My colleague Shlomo Avineri is one of Israel''s wisest. His academic fields are political philosophy, European and Zionist politics. He had a stint at the peak of policymaking as Director General of the Foreign Ministry, and is a frequent contributor to op-ed pages of Israeli and overseas newspapers.
Most recently he wrote about foreign money in Israel''s government. An English translation is headlined, "Foreigners taking over Israeli democracy."
Avineri begins with the report that "Of the 46 people who contributed money to Benjamin Netanyahu for the Likud leadership primary last January, 37 were Americans."
Avineri touches on one of the most interesting features of Israel that is heart warming and troublesome at the same time, i.e., the porous boundaries of the country and its people. Here the borders at issue are not those of geography--no less troublesome but in a different way--between Israel, Palestine and other neighbors in the Middle East, but the spiritual borders between Israel and those Jews and others overseas who feel a part of the nation, wish to protect it, enhance its opportunities, and shape its destiny.
We should expect no less from a people and place anchored in the Bible, a 2,500 year history of Diasporas obligated to pray in their behalf and contribute to their well being, with identities of the current generations shaped by migrations of the last century and one-half.
Avineri recognizes the benefits and the drawbacks of contributions from overseas. Diaspora Jews whose contributions to Israeli political candidates affect the quality of Israeli democracy may also contribute to Israeli social programs. He notes the problems of legislating against overseas Jewish benefactors. His own choice is to protect the governmental element of elections from the money of individuals who are not citizens.
"The foreign source of campaign money threatens the integrity of elections to the Knesset. It is difficult to prevent foreign citizens from financing a newspaper that supports a particular party or personality, but there must be ways to prevent or limit the capacity of overseas money to control the decisions crucial to the sovereignty of the country''s citizens."
Avineri''s concern is appropriate, but may be destined for the same frustrations that trouble others who would regulate how well-to-do individuals use their means to express themselves politically. Israel''s unique problems are overseas Jews and messianic Christians, but its concerns are not all that different from Americans who have sought to limit political money from Hong Kong or Saudi Arabia. Overseas activists interested in Israel want to help those Jews they consider to be the most Chosen, while overseas donors to American candidates and causes want to shape the policies of the country with the greatest leverage on everything else.
By focusing on campaign financing, Avineri stays away from the issue that has led opposition politicians to propose legislation against the overseas financing of Israeli media. Their targets are Sheldon Adelson and Israel Hayom, which has parlayed itself as a free giveaway into Israel''s most popular newspaper that may be capable of supporting itself with the advertizing revenue associated with large circulation.
The success of Israel Hayom has coincided with the spread of print media''s misery to Israel from what comes to our computers and other gadgets through the air, updated continuously from a variety of local and international sources, and doesn''t get wet in the rain while sitting on the doorstep.
Ma''ariv and Ha''aretz are downsizing their staffs under the loss of circulation and advertizing revenue, and trying to salvage something via the internet. Media personalities in radio and television are doing their best to highlight the demonstrations of colleagues who face the loss of jobs and other entitlements from employers who do not pay what is required. Activists are demanding government intervention to save media essential for democracy, but that is not likely when unemployed factory workers are also asking for help, and the most thriving media is financed from overseas and supports the incumbent.
The combination of globalization, the multiplicity of channels for financial transfers, and disputes about free expression will continue to challenge all who want to limit the capacity of the wealthy to influence governments. The ultimate defense of democracy may be disclosure rather than prevention, and the multiplicity of donors. Candidates can criticize one another for the sources of their finance. Local and overseas bigwigs vary in their sentiments and contribute to candidates and causes all over the spectrum. The competition between money along with the competition between candidates, enhanced by the freedom of expression and bolstered by blogs and the internet may have to suffice in assuring the health of democracy. It helps if a nation''s culture is anchored in the values of freedom, bargaining, and argument.
Jews have been prominent among those who practice, and even revere political dispute. We have been doing it since the Prophets, who have a firm hold on our culture as well as our religious rituals. Jews also have experience across borders, learning to avoid or evade those who would impose control. Sheldon Adelson, along with Ronald Lauder and George Soros are archtypes of Jews with various interests who attract the nasty label of "cosmopolitan." Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, and Isaiah were more elegant, but no less extreme in how they expressed themselves. Statements from just last week, "I will donate what is necessary to defeat Obama" (Adelson) and "Das wäre ein Desaster" (Lauder on the prospect of Israel''s attack on Iran) are part of what the Prophets created.
Proud of being a Jewish and democratic, Israel both enjoys and suffers from Jewish traditions. Shlomo Avineri identifies one of the constraints on Israel''s democracy that flows from those traditions. As such, it won''t be easy to fix.