In marmur

By Rabbi Dow Marmur.

It’s easier to talk about politics, even to teach it, than to practice it. This was amply demonstrated by Michael Ignatieff, academic and TV personality, who had a less than successful spell as the leader ofCanada’s Liberal Party. He spoke about it at theHebrewUniversityinJerusalemlast Friday.

Ignatieff came to give a lecture in memory of the late Edna Ullmann-Margalit, a distinguished Israeli intellectual and activist who had been the director of the University’s Center for the Study of Rationality. The Center attracts some of the most significant Israeli thinkers and includes at least two Nobel Prize laureates. I saw several famous faces in the audience, all of them academics; I didn’t spot any politician.

The title of Ignatieff’s talk was “Rationality in Politics.” Greatly influenced by the British Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose very readable biography he had written, Ignatieff suggested that politics is more about understanding (which Jews may perhaps best describe with the Hebrew-Yiddish term sechel) than about knowledge in the academic sense. It also invariably involves a large dose of sheer luck. He implied that, despite his knowledge, he didn’t have enough of the other stuff to succeed.

He had a lot to say about the importance of face-to-face canvassing before elections and spoke of his own sobering experiences of knocking at would-be voters’ doors and its wholesome effect on democracy. Without mentioning it explicitly he thus came to describe a fundamental difference between elections, say, inCanadaand inIsraelwhere people vote for party lists, not for individual candidates.

The difference points to a basic flaw in the Israeli system that seriously compromises its democracy: the party lists are sometimes the result of primaries among party members and sometimes only reflections of the wishes and whims of the leaders.

Thus for example, Avigdor Lieberman, until recentlyIsrael’s highly problematic Foreign Minister decided, for reasons that aren’t clear, at least to me, to make sure that his deputy Danny Ayalon and other members of the outgoing Knesset not be included them on his list. As far as I know, there was no democratic process at work.

Similarly, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef who sort-of owns the Shass Party decided to bring back Arieh Deri some years after Deri returned from a lengthy jail sentence for corruption, so he created a leadership troika that now heads the list. Several of the new parties also have lists composed by the leader with or without an inner circle junta.

            This means that the Israeli electorate doesn’t have direct contact with the candidates and knows about them only through the media and the spins the parties put out. Choices thus become much more spurious and those elected aren’t accountable to the voters for whom it almost doesn’t seem to matter which individuals get elected.

            Consequently, not only fewer and fewer citizens bother to vote – which also happens in other countries, including Canada – but that those who do vote tend soon to be disillusioned with the party they voted for and turn to a new one next time. There’re several of those in the forthcoming elections; they’re likely to vanish soon. This adds to the unhealthy volatility ofIsrael’s problematic system of proportional representation.

            The most important thing I learnt from the lecture I already knew beforehand: the imperative of electoral reform inIsraelto ensure the survival of its robust democracy.

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