Borderline Views: The big Succot debate

We should insist that our political parties take on a life between elections, and not just in the six months leading up to the polling booth.

Soccut Western Wall 370 (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
Soccut Western Wall 370
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun/Reuters)
It is the season of party political conferences in Britain. During consecutive weeks, each of the major political parties – the ruling Conservative party, the coalition Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labor Party – meet for a week and debate the party policies and their future strategies. In addition to the Parliamentary members of each party, the local branches all send delegates, as do the various organizations and political lobbies which are affiliated to each of the parties.
During the week, discussions are held on all aspects of social, economic, educational, welfare and foreign policy and, to the extent that it is possible, the party members and delegates determine party policy.
The conferences are held annually, regardless of whether it is an election year or not. Policy is debated but it is not a place for electing party leaders or parliamentary representatives. This is unlike the American system where party conventions are held once every four years as a means of formally electing the respective Republican and Democrat candidates for the forthcoming presidential election. And it is unlike the Israeli system, where party conventions are held in the period leading up to an election in order to elect the party lists and to cement the position of the party leader as they present themselves to the electorate.
Not everything about the British political party system – least of all the totally non-proportional electoral system – is perfect. But the party-conference system does allow for real discussion of policy on a variety of issues facing the country to take place, and for party members to have an impact on the direction the party should be taking.
For a period of three to four weeks, the British media and TV channels devote a great deal of time to the debates, to the speeches of the party political leaders and to in-studio discussions about the various aspects of party policy. For many viewers it is boring – they are not necessarily interested in endless discussions on taxation, the national health service, education policy – but in today’s media world there are enough alternative satellite and cable options to choose.
For those who are interested, it enables them to be tuned in, not just to the political intrigues which are common to all political parties everywhere in the world, but also to the issues which impact upon them in their daily lives as tax payers, patients, parents to children at schools, and as concerned observers of an increasingly volatile global environment.
When, if ever, was there a serious party political discussion about these critical social and economic issues in Israel? The only public political discussions which take place concern the non-existent peace process, the continuation of settlement policy and the critical issues facing Israel in the global sphere – not least Iran. Not that these are unimportant – they are of critical importance to the future existence and survival of the State of Israel – but they are all too often used as an excuse for not having any meaningful or serious debate within society about the socio-economic and welfare issues which we, as citizens, have to deal with on a daily basis.
As expected, nothing has changed as a result of last year’s social protests. The Trachtenberg Committee proposals have been discarded, no serious debate has taken place, no significant political movement has been formed as a result of the protests, and everything is pretty much back to where it was 18 months ago.
What does it take for there to be a meaningful debate in Israel about socioeconomic change? What political earthquake has to happen for the country’s leaders to focus on long-term thinking about welfare and education policy, for it to be given the same priority as the peace process, Iran and the Israel-Palestine conflict? When, if ever, do we hear our education, welfare or health ministers produce policy papers for public discussion and participation? When do we have serious town hall or studio debates about these issues, instead of continually interviewing the security experts and the retired generals about the same security issues, time after time after time again? In place of the big debates, Israel has developed an annual series of conferences – Herzliyah (security), Cesaraea (economics), Sderot (welfare and social policy), Elat (journalism and media) to name but a few.
But these have become conferences of the elite and it is normal to find that 50 percent of the participants at all of these conferences are the same politicians, who hold forth about every topic under the sun, whether they have a deep understanding or not.
These are places to be seen, but they do not enable any deeper or significant debate to take place, given the huge pressure to accommodate all of those who insist on being present and speaking, and to ensure that their names appear on the program.
Succot has become a time for the holding of debates concerning religious-secular relationships in Israel.
The “Open Succa” has developed as a place where people of different religious persuasions come together to discuss and exchange ideas and seek ways of creating ways of living together in a rapidly changing society. This is seen as a necessary alternative to the continued lip service paid to an outdated notion of the status quo – which is good for politicians but meaningless for the people in their daily lives.
We should think about extending the idea of the “Open Succah” to a wide range of issues facing society.
We should encourage political parties to use Succot as a uniquely Israeli time for holding the “big” debates which relate to civil society. We could create large succas in the center of towns, invite the party leaders to present their visions, and dilemmas concerning society and, just for a change, listen to what the public has to say – not as a means of garnering votes or scoring points, but in order to listen to what really concerns society in their daily lives, beyond the issues of peace and security.
We should also insist that our political parties take on a life between elections, and not just in the six months leading up to the polling booth. We require political parties which develop real policies and use the time periods between elections to debate, discuss and to consolidate. We want to know that we have politicians who have spent time thinking about the issues of social and economic concern, and have at least made an attempt to involve the thinking public in their concerns and their dilemmas.
This may result in more young people becoming interested in politics, rather than the growing apathy and disenchantment which they display in recent years – a very unhealthy trend for any democracy.
We seek meaning to our politics. Succot is as good a time as any to start.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics, the views expressed are his alone.