Borderline Views: The big Succot debate
We should insist that our political parties take on a life between elections, and not just in the six months leading up to the polling booth.
Soccut prayers at the Western Wall. Photo: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
It is the season of party political conferences in Britain. During consecutive
weeks, each of the major political parties – the ruling Conservative party, the
coalition Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labor Party – meet for a week and
debate the party policies and their future strategies. In addition to the
Parliamentary members of each party, the local branches all send delegates, as
do the various organizations and political lobbies which are affiliated to each
of the parties.
During the week, discussions are held on all aspects of
social, economic, educational, welfare and foreign policy and, to the extent
that it is possible, the party members and delegates determine party
The conferences are held annually, regardless of whether it is an
election year or not. Policy is debated but it is not a place for electing party
leaders or parliamentary representatives. This is unlike the American system
where party conventions are held once every four years as a means of formally
electing the respective Republican and Democrat candidates for the forthcoming
presidential election. And it is unlike the Israeli system, where party
conventions are held in the period leading up to an election in order to elect
the party lists and to cement the position of the party leader as they present
themselves to the electorate.
Not everything about the British political
party system – least of all the totally non-proportional electoral system – is
perfect. But the party-conference system does allow for real discussion of
policy on a variety of issues facing the country to take place, and for party
members to have an impact on the direction the party should be
For a period of three to four weeks, the British media and TV
channels devote a great deal of time to the debates, to the speeches of the
party political leaders and to in-studio discussions about the various aspects
of party policy. For many viewers it is boring – they are not necessarily
interested in endless discussions on taxation, the national health service,
education policy – but in today’s media world there are enough alternative
satellite and cable options to choose.
For those who are interested, it
enables them to be tuned in, not just to the political intrigues which are
common to all political parties everywhere in the world, but also to the issues
which impact upon them in their daily lives as tax payers, patients, parents to
children at schools, and as concerned observers of an increasingly volatile
When, if ever, was there a serious party political
discussion about these critical social and economic issues in Israel? The only
public political discussions which take place concern the non-existent peace
process, the continuation of settlement policy and the critical issues facing
Israel in the global sphere – not least Iran. Not that these are unimportant –
they are of critical importance to the future existence and survival of the
State of Israel – but they are all too often used as an excuse for not having
any meaningful or serious debate within society about the socio-economic and
welfare issues which we, as citizens, have to deal with on a daily
As expected, nothing has changed as a result of last year’s social
protests. The Trachtenberg Committee proposals have been discarded, no serious
debate has taken place, no significant political movement has been formed as a
result of the protests, and everything is pretty much back to where it was 18
What does it take for there to be a meaningful debate in
Israel about socioeconomic change? What political earthquake has to happen for
the country’s leaders to focus on long-term thinking about welfare and education
policy, for it to be given the same priority as the peace process, Iran and the
Israel-Palestine conflict? When, if ever, do we hear our education, welfare or
health ministers produce policy papers for public discussion and participation?
When do we have serious town hall or studio debates about these issues, instead
of continually interviewing the security experts and the retired generals about
the same security issues, time after time after time again? In place of the big
debates, Israel has developed an annual series of conferences – Herzliyah
(security), Cesaraea (economics), Sderot (welfare and social policy), Elat
(journalism and media) to name but a few.
But these have become
conferences of the elite and it is normal to find that 50 percent of the
participants at all of these conferences are the same politicians, who hold
forth about every topic under the sun, whether they have a deep understanding or
These are places to be seen, but they do not enable any deeper or
significant debate to take place, given the huge pressure to accommodate all of
those who insist on being present and speaking, and to ensure that their names
appear on the program.
Succot has become a time for the holding of
debates concerning religious-secular relationships in Israel.
Succa” has developed as a place where people of different religious persuasions
come together to discuss and exchange ideas and seek ways of creating ways of
living together in a rapidly changing society. This is seen as a necessary
alternative to the continued lip service paid to an outdated notion of the
status quo – which is good for politicians but meaningless for the people in
their daily lives.
We should think about extending the idea of the “Open
Succah” to a wide range of issues facing society.
We should encourage
political parties to use Succot as a uniquely Israeli time for holding the “big”
debates which relate to civil society. We could create large succas in the
center of towns, invite the party leaders to present their visions, and dilemmas
concerning society and, just for a change, listen to what the public has to say
– not as a means of garnering votes or scoring points, but in order to listen to
what really concerns society in their daily lives, beyond the issues of peace
We should also insist that our political parties take on a
life between elections, and not just in the six months leading up to the polling
booth. We require political parties which develop real policies and use the time
periods between elections to debate, discuss and to consolidate. We want to know
that we have politicians who have spent time thinking about the issues of social
and economic concern, and have at least made an attempt to involve the thinking
public in their concerns and their dilemmas.
This may result in more
young people becoming interested in politics, rather than the growing apathy and
disenchantment which they display in recent years – a very unhealthy trend for
We seek meaning to our politics. Succot is as good a time
as any to start.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and
Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal
of Geopolitics, the views expressed are his alone.