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(photo credit: Ori Porat [file])
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar has called for a change in the electoral system to ensure that legislators are accountable to the voters rather than to a rabbi or a party leader.
Sa'ar said that he was disturbed by certain contradictory findings in the 2009 Israel Democracy Index that was officially presented to President Shimon Peres on Monday.
A conference organized in the capital by the Israel Democracy Institute to discuss the index included a panel discussion in which Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky was scheduled to participate in view of the fact that a large section of the document was devoted to the attitudes of and toward immigrants from the former Soviet Union, marking the 20th anniversary of the large wave of Soviet aliya. However, Sharansky bowed out at the last moment. An IDI spokesman was unable to supply a reason for the cancellation, but a spokesman for the Jewish Agency told The Jerusalem Post that Sharansky had been unwell in recent weeks.
Sa'ar's call for electoral reform stemmed from indicators that while many veteran Israelis and immigrants are proud to be Israelis and are interested in its politics, most of the people polled did not think they had any influence on decisions that might directly affect the future of the country, and this in turn accounted for an ongoing decline in voter turn-out.
"If this situation persists, we will continue to witness a decline in the democratic process," said Sa'ar.
Israel is indirectly democratic and not fully democratic due to the fact that there are no direct elections, he added. "We do not vote for direct representatives but for parties. A large percentage of MKs are not elected but appointed, and there's a big difference between a legislator who was elected and one that was appointed."
Many MKs feel no obligation to the public, and are accountable only to the people who appointed them, said Sa'ar. "Democracy is not just a technical process. There have to be direct elections in which every member of the public can vote for his or her representative."
Sa'ar presented three options for choosing lawmakers: A combination of regional and individual representatives; open primaries like in some US states, where anyone could vote to choose a party's candidates; and something like in Denmark, where party members rank the primary candidates in order when they vote.
Also on the panel was Rabbi Rafi Feuerstein, a Tzohar co-founder, who together with IDI is trying to find a halachicly compatible way to convert some 300,000 immigrant non-Jews who want to link their lives with the Jewish people.
Feuerstein was critical of Rabbi Aryeh Leib Shteinman, who has nullified conversions performed by Rabbi Haim Druckman, and said that Shteinman's edict ran counter to Halacha.
Nonetheless, Feuerstein was forced to gently reject a suggestion by Carmon, that since Ruth the most famous of all converts to Judaism had aligned herself with Judaism through her mother-in-law, Naomi, first on a national level and then on a religious basis, that this be accepted today and that all immigrant would-be converts (most of whom are Russian) gather in the Ramat Gan sports stadium for a mass conversion.
In the absence of Sharansky's authoritative voice, there were two Russian immigrant speakers who related to the findings about immigrants from the FSU. One was Bar-Ilan University sociologist and anthropologist professor Larissa Remennick, and the other was IDI researcher Michael Philippov.
Remennick pointed to the difficulties encountered by immigrants from the FSU, even those who had come to Israel as children, in integrating into mainstream society, while Philippov, whose father is not Jewish, balked at the idea of him participating in a mass conversion ceremony in the Ramat Gan stadium, but said that he would be happy if his father, who works a 12-hour shift, could find a pleasanter and less taxing form of employment.
Peres had said that every wave of aliya had encountered difficulties and had eventually integrated. Russian aliya is different, countered Philippov. Whereas those from other countries gave themselves time to assimilate and to take on an Israeli lifestyle, the Russians had no time. They were willing to make a contribution to Israel's security and to other aspects of life in Israel, but if they felt that they had failed, they were not willing to wait around. They packed up their families and went elsewhere.
Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin focused his remarks on attitudes of veterans and immigrants toward Arab Israelis.
Rivlin said that he was no stranger to the challenges facing Jewish-Arab coexistence, and had reached the conclusion that this now required a different dialogue. "We are doomed to live alongside each other and to share the same fate," he said. Even though Jews and Arabs live separately from each other, they are interdependent, sharing the fruits and vicissitudes of the economy, welfare, highways, sport and other spheres of life, Rivlin said.
"The Arabs are not an insignificant demographic factor in the population," he said. "We have to build a system of partnership."
He was not so naÃ¯ve, he said, as to believe that the attendant difficulties could be escaped. Most Arabs can't accept the idea of a Jewish state. Rivlin's vision of a partnership was not one that was rooted in love, but one that was based on pragmatism and a desire to work together to overcome hatred and fear.
"We can't expect our neighbors to disappear, if we close the window," he said.
At the same time he made it clear that Arab fundamentalists who seek to eliminate Israel will not succeed, nor can they anticipate that the Jewish State of Israel will ever concede the Palestinian right of return. "Jews are entitled to a national home in their ancient homeland," he asserted, "but Arabs are also an intrinsic part of this land."
Rivlin advocated a change in the education system whereby Jews would learn more about Arabs and their values and traditions, and Arabs would learn more about Jews and their values and traditions. "We have to learn to do better by the minorities in our midst."
Democracy in Israel cannot be taken for granted, said Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch, who pointed to the tensions between different groups in Israeli society, security problems, economic difficulties, new waves of immigration and a series of wars in the nations six decades of sovereignty. Beinisch also emphasized the significant role of the courts in defending human rights, and disagreed with those respondents to the democracy survey who thought that Israel was one of the more corrupt countries in the world.
President Simon Peres and IDI President Dr. Arye Carmon each condemned the deadly attack on a meeting place for gays in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, with Carmon expressing the hope that the traumatic event might serve as a catalyst toward transforming violent attitudes and replacing them with tolerance.
Peres agreed with Beinisch on the corruption issue, stressing that it was precisely because Israel seeks to stamp out corruption rather than sweep it under the carpet, that perpetrators are being indicted, tried and convicted.
The murder of members of the gay community was an example of not giving people the right to be different, the president said.
Participants in the panel discussion included University of Haifa sociology professor Majd el-Haj, a foremost expert on immigration from the FSU. He said people are always surprised and expect him to talk only about Arab problems - simply because he's an Arab.
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