Joel Haber
Tour Guide, Comic, Foodie, Israel-Lover

What the U.S. Can Learn From Israeli Politics

I specifically waited until today to post this, because I did not want it to be seen as commenting on either of the two U.S. Presidential Candidates. While this is a political post, I presume that most of you will read it at least after you have personally voted, and probably even after the overall results are already known. But with the campaign still fresh in our minds, I hope this will be read as part of the “post-mortem analysis” (and I hope that whoever is elected, it doesn’t make the term “post-mortem” more than a figurative term in relation to the United States).

As a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, and as a relatively recent immigrant (2009) who cares deeply about the political process in both countries, I felt I might be able to shed light on a few areas where America can learn a positive lesson from Israel’s political system.

Mind you, Israel’s system is far from perfect. It is deeply flawed, and has many problems (and perhaps before our next national elections, I will write a similar post about what Israel can learn from U.S. politics). But I have never viewed things as purely black and white, and I believe there are positive aspects to our flawed system, and that those positives are things that could improve America’s system, if the country chose to make the effort.

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A few months ago, someone on Facebook defriended me because he did not like my political opinions. This was not the first time something like this happened. In fact, the same thing happened about a year ago as well, when another acquaintance defriended me because she too disagreed with my expressed politics. The striking thing for me was that the woman who defriended me a year ago was an extreme Liberal and the man who did so more recently was a staunch Conservative.

I mention this not to highlight that I am indeed centrist in my views. Rather, I believe it reveals a problem in American politicals. Namely, the two-party system.

When a country’s government operates with only two viable political parties, it creates an adversarial atmosphere. If you are not in my party’s camp, the prevailing thought process goes, you must be in the other party’s. But it goes beyond simple party affiliation: if you do not largely agree with the majority of my political views, you must be a supporter of the other party, even if you don’t actually align with their views either. Because there is no other option.

Here in Israel, the case is rather different. We have a multi-party system, which is the polar opposite of the with-me-or-against-me scenario. With 10 lists (technically made up of even more parties) with seats in the Knesset, one can’t assume that anyone who doesn’t vote for the same party as them is their enemy. Even someone who does not agree with most of your political views can’t be seen as belonging to the “other party’s camp,” because there are too many other parties that they could belong to!

I personally know people who voted for the vast majority of parties last time around (if not all of them, and even some other parties who did not make it into the Knesset at all). If I viewed them all as my enemies, I’d hate about 90% of the population! Instead of with-me-or-against-me, what Israel gets is “You’re with me, or you’re just crazy like everyone else in this country.”

There is no question that this has been one of the most polarizing and vitriolic election campaigns in recent U.S. memory (if not ever). What we have been seeing, I believe, is the logical extension of this “you’re with me or you’re against me” attitude. The two-party system breeds conflict, which when combined with angry frustration with the state of the country leads to abject hatred of the other side. (And Lord knows there are plenty of valid reasons for Americans to be frustrated with their current state of affairs.)

While I believe that Israel has way too many parties still, and would love to see us get down to only 5-6 parties in the Knesset, I feel that America would benefit greatly from a viable 3rd party. In my opinion, “Anyone who disagrees with me is a nut” is much preferable to “Anyone who disagrees with me is evil and my enemy.”

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I did  not vote in this year’s American elections, for the first time since I have been eligible to vote. Mainly it was due to the hassle of voting absentee, but I certainly would have made the effort in other circumstances. For example, if my last residence in the U.S. had been in Florida or Pennsylvania instead of California.

But this only was the culmination of a political disaffection and disenfranchisement that I’ve felt my entire adult life. The Electoral College system had great value when it was created, reinforcing democratic values by ensuring that smaller states would also get attention from Presidential candidates.

Now, in a day and age where political campaign budgets are so high, and where travel and advertising are so cheap, if all votes counted equally, no candidate would neglect any state’s voters. In fact, it would force them to stump everywhere in the country, instead of just in the few so-called swing states. While the Electoral College was designed to protect the small states, it now does so at the expense of the large states. So the majority of American’s votes are (relatively speaking, though not objectively speaking) worthless.

By contrast, here in Israel, I (a fairly recent immigrant) have personally met and spoken with at least 8 members of Knesset, and could literally have access to any of them if I had an issue I wanted to discuss. My vote counts just as much as anyone else’s vote. And with so many parties (yes, that again) ensuring that no party ever has a total majority in Knesset, my vote has even more power to help determine the overall makeup of the governing majority.

I once was disenfranchised, but now I’m engaged.

But it isn’t about how I personally feel here compared to there when I vote. It is about democracy in general. Israel’s average voter turnout is vastly higher than America’s (a difference of nearly 25 percentage points). And it is hard to argue that fewer votes more accurately reflects the true will of the people.

Dismantling the Electoral College would engage many more people by returning power to individuals, which should lead to higher voter turnout and thus greater democracy for all.

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So whichever candidate becomes America’s next President, maybe the U.S. can look at how painful this campaign was, and try to make things better for the country moving forward. A good place to start looking for part of the solution is America’s best friend in the Middle East, the only true democracy in the region.

About the Author
Joel Haber (aka Fun Joel) is a licensed Israel Tour Guide. Born and raised in New Jersey, he spent many great years in NYC, and a few more in LA before making Aliyah in 2009. Interests include Israel, food, and making people happy.