Opinion Articles

The Democratic Year in Review: The Knesset’s Missed Opportunity

At the center of the parliamentarians’ attention were private bills ostensibly aimed at Judaizing the Jewish state. The buzz words of the Knesset during the past year included “loyalty,” “boycott,” “Nakba,” “the New Israel Fund,” and the like. I will not use this forum to discuss the Knesset’s wisdom in engaging in such matters; it is very dubious. I will also not discuss the democratic legitimacy of the bills in question; in some cases, it does not exist. The nationalist chatter that has characterized the Knesset in the past year is a clear manifestation of insecurity, of a lack of confidence in the unquestionable Jewish identity of the State of Israel, and that is a shame.

But even those who support the Knesset’s nationalist outburst must admit that the public is in a completely different place. For forty long years, the Israeli black hole—the preoccupation with the Palestinian conflict and its consequences—swallowed up all other subjects, silencing them. This past summer, however, the public suddenly rallied around something completely different. The voice that rose up from the protestors in the public squares represents a paradigm shift that the Knesset missed completely. It indicates that beyond the edge of the black hole, there is a society that wants fundamental issues of a civil agenda to be addressed. Matters of security and nationality are indeed important, but the public is also concerned about economics and society.

While Knesset members are involved with exclusion of the Other, the people in the streets are talking about solidarity. While the Knesset is divesting itself of responsibility and passing it on to the golden boys of the treasury by means of arrangement laws, a new wind of accountability is blowing in the streets, expressed in the words “the people want….” While the Knesset is acting upon the narrow, self-centered interests of an army of mercenaries known as lobbyists, the public is calling for “social justice.” Isaiah and Amos, the social prophets of Israel, are smiling with satisfaction. Perhaps this is the proper Judaization of the Jewish State.

The Knesset’s missed opportunity, which echoes into the distance, carries with it threats to Israeli democracy itself. The shift that has moved the centers of decision making from representative institutions to alternative loci of power is an ongoing phenomenon. The weakness of the Knesset generally results in a trickle of power to other decision-making bodies, which are, by their nature, professional and responsible: the courts, the state comptroller, the attorney general, and more. But this past summer, the power that leaked from the Knesset trickled out toward the public. The benefits of this are enormous: The citizens are the sovereign; their involvement is the lifeblood of the democratic process. Accordingly, one would think that we should be very happy about what is going on in our streets.

But shifting the balance from representative democracy to direct democracy may be very costly in the long term. In direct democracy, the masses have their say. As countless events in history can attest, however, the public does not always act with discretion. It may be subject to manipulation. In an era in which the media is very powerful, the public is especially easy prey. Mass media, including social networks, can act like the Pied Piper, leading us all into the abyss. Representative democracy was designed to prevent these dangers.

We must not silence the public protest. But the Knesset must reclaim its rightful place. It must lead, be relevant, be responsible, and reflect the desire of the public. The members of Israel’s Knesset have received a wake up call. Let’s hope that in the year to come, it will point them in the right direction. 

A Hebrew version of this article was published in Yedioth Ahronoth on September 26, 2011.

Prof. Yedidia Stern is Vice President of Research of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University