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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776

Election fever

Galilee Diary #260
November 20, 2005
Marc J. Rosenstein

In the famous episode of “Achnai’s oven,” Rabbi Eliezer was a minority of one in a dispute over a matter of law with his colleagues in the bet midrash. They rejected all his arguments. Finally, in frustration, he said,

If the law is according to my view, let it be proven from heaven.
And a heavenly voice called out, “what is your quarrel with R. Eliezer? The law is always according to his view!”
Rabbi Judah arose and said, “’It is not in heaven…’ [Deut. 30:12] – we do not pay attention to a heavenly voice, for You already wrote in Your Torah, ‘…follow a majority.’” [Ex. 23:2].
-Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59a

Even though Rabbi Judah’s proof text is actually wrenched violently out of context (the full verse in Exodus is “Do not follow a majority to do evil”), and even though the majority vote here is not by “the people,” but by a ruling elite, this aggadah is generally used to show that democracy – majority rule – is a Jewish value.

Today, just as then (and in recent elections in the US), defining the majority and specifying just how to determine its voice are difficult challenges. Israel today is in a state of governmental paralysis, as we begin a six month period of lame duck government or worse. Why?

In Israel, there is one house of parliament (the Knesset), with 120 members. There is no geographical or personal representation – when we vote, we simply choose a party from the list. The votes are counted nationally, and each party gets a number of seats proportional to its share of the popular vote. Some parties have primaries to determine their candidates to fill whatever seats they win; others choose their representatives by other mechanisms. Since no party has ever received a majority, several parties band together to agree on a compromise platform, to create a coalition controlling at least 61 votes, so that a prime minister can be selected – and all the other cabinet ministers (who get their positions as part of their party’s reward for joining the coalition), and government business can be done. Thus, we don’t have legislators who represent us directly.

In the process of the Gaza disengagement, Arik Sharon followed what he apparently saw as the “will of the people” even if it wasn’t the will of the coalition upon which his power and position were based. This has caused his coalition to collapse, and the need to hold new general elections, to get a better picture, hopefully, of what the people really want. From now until March 28, no serious government business can get done, as there is no coherent coalition, and we are in the midst of an election campaign; it can easily take another couple of months after the election for the new coalition to get organized and make the relevant appointments.

Sharon has left the Likud and is trying to build a new “centrist” (meaning, not-too-clearly-defined) party to lead. Meanwhile, with the upset victory in the Labor party primary by Amir Peretz, a charismatic, Moroccan-born labor union leader and former mayor of a poor development town in the Negev, all the cards have been thrown up in the air, and all the pundits in the world can’t figure out what is going to happen next.

We are living in a kind of limbo, but interestingly, there is optimism in the air, a feeling of expectation, a sense that maybe we are going to get unstuck, that maybe in taking apart and reassembling our government this time, the result will be something new, a breaking out of the ruts in which we have been spinning our wheels. So while we look forward with some cynicism to the election campaign, with its superficiality and vulgarity, and we don’t expect any voices from heaven, we are feeling a glimmer of renewed faith in the system and in our ability actually to govern ourselves.

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