We must change our electoral system

In Israel today it is said that 80% of the people agree on about 90% of the issues. We the people are tightly tethered to the status quo on all important political, economic and social issues.

By AVI BERKOWITZ
June 10, 2019 13:51
We must change our electoral system

ABOUT HALF of Jerusalemites were entitled to vote in this week’s election; as of Wednesday morning, 252,100 voted.. (photo credit: ERICA SCHACHNE)

 
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Our April elections resulted in a hung parliament. We will soon be going back to the polls for a second round of voting. And while our airwaves, newspapers and Internet sites are already bursting with explanations of how this happened, there is stone-cold silence about what is to be done to avoid a similar outcome in our do-over election?

In Israel today it is said that 80% of the people agree on about 90% of the issues. We the people are tightly tethered to the status quo on all important political, economic and social issues.


We are against both the annexation of the West Bank and withdrawal from the West Bank. We oppose a return to socialist economics but we want the government to actively manage our emerging free market, including by imposing price controls on certain goods. We resent the Orthodox monopoly over our religious life and even disdain their rabbis, but we confine the non-Orthodox religious to the distant periphery.

In short, we have exchanged Zionism’s revanchist ethos, its much heralded derring-do, for the soft and sweet nostalgia of Avi Dichter’s Hebrew Romanticism. In a certain sense, all that separates the leading politicians of our two largest parties – Blue and White and Likud – from each other is that the leaders of Blue and White mostly imbibed their passion for Hebrew Romanticism during their many years of military service to the state.

And yet, despite our overwhelming agreement on almost all important issues, we the people failed to deliver a political verdict in our April elections. Instead of picking a winner and a loser, we delivered a hung parliament. On Election Day, what Bill Clinton famously called “the mystery of democracy,” we made the worst possible choice – we chose stalemate.

We could of course harken to the call of our politicians and absolve ourselves of our responsibility for this outcome. We could follow the lead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and blame Avigdor Liberman, a seasoned politician with very limited electoral appeal, for the stalemate.

Or we could take our cue from Yair Lapid and blame Netanyahu for exploiting the election to divide the electorate over his incumbency rather than gracefully resigning from office after a long decade of yeoman’s service to the nation.

Or we could even strike out on our own and hold Ya’acov Litzman and his haredi (ultra-Orthodox) colleagues responsible for the stalemate because when all is said and done these politicians and their rabbinic masters mostly relate to the Jewish state as just a cow to be milked.

But doing so would be a mistake. Blaming Liberman or Netanyahu or even Litzman for our current political stalemate will divert us from the truth: The hung parliament is the defective political product of our decayed electoral system, which has outlived its usefulness.

This system is known as “proportional representation” and it corrals all citizens into a single electoral district. The system was perfectly appropriate when Israel adopted it 70 years ago, when our voting population was just 600,000, almost all of whom were Jewish.


I am certain that the architects of our electoral system wanted to make sure that every Jewish citizen of the nascent sovereign state felt that he or she had a place in the Jewish national home without regard to his or her subnational “tribal” affiliation.

And so they created an electoral system that delivered to each and every one of our subnational tribes – from Maki on the far Left to Agudat Yisrael on the far Right – the largest possible voting pool. Back then it seemed more than justified to imagine that the kibbutzniks in the North, who contend with frost in the winter, had more in common with the kibbutzniks in the South, who spent their summers avoiding sunstroke, then either of them had with their bourgeois neighbors. Or that the haredim in Bnei Brak living in the shadow of not-yet-cosmopolitan Tel Aviv were just like the Jerusalem haredim living in what was essentially an Eastern European shtetl where the local “goyim” happened to speak Hebrew. And maybe back then it was true. After all, back then the central committee of the Labor Party operated more or less like the Council of Torah Sages.

But today none of the above remains true. Our voting population exceeds 6 million, including a large percentage of non-Jews. And proportional representation works to prevent our non-Jewish citizens – read Arabs – from integrating into the larger polity by pulling on their tribal allegiances through the sectorial political parties, which are carefully maintained as “non-coalitionable.”

Equally important, proportional representation punishes those voters who no longer identify as tribal. In our recent election, these men and women who have fully integrated into the larger society without abandoning their subgroup identity – think about the Orthodox supporters of Naftali Bennett, Ayelet Shaked and Moshe Feiglin – were stripped of their parliamentary representation, while the Orthodox parties, which shelter their supporters behind high walls – be they the black and white walls of the haredim or blue and white walls of the hardalim (national-haredi) – were delivered an Election Day bounty.

For decades, tribalism has put the fate of the nation into the hands of men who vigorously resist social integration and national unity. By sending us back to the polls, tribalism now threatens to turn Israel into a banana republic. And that means that tribalism’s wicked grip on our electoral system must end. But that can only be accomplished by replacing our tribal electoral lines with the artificial lines of electoral districts.

Dividing the polity into electoral districts will dramatically shrink the voting pool available to each of our domestic tribes, whose members generally live clustered together in a few different geographic areas. By preventing those votes from accumulating across district lines – together with all other votes – the new electoral system will incentivize the tribal parties toward pre-election local alliances with the other main parties in their district. Tribal independence will slowly dissolve into the politics of horse trading, focusing the “tribal elders” upon creating local coalitions held together by mutual need rather than building parliamentary coalitions held together by the fear of sitting in the opposition – or in jail.

Changing our electoral system by dividing the polity into electoral districts might seem like a very tall order even after the hung parliament result of our April election. But its urgency will become acute when the September round of elections produces yet another hung parliament.

The writer is the rabbi of the Minyan HaVatikim in the Rimon section of Efrat. He is writing a book on integrated world/Jewish history.

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