Comment: We too need an electoral college

Israel’s electoral system of proportional representation maintains the tribalism which defined Jewish life in the Diaspora.

December 11, 2016 08:02
4 minute read.
Israeli elections

An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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It may well be that Donald Trump was elected by a “basket of deplorables.”

But the key to his victory does not lie in the demographic make-up of the people in the basket – the racial, cultural, religious and ethnic profile of his supporters. Rather it lies in the design of the basket which he used to gather them together.

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That design was calculated to allow him to stitch together enough electoral votes to defeat Hillary Clinton’s racial, ethnic and gender driven popular majority. And for this very reason I have no doubt that America’s founding fathers, the men who designed the electoral system which handed Trump his victory, would heartily applaud the result.

In December 2004 I was invited to give the invocation at the State of New York Electoral College Convention.

As a rabbi, I was deeply honored and appropriately humbled by the invitation. But because I am also a political scientist, I was fearful that my well-honed cynicism would prevent me from projecting the spiritual gravitas the occasion demanded.

After all, the electors who would receive my blessing would also cast their ballot in favor of John Kerry, despite the fact that the election had already been won by George W. Bush.

To my surprise – and delight – my concerns disappeared during the celebratory parade around the Capitol when we marched past one august setting after another, slowly making our way to the Senate Chambers where the vote would take place. Long before I mounted the podium at the front of that stately room in order to bless the conclave, I realized that on that day, on the day when their vote really counted, the people of New York State did not define themselves by their ethnicity.

Whether Protestant or Catholic, Jewish, African American, Asian American, Hispanic, L, G, B or T, we were a political community celebrating being New Yorkers, residents of one of the states of the Union, united by nothing more than the artificial territorial boundary lines which separate New York State from its neighboring states.

On that day I understood why democracy in America is not defined by the hallowed – and all too often hollow – principle of one-man-one-vote, but by the authority of the territorial boundary lines of the sub-national non-sovereign states.

Those lines, which divide Americans into residents of clearly delineated juridical and geographical domains, discourage the people from forming national political coalitions based upon their demographic profile, their racial, religious, linguistic, cultural or sexual affinities. Because of those internal artificial boundary lines, politicians who succumb to the scourge of tribalism and exploit the appeal of the demographic boogeyman will lose the electoral day even if they win the popular majority.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Hillary Clinton.

In between elections, it is the legislative branch of America’s national government that suppresses the scourge of tribalism, the near natural impulse to band together with your demographic cohorts that haunts the American nation as it does every other nation in the world.

Keyed to those same artificial territorial boundary lines, the legislative branch counters the demographic impulse with the geographic imperative. And it is for this reason that in the United States of America, there is not a single at-large member of the national legislature. Instead, every single representative in the legislative branch – in both the House and the Senate – is elected by the residents of his or her home state exclusively.

How different is political life in the Jewish State of Israel. Here in the Promised Land of the Bible, where the idea of ascribing political authority to sub-national, non-sovereign, territorially-bounded geographic domains originated – just think of the way Joshua apportioned the Land of Israel among the Tribes of Israel during the first dispensation – there are currently no internal boundary lines at all.

Every single member of Israel’s legislature is elected on an at-large basis.

Worse yet, Israel’s electoral system of proportional representation maintains the tribalism which defined Jewish life in the Diaspora, as it had to, and around which the heroic era of pre-State Zionism unfortunately unfolded. And nothing speaks more vigorously to this point than the following uncomfortable fact: both the Israeli Left and Right oppose the annexation of West Bank because they both believe that demography is destiny. Both sides of our political system are convinced that on the first election day following annexation, the Arabs of the West Bank will join together with the Arabs of Israel and vote the Jewish State of Israel out of existence.

But if Israel had an electoral college of its own, which would first require Israel to exchange its electoral system of proportional representation in favor of a federal geographic system such as that used in the US, or more importantly, in biblical Israel following the original territorial dispensation, this concern would evaporate. As both America’s Founding Fathers and our biblical progenitors knew well, when geography is destiny demography is never decisive.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask Donald Trump.

The author teaches at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and is the rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim, which is located in the Rimon section of Efrat.

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