Who cares about us?

"The problem begins and ends with our electoral system. The minority dictates and decides for the majority, often resulting in a government unable to complete its four year term. "

A MAN holds a sign during the 2011 ‘Summer of Discontent’ protest when hundreds of thousands marched in Tel Aviv for lower living costs in the largest such rally in Israel’s history (photo credit: DARREN WHITESIDE / REUTERS)
A MAN holds a sign during the 2011 ‘Summer of Discontent’ protest when hundreds of thousands marched in Tel Aviv for lower living costs in the largest such rally in Israel’s history
Sitting with friends recently, the conversation – as is often the case here – turned to current political happenings: the disappointment with the government for having reneged on the decision to provide an egalitarian place of worship at the Western Wall and its negative effect on American Jewry; concern as to why many couples who are Jewish according to Halacha prefer to marry in Cyprus; difficulty in understanding why only the Chief Rabbinate can be in charge of kashrut. The sense is that many practicing and secular Jews feel out of touch with the disproportionate sovereignty of the Chief Rabbinate.
Doreen Gainsford has lived in Israel for some 40 years. Originating from the United Kingdom, where she led what was known as the “35s Women’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry,” organizing protest demonstrations and lobbying governments.
Raising the issue of the religious divide in Israel, Gainsford said, “One of the major reasons for this divide is the hijacking and immoral misuse of our religion by the ultra-Orthodox. The divide is aggravated by the silence and lack of public protest by the religious Zionist leaders and their communities. It’s time the religious Zionists protest and insist that our government stop giving in to the disproportionate power and demands of the ultra-Orthodox minority.”
She believes that just as public protests and lobbying succeeded in successfully drawing attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry back in the 1980s, such action here would make a difference to the power the ultra-Orthodox wield over the entire Israeli population.
Gainsford’s thoughts brought me back to the 2011 “Summer of Discontent” when Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv became a tent city. Young people were protesting high rental and housing prices. Protesters demanded social justice. Among issues raised were the cost of transport, childcare, food, fuel and the low salaries paid to teachers. According to opinion polls at the time, 90% of the population supported this movement that demanded change. At one point, some 430,000 people took part in marches and rallies across the country. It was a success in terms of the number of participants who came out to protest, but did it bear results? The answer is a resounding “no.”
Today, for many young couples the prospect of being able to own one’s home remains a distant dream. The recent strike of high school teachers reflects the ever-growing frustration with inadequate salaries, too many pupils in each class and the inability to attract new blood into the profession. Ran Erez, chair of the Teachers Association, said, “The state needs to stop burying its head in the sand and start investing in its teachers’ future and in the future of the students of Israel.”
Israel’s primary and secondary pupils rank among the lowest in the developed world in standardized math, science and reading exams, the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research reported in its “Education Report Card” published at the start of the 2017 school year. This does not bode well for the future of a country relying heavily on the products of its education system.
Protests will not succeed because there is no one obligated to listen.
The problem begins and ends with our electoral system. The minority dictates and decides for the majority, often resulting in a government unable to complete its four-year term. The consequent change of government and switch in ministry heads results in a lack of continuity. A new education minister will want to introduce a new curriculum, as happened when Naftali Bennett of the Bayit Yehudi Party took over from Yesh Atid’s Shai Piron. Changes were made within a two-year period.
Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that the electoral system should reflect the views of a nation of immigrants from a diversity of backgrounds.
Proportional representation was chosen as the method of election; the low initial threshold of 1% enabled numerous parties to enter the Knesset.
In 2014, the threshold for a party to enter the Knesset was raised from 2% to 3.25%.
The current 20th Knesset, elected in 2015, consists of 10 parties, with five having eight or fewer MKs. The Likud won only 30 elected members, necessitating a coalition government. Deals had to be made and here lies the problem. The Shas party, with only seven out of 120 MKs, was the catalyst for the reversal of the decision to provide a place of worship at the Western Wall for egalitarian prayer. Shas, having obtained the Religious Services Ministry, “persuaded” their coalition colleagues to rescind the agreement – a perfect example of the blackmail situation where the view of a minority dictates policy.
Unlike the United States and United Kingdom, the electorate here does not have a local member representing the constituency in which they reside – someone with whom to express their dissatisfaction and who feels obliged to listen to his/her constituents if he/she wishes to be reelected.
In Israel, the parties choose their candidates and the electorate has the right to vote only for a party, not an individual.
Let’s take a moment to dream. What if one day, by some miracle, the Knesset wanted to change the electoral system. Which system would we choose? To seek guidance, I contacted Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College London and a member of the Israel Democracy Institute’s International Advisory Council.
Bogdanor has written many papers and articles on this subject. He believes reform should retain the principle of proportional representation, but one way of making it more difficult for very small parties to gain representation is by raising the threshold to 5%. However, he argues, such reforms would not necessarily give the government the authority to make tough and controversial decisions. Rather, he favors a proportional representation system with multi-member constituencies as in the Scandinavian democracies. These systems have the advantage that constituencies can follow natural boundaries. Israel could be divided into 14 constituencies, with Tel Aviv, for example, returning 10 members and Haifa returning six members.
Bogdanor sees merit in the system used in Finland. Voters are presented with alphabetical lists for each party. The voter has to put an “X” by a single name. The votes are then counted with the parties represented in proportion to the vote.
The individuals who are elected are those who have obtained the most votes. The system combines a primary with a general election. In other words it is the electorate that chooses the candidates. For the many who wish to have a Knesset member who cares about his/her constituents, a new electoral system is long overdue.
Sadly, it is difficult to imagine that parties who rely on the current system of party control would permit the electorate to choose their Knesset representative for, by so doing, it is likely they would vote themselves out of a job.
We might have to wait for a time when the members of government think more about what is good for the country and its population rather than their personal priority – namely, to stick to their seats.
Let’s not give up hope; this is the land of miracles.
The writer is public relations chair of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.