Public debates have a way of bringing out the best – and worst – in
Wednesday night’s Jerusalem Post and AACI-sponsored Israel
Elections 2013 debate at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue – the final in a series of
four events leading up to Tuesday’s Knesset election – started off with the
Western-style gentility that befit the overwhelmingly English-speaking audience
of over 1,000 veteran and recent immigrants to Israel.
Moderated in a
firm but fair manner by the Post’s Editor-in-Chief Steve Linde, the debate
pitted representatives of the country’s eight leading Jewish parties against
each other in a lastminute attempt to woo undecided voters.
Of course, if
appearances are more than skin deep, a quick perusal of the largely modern
Orthodox crowd belied their conservative tendency well before they rousingly
applauded the opening statements of Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett and
Strong Israel’s Arieh Eldad.
In fact, Bennett created a “rock star” aura
upon his arrival, after the halfdozen foreign news crews that had arrived to
film the debate swarmed around him to get close-ups of the new superstar of
The other representatives – Diaspora Affairs Minister
Yuli Edelstein representing Likud Beytenu, Alon Tal with The Tzipi Livni Party,
Dov Lipman with Yesh Atid, Labor’s Isaac Herzog and Shas’s Menahem Shem Tov –
all received respectful applause following their statements, which all touted
their party’s attributes, instead of denigrating their opponents.
the representative from Meretz, Laura Wharton – clearly nervous about appearing
before an “enemy” crowd unlike any Tel Aviv audience she’s ever experienced –
garnered modest applause and nary a catcall after her intro.
began when the microphones were opened up for questions from the
It seems only natural in a public gathering of Anglos that
there will be small percentage of eccentric ideologues or directionless lost
souls. And they invariably make their way to a live mic.
the colorful sideshows requiring intervention from security (one involving a
near fistfight over something that had nothing to do with politics, another
involving a disruptive rant about the descendants of King David), a number of
relevant audience questions made way for concise podium answers.
by little, the candidates began trading barbs with each other, with Bayit Yehudi
being the primary target of both the Right and Left. Apparently, the new kids on
the block are also the most threatening to the established
During the session’s final two-minute summations, the
politicians sharpened their teeth, with Shas’s Shem Tov promising his party
would focus on bread and not peace, Eldad outlining why Strong Israel will keep
a Palestinian state from coming into existence from outside the government and
Bayit Yehudi explaining how it will prevent the same thing from inside the
But when Meretz’s Wharton urged the next government to adopt
the 2002 Saudi Peace Initiative, the crowd booed loudly and angrily, ending the
evening on a volatile note.
Outside the synagogue, the crowd was still
buzzing, and some of it stung. One woman in an American accent called Herzog a
“drip” and deemed Wharton “disgusting.” Apparently, the concept of democracy she
grew up with in the US didn’t transfer once she made aliya.
But for the
more open-minded public, the debate was a sterling exercise in presenting the
vast range of options that await the Israeli voters next week.
helped undecided voters make up their minds, solidified decisions already made,
or raised new questions, the debate achieved its goals.
Now it’s up to
the voters to do their part.