In the introduction to his outstanding thought-provoking book Morality, the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks speaks of a “cultural climate change:”
“Societal freedom cannot be sustained by market economics and liberal democratic politics alone. It needs a third element: morality, a concern for the welfare of others, an active commitment to justice and compassion, a willingness to ask not just what is good for me but what is good for all-of-us-together. It is about ‘Us’ not ‘Me,’ about ‘We’ not ‘I.’”
How pertinent these words are as Israel enters the campaign period of a fourth election within the space of two years. New parties are emerging – almost on a daily basis – where each leader sees himself as the future prime minister. Is this what the country needs right now – manifold parties with manifold potential prime ministers – a situation likely to lead us toward a fifth election?
If it had been about “Us” rather than “Me,” we would not be in election mode; the 2020 and 2021 budgets would have passed long ago, obliging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stick to his agreement of handing over the premiership to Alternate PM Benny Gantz at the allotted time. Yet in spite of Netanyahu saying there would be “no shticks or tricks,” it became all about “Me” and not about “Us.”
Do we need an election campaign in the middle of a deadly pandemic where the daily infection rate for Israelis is more, per capita than in the United States? Is this about “Us” or is it about “Me?”
Blessed, as we are, with doctors and nurses who have been working around the clock in the most challenging conditions, the fact remains that our hospitals are deprived of sufficient staffing to cope in normal times. Just last week we witnessed the directors of seven hospitals demonstrating outside the Finance Ministry demanding government funding to save their institutions from collapse. Without immediate funding they will be forced to suspend any non-COVID-19 care. While the pandemic has exacerbated an already depleted health service, the reality is that it has been suffering from a severe lack of funding for at least 10 years.
ASIDE FROM death and increasing numbers of infected people, we are facing a grave economic crisis. Studies show there has been a 50% increase in poverty since the pandemic began.
Israel has appeared to the world as an affluent start-up nation, ignoring the reality of a country that has a disparate population. Involved as I am with ESRA, I am only too aware of the many deprived areas whose population is leading a totally different and poverty-stricken life to that of those whose start-up image captures the news. To quote from a recent OECD economic report on Israel, “underlying challenges include Israel’s severe disparity in adult skills, with low-skilled workers outnumbering those with outstanding skills. The end result is a marked labor market duality, with high-wage jobs in the hi-tech sector and low-quality poorly paid jobs elsewhere. Low-paid jobs are concentrated among the haredi and Arab-Israeli sectors, exacerbating the country’s socioeconomic divide and income inequalities between municipalities.”
The survey recommends improving our education system by endeavoring to attract the best teachers to disadvantaged schools in deprived areas. The big question is how to attract good teachers for all areas. As long as teacher training colleges accept those with low entry grades and as long as salaries remain abysmal in comparison to the hi-tech world, the country will not see an improvement in the level of those wishing to enter the teaching profession.
The coronavirus has emphasized the lack of investment in our education system. Overcrowded classrooms and a marked deterioration, exposed by OECD surveys, notes Israel’s position at the lower end of the scale compared with some 80 countries surveyed. A 2019 OECD survey found that Israel spends less on education per student than most other OECD countries.
OUR ELECTORAL system cries out for reform because the “Me” rather than the “Us” reigns supreme. The MKs do not feel responsibility toward the electorate; unlike the United Kingdom or the United States where representatives are directly elected in specific constituencies. As a result, parliamentarians there are obliged to think about serving those who voted for them as well as those who did not; here the only obligation is to self.
It begins with the candidates vying for a place in the Knesset. The prime anxiety for a potential MK is where he or she will appear on the party list. Will it be high enough to secure a place in the Knesset or not? The electorate is the least of the candidate’s concerns. How refreshing it would be if those wishing to run the country would consider the men, women and children who live here rather than themselves; if they did, we would not be going to a fourth election.
What is urgently required is a system that ensures that the majority rules the minority, and not the other way round, as has been demonstrated throughout the coronavirus period. Politicians chose to ignore the advice given by the health czars – whom they appointed – to close down the red areas immediately, which could have helped avoid the abysmally dangerous situation we find ourselves in today. We witnessed time and again how threats from the minority within government prevented the lockdown of red areas solely, which might well have eliminated the need for a complete lockdown.
Back to the beginning and Sacks’s aptly titled Morality.
There is much to appreciate in this wonderful country, not least the manifold volunteer-based organizations comprising individuals who come together contributing toward a better life for others. Our potential leaders would do well to emulate their excellent example. Perhaps they could begin by outlining what they will do to improve the lives of all of us – rather than the “Me” for themselves.
The writer is public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society. The views expressed are hers alone.