How democracy differentiates within itself - opinion

There are various forms of democracy, two of them being representative and direct, with Israel’s being a type of representative.

 A POSTER of the Swiss People’s Party reads: ‘Forced organ donation? No,’ before the Swiss electorate voted on several issues in a referendum, last year. Switzerland is the country with the most aspects of direct democracy.  (photo credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)
A POSTER of the Swiss People’s Party reads: ‘Forced organ donation? No,’ before the Swiss electorate voted on several issues in a referendum, last year. Switzerland is the country with the most aspects of direct democracy.
(photo credit: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters)

If a sign of a healthy society is that people talk about ideas rather than about other people, Israel is recently off the charts as the chatter is all about democracy, its meaning, and how best to preserve it. But the proliferation of rallies, demonstrations, and civil and uncivil protests are not necessarily a sign of a healthy democracy. I am not enamored by the demonstrations, nor interested in participating. 

There are various forms of democracy, two of them being representative and direct, with Israel’s being a type of representative. Recently, it seems that some elements of Israeli society are acting as if the Israeli system is a direct democracy.

As the Greek roots of its name imply, democracy is “rule by the people,” and not by a king or other sovereign. “Rule by the people” also implies that decisions are made by the majority. The simplest way to determine the will of the majority is to determine the opinion of all of those eligible to participate in the democratic process, the electorate. That is known as direct or pure democracy, and is likely the oldest form of democracy, having existed in Athens 2,500 years ago and during the Roman Empire. 

Direct democracy is not very common today, but does exist in a limited sense in some of the West’s most established democracies. In the United States, many states permit “ballot initiatives” in which ordinary citizens can have a law placed on a ballot and voted upon. 

The country with the most aspects of direct democracy is Switzerland, in which many decisions at all levels are decided by general referendums. For example, following criticism from other countries, in 1866 the Swiss government proposed modifying the constitution to grant Jews greater rights. However, that required the approval of a national vote, which by a slim majority of just over 53% obliged, thus granting Swiss Jews the right to live anywhere in the country. 

On the other hand, on August 20, 1893, an amendment to the federal constitution of Switzerland was passed by the people, not the government, that banned shechita, the slaughter of kosher meat. That ban still stands today.

Sometimes the results of such referendums produce different results than if the decision had been made in parliament. Popular sentiment led to a November 2009 referendum in which over 57% of the people voted to approve a constitutional amendment banning the construction of new minarets.

Although the Swiss government recommended rejecting the amendment, asserting that it was inconsistent with the basic principles of the constitution, once it was passed they had no choice but to implement it, because in Switzerland, federal popular initiatives are not subject to judicial review.

What type of democracy is Israel classified as?

The modern State of Israel is not a direct democracy, has never had any issue decided directly by the people, and has no mechanism for “ballot initiatives” or their equivalent. It has been suggested in the past that issues of great import be decided by a national referendum, an idea that has some merit.

In 2014, during discussions about a peace treaty with Syria, a Basic Law was passed requiring that any land concession be approved by either two-thirds of the Knesset or a national referendum. Throughout 2004 and 2005, there were numerous attempts to convince then-prime minister Ariel Sharon to hold a referendum regarding his proposed plan to expel over 8,000 Jews from Gaza.

Whether it was his fear of the will of the people, or some other reason, Sharon repeatedly rejected the idea and did not acquiesce to this example of direct democracy.

ONE OF the drawbacks of direct democracy is that the citizenry is often busy with other occupations and does not have the time to devote to becoming expert in all of the issues and in running the country. In general, it is impractical to bring every issue to a vote of the people. Thus was born the concept of representative democracy, in which the masses elect representatives in whom they invest power to make decisions and run the jurisdiction. 

A representative democracy has the great advantage that the electorate is “troubled” to go to the polls only periodically, choose individuals or parties whom they deem to be of like-mind, and then can leave the decision-making to the “professionals” while they go about their routine of contributing to society in other ways. This does not negate the need for constant vigilance, accountability of the elected officials, and the right to protest, which is fundamental to all democracies.

These are tools used when representatives seem to misunderstand the will of the people who put them in power. The representative put in by a certain region or segment of society is supposed to represent their desires, and when he doesn’t, his constituents demonstrate to remind him of their beliefs or send him packing at the next opportunity. 

In a representative democracy, there will always be elected officials who are on the “winning” side in an election, and those in opposition. Israel elected the 25th Knesset on November 1, 2022, resulting in what appeared to be the first stable coalition since 2019. This was the fifth election in nearly four years and the electorate was tired; it was time to let the elected officials, from the coalition and the opposition, head to the Knesset, negotiate and govern.

Instead, Israel is now being treated to competing rallies, claims and counterclaims of the number of attendees, and rival political statements by every organization large and small. The message seems to be that he who screams loudest should set policy in the model of direct democracy. 

While Israel’s representative democracy has flaws, such as the indirect election of the Knesset members, resulting in limited accountability to their constituents, nonetheless, that is our system; we voted, thereby expressing our preferences. Many citizens are not interested in taking to the streets, be it on Saturday nights, Thursday evenings, or any other time.

Let our representative democracy work. Let our elected officials hash things out. Reminding elected representatives of our wishes by lobbying, letter writing, or occasional rallies is integral to representative democracy. Making it a full-time job for a significant part of the electorate in which every professional organization has to continually reiterate its position, and rallies every other day, is driving home why a direct democracy is not a feasible system.

And in representative democracies, there are built-in mechanisms, either time or otherwise, for when the next election will be held. There is no need for the coalition supporters to restate their vote, nor for the opposition supporters to try to overturn the election results. Another election will be held, likely sooner rather than later.

As Winston Churchill said, “Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Let’s give our democracy a chance, rather than tearing down the country in trying to overturn the election results.

The writer is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-IIan University.