Mind the gap: Ramban's legacy

Israel's main problem: 72 percent of the population does not trust the political parties.

Israel democracy(do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Israel democracy(do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
DEMOCRACY IS A FRAGILE CONCEPT. AMERICANS seem to take it for granted, but Israelis, even after 62 years of statehood, are still struggling. We need to measure ourselves and see how we perform. And being astute students of the 21st century, we study these questions by taking, for the past eight years, an annual poll, which is titled the Israeli Democracy Index. On the poll’s conclusion, the results are presented in a public forum to the state president.
This public opinion survey polls both Jews and Arabs, with a focus on the relation between the public’s theoretical support for democratic values and the attitude to actual problems and practical behavior. The index also compares current Israeli attitudes with the past, as well as comparing Israel with other democracies.
Perhaps the best news from the most recent index is that 81 percent of respondents are proud to be Israelis. On the not-so-good news side, 72 percent of the population said that they do not trust the political parties. And herein lies one of Israel’s more significant problems – one that impacts on the health and vitality of the state on a daily basis – the interaction with its citizens, its neighbors, the world at large, and the Diaspora community. For when you have such a large percentage of the population that does not trust the parties, how can one be assured of whom one speaks for?
Receiving the index findings, President Shimon Peres provided a history lesson that sought to explain the genesis of many of today’s problems. According to the President, in Israel, unlike in other democracies, the state was “created by agreement” and then was “built by agreement.” That is, in the early days, real power was centered in the hands of the political parties, which were often as not in conflict with each other over the most crucial issues affecting Israeli society. Horsetrading became the only way to pass even the least controversial pieces of legislation.
According to Peres, the country has still not recovered from this process.
Israel does not have a single party with a majority in the Knesset, creating the need for a coalition government. And the more partners needed, the harder the largest party can be squeezed. As Peres pointed out, the present Knesset has 16 parties. If France, or the US were in a similar situation, the government could not function. Today, Peres emphasized, “decisions are in favor of the smaller parties and not to the state’s benefit.”
Picking up on this thread, Reuven Rivlin, Speaker of the Knesset, added, “Israel has not had a constitution for 62 years because we haven’t been able to agree on a Judaism that satisfies all the streams of the Jewish people. This will not be solved by legislation. Sixty-two years from now we will be sitting here and it will be the same as today.”
IT IS IN THIS PROBLEMATIC CONTEXT THAT WE MUST understand the controversy over the conversion bill.
Negotiations still continue over the postponement of the conversion bill that is slowly moving through the Knesset on the explosive issue of conversions conducted within the Israel Defense Forces. The Jewish Federations of North America have made finding an equitable solution a major priority of the organization. Senior leaders continue to shuttle between New York and the hallways of the Knesset looking for a compromise.
But where will it lead? Shelving the discussion for another six months, or perhaps even a decade? The ramifications are tremendous and come directly back to the findings of the index: “51.5 percent of the Jewish sample agrees that only immigrants who are Jewish as defined by the rabbinate should be entitled to receive Israeli citizenship automatically; while only 34.5 percent of immigrants from the former USSR agree with it. By segmentation, 41 percent of secular Jews and 88 percent of ultra-Orthodox agree.”
Who is responsible for this division? According to remarks at the forum by Justice Minister Yaacov Neeman, the media is to blame. He claims the polarization in Israeli society is driven by the media because they refuse to mention the many good things that happen in Israel. This from the man who is not only the country’s Justice minister, but for many years was tasked with finding a solution to the problems of recognizing conversions.
And while one might agree the Hebrew press is not known for feelgood stories, Neeman chooses to ignore statements made by leading figures, such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, the Sephardi haredi party, whose divisive statements – such as in commenting on the recent Carmel fires said, “Fires only happen in a place where Shabbat is desecrated” – alienates not only the local secular public but those from the Diaspora who are concerned about the Jewish people.
Is it any wonder no solution to the conversion crisis is forthcoming? As Rivlin pointed out, “We’ve tried to communicate with each other, but we’ve failed.”
So what is the answer? I don’t pretend to know. Israel must remain a democratic country. We also must find a way to accept the multitude of Jewish practices that exist today.
Perhaps we need only to look at Maimonides, the Rambam, as a role model. For he was both a preeminent halakhic scholar and a physician – able to blend his Judaism with the broader world and leave a valuable legacy for us all.