Friday, January 18, 2013

Israeli Elections

Shalom!  Hope everyone is doing well.

A few nights ago, I attended a debate on the election.  It opened with the President of the Great Synagogue (our host) welcoming everyone to the evening.  He began, "Welcome Friends and Foes..." In every respect, that set the appropriate tone for the rest of the night.

(Before you keep reading, check this out if you want an overview of the Israeli Government structure.)

There were 8 ministers.   More than half of them had immigrated to Israel, mostly from the United States, and chosen most likely because it was an all English speaking crowd.  Only three of them were in suits: the minister from Yesh Atid (There is a Future), a rabbi originally from the US; the representative from SHAS, the Ultra-Orthodox party; and the minister representing Likud, a Refusnik from the former Soviet Union.  The attire was the first clear sign that this was going to be unlike American political debates.  No, actually, the first sign was that it was in a synagogue.

Many of the issues that were the big topics in our most recent election were also the focus of this discussion.  Economic inequalities came up a number of times.  Some parties specifically talked about wanting to take the burden off of the middle class. Another argued that the money to bridge the economic gaps ought to come from the big companies who received billions of shekels in tax relief last year.  People brought up environmental issues and the need to become more energy independent.  The minister from Meretz (Energy) let everyone know that her party was the only one that did not have anyone who had ever been investigated.  One mentioned education. 

And then there were the issues specific to Israel.  There was a debate as to how many Palestinians live in the West Bank; one said 1.8 million, others said it was more like 3.5 million.  The minister from Otzma Leyisrael (Strong Israel) said that the Palestinians already have a country; it is called Jordan.  That got a lot of applause.  Then the Labor minister reminded the audience that this is being televised and they should be careful not to make such a rukus over things they know nothing about. 

Can you imagine if an American politician turned to the crowd and told them they don't know what they are talking about?  Only in Israel!

Bayit Yehudi, the only party to have a top minister (Naftali Bennett) attend, was interesting.  Very liberal on social issues, including civil rights for Israeli Arabs, and very clear that they oppose a "Palestinian State in the Land of Israel." An interesting combination. He was quite popular with this particular crowd.

Religious pluralism came up many times. The Green Party's minister is Mesorti (Israeli Conservative Movement) and talked about how terrible it was when his daughter was harassed for wearing a tallit at the Wall. He also explained that Tzippy Livni, the head of his party, is Mesorti, and thus very sensitive to these issues.  Yesh Atid said it was awful that the people who came from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia had so much trouble convincing the Israeli Rabbinate of their Jewish status.  They were punished in their countries of birth for being Jewish, and they are punished here for "not" being Jewish. 

The minister from Yesh Atid is an Orthodox rabbi with a Haredi background.  He is in favor of religious pluralism, and works against the extremists in places like Beit Shemesh. It was very powerful to hear an Orthodox rabbi lobbying for religious pluralism. When I lived in Israel 15 years ago, this was the topic of conversation amongst the liberal movements, but I had never heard an argument for pluralism from the Orthodox side. I imagine his ideal still might look a little different from mine, but he felt like someone who was ready to work on this together. That's pretty exciting.

He also brought up the fact that, last year, 50% of the first graders were either Haredi or Israeli Arab.  Neither group is routinely conscripted into the military.  His conclusion was that the Haredim should have to start serving in the military.  And, the military would have to ensure that it was inclusive.  As an example, all the food should be kosher.

The evening continued with some highly entertaining cheap shots and snide remarks.  At one point, the moderator had asked a member of the audience to take his seat because there was no time for more questions.  The audience member did not want to sit down.  After yelling at each other for a few moments, the moderator came to the edge of the stage and threatened to have the man removed from the room.  The man sat down.  As the moderator walked back to his podium he said, "It always helps in Israel just to shout louder than the other person."

The evening ended in a very surprising way.  As each of the parties was summing up, many stated that they believed Natanyahu was going to be prime minister again.  There was no question in their minds.  For many of them, the real issue being settled in this election is how many seats the smaller parties will get.  When Natanyahu is building his coalition, will he need his numbers from left or right leaning parties?

Of course, they could also be wrong.  If Labor were to unseat Likud as the dominant party, they would build a very different looking coalition and likely move things in a very different direction. Now, is that a real possibility?  Well, it depends on who you ask.  Labor, certainly, thinks it is.

At the end of a thought provoking and entertaining evening, I was still left with the question of what will come out of this election. The answer is, of course, we won't know until it is done.  But, what we do know is that the democratic process promises that whatever happens, it will be a reflection of the hearts and minds of the Israeli people.  That leaves us, as American Jews, in our strange and unique situation; we are, on the one hand, mere observers in this process, and yet at the same time, so very invested in the outcome. 

I cannot predict what will be.  I only hope, as do millions of other Jews in Israel and around the world, that this 19th Knesset will move the State of Israel forward in its continuing pursuit of justice, prosperity and peace.

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