mandate era, and Jewish law to render decisions. In the modern era this causes severe problems for women looking to divorce their husbands, citizens trying to prevent government takeover of their land and even criminal law to a degree. In a world of democracies that pride themselves on checks and balances and separation of powers, Israel is way behind in this area, again to the detriment of its citizens. Make no mistake, it is a far better system that exists anywhere else in the region, it is however a far cry from being the modern, democratic and fair system that it claims to be.

Everything that is wrong with Israel today can be directly traced back to the form of governance and the system that Israel has in place. Before Israelis can make peace with her neighbors, or choose not to, it must first be recognized that citizens really have no choice. Life here is determined by 61 individuals who no one elected and no one can actually complain to. Israel needs a constitution of laws based on the founding principles of the modern State. Israel needs a representative democracy in which a local population can air their gripes and concerns, and if nothing changes, vote in someone else to represent them.

Israel is a melting pot of cultures, however it is highly xenophobic and oftentimes who you are and where your family came from have more to do with how you are treated than anything else. You cannot have rule of law when there is no law and you cannot enforce rules on selective demographics. Until this happens, there will be no peace in Israel because the status quo is too comfortable for the people that enjoy its fruits.

About the Author
Jay Engelmayer is a 47 year old husband and father of four. Professionally his focus has been digital marketing and business development for commercial products. A proud and unapologetic American-Israeli Zionist, he enjoys cooking and yelling at television screens. Some consider him argumentative in nature, although he prefers "purposeful cynic" when describing his disposition. Living in Israel, he hails from New York City and is glad he left before it became the 1970's redux it is today.