Israel is not your run-of-the-mill country and for better or worse its citizens are anything but a single coherent group. Israelis are a melting pot of various religions and cultures, and a cacophony of languages. There are Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Druse, Bedouins, Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, secular Arabs, Christians and Jews. On any given day you can hear Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian and French spoken on the streets of Israel, as well as Tagalog, Thai, Chinese, Farsi or Turkish.
As such, it wouldn’t surprise many to know that there are numerous social, political and cultural chasms that divide people here and the spectrum of our differences is immense. You need to go no further then view the political parties running in the upcoming elections that cater to economic, religious, cultural and nationalistic sensibilities. Among the dozen or so mainstream parties running in the upcoming elections, there is also an Ultra-Orthodox women’s party, a party to legalise cannabis and another to lower rent prices.
Some would view the multi-faceted nature of Israeli society with apprehension lest it weaken us in the face of those more homogenous neighboring countries seeking our demise. I would argue that these ardent differences of ours when expressed within a single yet pluralistic civil society is perhaps our greatest strength. Like the influx of European immigration to the US at the beginning of the 20th century and subsequent waves of immigration from Asia as well as Mexico and Central America, which has had a net positive effect on the US both culturally and economically, so too our differences in Israel strengthen our society and ironically make us more impervious to the vagaries of the shifting sands of the Middle East. While all of our neighbours have experienced considerable turmoil and tumult arising from the Arab Spring, Israel has been spared the more violent internal machinations that have plagued our neighbours precisely because as a democratic and pluralistic society we are better able to temper such sudden and drastic changes.
Our Knesset is a microcosm of Israeli society and debates there are usually heated and often involve shouting, sometimes even followed by the ejection of a Knesset Member. The beauty of Israeli democracy is that the Knesset and Israeli Supreme Court are independent bodies separate from the ruling government (as is the case with most true democracies) and in effect allow the “cool and deliberate sense of community to prevail” in times of crises. James Madison, the fourth president of the US and the father of the US Constitution believed that there needed to be a counterweight against any ill-advised decision by a leader who became swept up by the masses.
Madison wrote so beautifully in 1788 that “there are particular moments in public affairs when the people, stimulated by some irregular passion, or some illicit advantage, or misled by the artful misrepresentations of interested men, may call for measures which they themselves will afterwards be the most ready to lament and condemn. In these critical moments, how salutary will be the interference of some temperate and respectable body of citizens, in order to check the misguided career, and to suspend the blow meditated by the people against themselves, until reason, justice, and truth can regain their authority over the public mind?”
While Israel is far from perfect with a myriad of social and economic problems as well as the Herculean task of attaining a peaceful and mutually satisfactory agreement with the Palestinians yet before us, we must remember that our right to vote in the upcoming election is an opportunity to not just resolve these issues but also a good time to pat ourselves on the back for this robust democratic system in the ever-volatile Middle East, which is no small feat.