And they ran and fetched him and when he stood among the people, he was higher than any of the people from his shoulders and upward. And Samuel said to all the people: See him whom the LORD has chosen, that there is none like him among all the people? And all the people shouted, and said: Long live the king. -I Samuel 10:23-24
The other night I attended, with about 200 others, a public panel discussion at which the six candidates for head of the Misgav regional council could present their positions to the public. Regional councils are rural counties comprising a number of small communities (e.g., kibbutzim, moshavim, community settlements, villages). Each constituent community elects its own representative to the council assembly. And every five years, there is a direct election for the county executive, or mayor. Thus, in regional councils, national party politics doesn't really play a role. The dominant factors tend to be local issues, be they ethnic, economic, or even family (clan).
Our region, Misgav, includes about 36 communities with a total population of 15,000, scattered through a large swath of the western Galilee, surrounding a number of independent "islands" - Arab villages and cities and the city of Karmiel, which all have their own municipal governments and are not part of the regional council. Within Misgav, almost a third of the population are Bedouins, living in half a dozen villages; the Jewish population is distributed among six kibbutzim and 24 community settlements. There are no mixed Arab-Jewish communities.
Misgav is a pretty middle class, suburban-style place. Hence, I guess it wasn't surprising that there was a tendency to refer to the citizens as "consumers," with the government as a provider of services. Obviously, that is one valid description of local government. And yet, somehow, I was hoping for more; if the election is really only about the frequency of garbage collection, then one wonders if it really matters who wins.
There was, of course, a good deal of old-fashioned self-promotion, in which the candidates sought to show how their previous achievements in business, bureaucracy or even academics (remember, this was a middle class audience) made them the ideal choice. One even referred to his heroic role in one of the battles of the Yom Kippur War (when he was 21).
Since the Bedouins are such a significant part of the population - and have a tendency to vote as clan or village blocs, the candidates in a race among six cannot afford not to court their votes. And since many in the audience that night were Bedouins, the presentations often took the form of "if elected, I will..." ...see to it that various measures are enacted that will improve the Bedouins' lot (and there is consensus that it needs improving - jobs, infrastructure, education, etc.). And while Misgav has made strides in this direction in recent years, it was hard not to sympathize with the cynical comments that were heard in the audience about these promises.
A hot topic in the region these days is the issue of the right of local communities to screen applicants - in general, and particularly with respect to ethnic identity: it is not an accident that there no mixed Arab-Jewish communities around here. None of the candidates wanted to sound racist, yet all knew that to take a position favoring integration would be to throw the election. One took a rather strong, open position against integration; the others got by with various euphemisms and evasions. This question, here, is (I think) more complicated than it sounds to the American ear; I will explore it in a future entry.
On the one hand, this kind of grass roots local politics is heartening, in the context of the Israeli system of proportional representation. No parties, no machine, no coalition horse-trading, just citizens/neighbors seeking to be elected on their merits and their ideas. On the other hand, Israel's very nature as a state defined by ethnicity (The Jewish State) creates, willy nilly, a public discourse that sometimes feels racist, patronizing, or both, and this particular evening highlighted this phenomenon.
Tip O'Neill said that "all politics is local;" and indeed, it seems that in our little corner of the Galilee, the political process resonates to some of the major dilemmas of Israeli democracy.