Shtetl’s Long Gone: Pump Some New Life Into an Old System


Like waiting for the Messiah, Israelis have been waiting for many years for the coming of the political "Big Bang" and a new beginning. Israeli tolerance for idiotic and embarrassing microphone wars – both between the combatants for control of Likud and within Labor's shattered remains – has now run out.

We have also grown tired of the corruption, the incompetence, the wholesale vote-buying that determines the candidates, and the vulgarity of our democratic institutions and the people who manipulate them.

The institutions of many other democracies don't function much better, but the Jewish people and the citizens of the State of Israel cannot afford to continue to court disaster in this manner.

These are collective public sins of commission for which there is no forgiveness. In a democracy, we get the type of political system, as well as the leadership, that we choose and deserve. If we fail to act, there's no one else to blame.

And if we do not seek alternatives to the current political leaders that plague our lives, we cannot claim to be surprised by the outcome.

Indeed, the perpetual crisis in which we live is also a leadership crisis; these two aspects go hand in hand. Israel's major political parties (as of now) are headed by two more-or-less accomplished men over the age of 75. The best, brightest and most honest potential leaders have run away from politics because they refuse to compete on such a muck-filled playing field. In addition, the archaic and unrealistic campaign-finance laws turn even the most honest politicians into criminals, although they know that for such crimes they are not going to be punished.

The institutional frameworks and fragmented system of elections with which we are also saddled constitute major obstacles to the type of changes that would encourage leadership challenges.

Israel's political system is still based on the anarchic eastern-European procedures of the 1880s, which is not much different from synagogue politics of the Diaspora. In those days, the idea of democratic participation was relatively new, and the stakes were quite small. Political institutions were weak and fragmented; the main goal was to give the members of different factions a voice and a sense of inclusion. Important decisions concerning war and peace – or religion and state – were not the province of these early experiments in democracy.

The Zionist experiment succeeded, and the Jews now constitute a majority in a sovereign democratic state with all of the responsibilities this entails, but the political institutions have not changed.

The system worked – to the extent necessary for survival – despite the petty machers and dreyers, because we had outstanding leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, who rose above the swamp and guided the nation through difficult periods. Later, during the 1990s, the sharp divisions between left and right imposed some structure on the system, although it exacerbated the divisions.

But after the disastrous failure of the Oslo experiment and the defeat of the Palestinian terror campaign, Israel is again without a structure for making the difficult decisions required of it.

In this environment, the tyranny of small parties and their even smaller-minded leaders has grown worse. Although the sources of this political disease are well-known, the various proposed cures have yet to succeed. A few years ago, a comprehensive reform plan – including some individual constituencies in the Knesset and direct election of the prime minister – was watered down by the power-brokers. The very partial changes that were adopted left the smaller parties and their leaders in an even more powerful position, so that even this limited reform was rolled back.

We are back to the politics of the shtetl, circa 1880. The good news is that crises often lead to positive changes, if the patient survives. The old system is crumbling quickly; to survive, Israeli society needs to make some difficult but absolutely necessary choices. A new generation of leaders must present themselves and their platforms to the public, free of any suspicion of using the political process for private enrichment.

Gerald M. Steinberg directs the Program on Conflict Management at Bar-Ilan University, and is editor of: www.


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