The Paradox of Israeli “Democracy”


 The Paradox of Israeli “Democracy”

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

The American tourist to Israel is immediately struck by how vociferous Israelis tend to be about their countries and the myriad issues that it has to deal with. “Opinionated” is probably too mild a word to describe Israelis’ penchant for mouthing off on any and all topics, large and small. And if that tourist were to dig a little deeper, s/he would be further impressed by Israel’s relatively high voting turnout – far higher than in the States (especially when one takes into account that Israeli voting percentages are artificially depressed by hundreds of thousands of Israeli emigrants living abroad who continue to appear on the voter register but are barred by Israeli law from voting while overseas). Israeli democracy, seemingly, is alive and kicking.

           However, when one looks at the whole picture, the scene changes drastically. Democracy is not merely the election campaign and Election Day – it is a matter of daily functioning throughout the year. Moreover, it is not only something that one “does” within the political realm; true democracy carries over into all fields of public life. From this dual (and wider) perspective, Israeli democracy has a long way to go in order to join the advanced democratic world.

           I shall start with an example from my own profession. As a visiting professor at Brown University this year, I too get mass e-mailings from the administration. Recently, I received a message that solicited faculty members’ input into Brown’s upcoming five-year policy and course structure reassessment – and several reminders followed urging the faculty to participate in this important process. I have been teaching at Bar-Ilan University for three decades and have never received such a request – not even when I was chairman of one of the university’s largest departments! My colleagues from other Israeli universities report exactly the same (non)experience. In other words, in Israeli academia the Rector and President decide what’s best for everyone, without asking their “public” – by all lights a most intelligent one – for educated input.

           This week the Israeli and American press offered another such example – from the world of journalism. The internet has upended many journalistic practices and dogmas, chief of which was that editorial content was to be written only by professionals; the public merely chose what to read from the menu offered. Today, however, the interactivity afforded by the internet (Web 2.0) has in theory empowered the reading public to become “prosumers”: producing and publishing what they and others will also read/consume. But when one compares Israeli journalistic practice with that of their American counterparts in the age Web 2.0, the difference is striking: 58% of all American newspapers on a regular basis publish editorial content (articles, op-ed pieces, news photos etc.) submitted by readers. In Israel, the percentage is close to zero – except for what Israelis call “Talkbacks”, i.e. on the papers’ websites, readers’ commenting on regular news items. In other words, the Israeli press is grudgingly willing to allow some semblance of reaction to its product, but does not countenance enabling readers to initiate news product.

           One could add example after example from all walks of Israeli life. Members of Knesset who almost never solicit their constituents’ opinions; planning commissions that consider public input to be a nuisance in the arduous process of approving projects; university professors who as a general rule view the teaching process as one of “I talk, you listen and write, then you regurgitate, and finally I grade”; and so on.

           How to explain this paradox of oral volubility and practical passivity? It strikes me that true Jewish behavioral culture is one of democratic participation, but in the early development of Zionism and then during the early years of the Jewish State itself, such natural activism became stymied as a result of what came to be called “mamlakhtiyut” – Statism, the idea that the government would provide for the (mostly uneducated and poor) populace that was immigrating to Israel in droves. At the time, such an approach may have even made sense given the very limited public resources that were stretched to the breaking point. But once the economic crisis passed, Israelis were ready to return to their more participatory culture – only to find an institutional structure that was built for top-to-bottom guidance and not bottom-to-top input.

           So Israelis continue to kvetch, and complain, and occasionally demonstrate in the streets, but it will be awhile yet until the “elites” in Israel begin to discover what has become conventional wisdom in the rest of the west: knowledge lies at the bottom of the pyramid, far more than at the top (see Wikipedia vs. Britannica); organizational hierarchy cannot compete with the efficiency of the network (the campaigns of McCain vs. Obama). May the Jewish State live a very long life, but may the ethos of Statism have a very fast demise…

Dec. 24, 2008

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