Democracy and the power of the people

Israel is a robust democracy, which allows for protest against government and military actions.

An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli flag is seen in the background as a man casts his ballot for the parliamentary election
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE HISTORY of the modern uprising began with the 1830 Paris revolution, which saw the overthrow of the Bourbon monarchy. Since then the effectiveness of people power has been demonstrated time and again, with varying results.
Mass demonstrations in Russia in 1917 led to the toppling of the tzar, but also ushered in Communism, which survived until the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989; in 1963, 200,000 civil rights supporters led by Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington leading to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965; in April 1976, the walkout by black pupils in Soweto in protest at being taught in Afrikaans ignited the movement that came to be led by Nelson Mandela and which eventually overthrew apartheid in South Africa.
On February 15, 2003, anti-Iraq War protests were held in 800 cities around the world, involving around 30 million people, with 1 million in London alone, ultimately leading to British prime minister Tony Blair’s resignation. The list goes on.
Which brings me to civil protest and people power in Israel.
Israel is a robust democracy, which allows for protest against government and military actions. Rallies are generally peaceful, depending on the cause and the majority of participants. There have been rallies against violence as well as calls for “Days of Rage”; in 1974, following the near disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War, combatants successfully organized demonstrations demanding the resignation of Golda Meir’s government and social reform.
In February 1999, 250,000 ultra-Orthodox demonstrated in Jerusalem against the activism of the Supreme Court. Opposing them were 50,000 left-wing counter-protesters.
In January 2001, a 400,000-strong rally was held outside the Old City walls, attended largely by religious and nationalist Israelis, to protest a US-backed plan to divide Jerusalem.
Recent demonstrations in the hundreds of thousands have been held by social justice activists (July 2011, the “cottage cheese protest” against the high cost of living) and the ultra-Orthodox (March 2014, against the draft), as well as numerous smaller protests.
While such gatherings can have a strong effect, they are no substitute for the most cogent remedy for many of the ills that plague Israeli society and the body politic, that is, electoral reform.
Not the half-baked reform that is periodically proposed, opposed, then shelved, reform that nibbles around the edges, projecting some changes while at the same time retaining the worst of the current system. Real reform has to go the whole way: carving up the whole country into constituencies reflecting the number of Members of Knesset (MKs), and allowing for internal party selection procedures, which would put forward the very best candidates who, when elected, would truly represent the citizens who propelled them there.
Such representatives would hold weekly “clinics” or “surgeries” to which constituents would bring their concerns, which would then be seriously examined, passed on to the appropriate authorities and followed up in timely fashion.
The Academy of the Hebrew Language would be tasked with finding a catchy Hebrew word for “accountable” and MKs would have to sharpen their game if they wished to be elected for another term.
IT WILL be no small task to overcome the major obstacles to such a scenario being implemented, not the least being the obvious reluctance of the head of government to subject himself/herself to election; the opposition of the smaller parties to a system, which would inevitably reduce their numbers, and the predictable intransigence of the political party machines, which would see their influence diminished.
Yet, there is no doubt that the representative parliament model, along the lines of the British Westminster system, is the only one that would mitigate endemic political corruption, ineptitude and self-interest, and encourage the entrance into politics of more candidates with talent, integrity and a strong work ethic.
Together with a free and impartial judiciary and a probing but responsible press, mandated elections are a cornerstone of a true democracy. However, because of the nature of the current Israeli electoral system, in which elected parliamentarians are beholden primarily to their party and interest groups, once having voted the citizen is marginalized.
It is time for that to change.