Democracy is alive and kicking in the Knesset

The Knesset has developed into a firm purveyor of the democratic values that reflect our country’s character.

Knesset vote  (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Knesset vote
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
This week the parliament of the renascent State of Israel marked its 63rd anniversary. I was awestruck by the 4,000 visitors we had that day, youngsters, observant and nonobservant, Jews and Arabs – all proudly engaged in their inspection of our nation’s democracy at work.
Even as the Knesset is routinely ridiculed by eager critics, I firmly believe all Israelis and friends of Israel around the globe can continue to look to our legislature with abiding pride and respect.
As an insider, an MK and Deputy Speaker, not a day passes in which I do not hear the constant rhetorical drumbeat that members of Knesset have abandoned their commitment to the values upon which the institution is based. Such arguments are largely based on misinformation, or more often a dislike for the sitting government and the parties in the majority. It is imperative that we remind ourselves that in Israel, unlike most in other nations in the region, the parliament is elected by the people in free and open elections.
The positions voiced in the Knesset reflect the electorate which places us there. The views which we advocate are not ours alone but are rather based on party platforms and promises that we presented as our contract with the voters. As in other Western parliaments, the legislative process in Israel employs a healthy system of checks and balances wherein every Knesset member is able to voice his or her opinion, within the confines of the law.
Critics of a specific member of Knesset would therefore be wise to remember that our actions are not tied to our individual personalities but are rather an honest reflection of what we have been elected to do.
Recently, I and many of my colleagues have been nastily labeled undemocratic. As a long-time observer of this body, I respectfully suggest that today’s Knesset is more democratic, more transparent and in fact more effective than during any other period I can remember.
Case in point: Last year, I proposed that the foreign funding of NGOs should be thoroughly investigated by a parliamentary commission so as to determine their origins and motives and assess the potential harm which such funding could cause to our national well-being. I also proposed a bill mandating that Israeli organizations and individuals who support boycotts against Israel should be subject to civil penalties that could be imposed in an Israeli court of law.
Not surprisingly, our critics claimed we were trying to stifle free debate and the exchange of ideas. Apparently, these critics believe that democracy should give a voice to every entity, including those whose purpose is to harm our national interest. I and the Knesset majority firmly believe that the essence of a strong democracy is using the rule of law to protect those values.
Israel is not a nation where our enemies can be given free rein to hide behind false claims of freedom of speech or freedom of protest. The fragile nature of our continued existence mandates that we do everything necessary to protect our citizens and our government, and this should never be misconstrued as opposing democracy. I much prefer to call this smart, muscular democracy.
It often seems that the public views Knesset members as legitimate targets for their personal frustrations. There is no shortage of ills which plague our society but constant criticism of our national leadership is not the only answer. This constant derision and cynicism ignores the immense dedication that Knesset members put forth for the public good and also serves to drive young people away from careers in politics and public service.
The Knesset is not solely a legislative body designed to debate proposed laws and enact them but is deeply committed to defending the good of the country. In recent months, beyond the issues cited above that attracted constant criticism, my fellow lawmakers advanced numerous initiatives designed to better our nation on an equally fundamental, yet perhaps less sensational level. Included was a recent bill to limit the amount of advertising that alcohol companies could target at young people. I have also vigorously advocated ensuring that the hit-andrun murder of Lee Zeitouni in Tel Aviv last September remains in the public eye so that her murderers who cowardly fled to France will face justice.
The full rights of the members of the Ethiopian community to live without discrimination and as equal contributors to our society is a cause which the Knesset has advocated in recent weeks and which similarly deserves mention.
These are not classic Right-Left or even existential issues; they are the stuff of justice and improving our citizens’ quality of life, and that is what so many of my fellow MKs spend their time laboring to achieve every hour of the day.
The Knesset is convening more committee hearings than ever before, which allows us not just to make laws but also to debate and champion issues of interest to the Jewish world and the Diaspora, giving it the additional role of parliament of ideas alongside the parliament of laws. This speaks to the increasing transparency which I am proudly promoting together with colleagues not just in my party but in all the parties.
The Knesset certainly has its flaws and there are aspects of its operation which are constantly scrutinized to ensure that we do our jobs better. As lawmakers we welcome this process.
Yet, to those who claim that the Knesset has lost its direction, I would argue for all the reasons outlined above that we must continue to take great pride in this institution. For as it is today, as it has grown and developed, it is a firm purveyor of the democratic values that both reflect our country’s unique democratic character and move us in the direction of greater democracy and progress.
The writer is chairman of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset.