This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Coalition Bargaining*

News Item:

May 1996--As has usually been the case in Israel's political history, the narrow election victory of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party requires far-reaching concessions to the small Orthodox religious parties whose support is indispensable for a parliamentary majority.

Yet again we have been privileged to witness the distasteful ritual horse-trading in which the Israeli Orthodox parties extort political favours from a new government in exchange for their coalition support. The process, which is an unfortunate by-product of Israel's proportional representation system, has never reflected favourably on either side in the negotiations, and has served to alienate generations of Israelis from their Jewish heritage.

This style of coalition negotiation has quite a long history, antedating the establishment of the state by a full generation. As early as 1918 attempts were made to convene a parliamentary body that would represent all segments of the Jewish populace of Eretz-Israel and serve as a government-in-waiting until the achievement of statehood. Democratic elections were planned for this body, and the entire "Yishuv" made ready to cast their votes.

Well, almost the entire Yishuv. The Orthodox representatives could not countenance the fact that women would be allowed to participate, whether as voters or as candidates.

Faced with threats that the Orthodox would withdraw and set up an assembly of their own, thereby undermining the raison d'être of the general parliament, the leaders of the secular and religious factions set to work on a solution to the impasse.

Fortunately both sides were headed by far-sighted and flexible leaders. The socialist David Ben-Gurion and the Mizrachi president Rabbi Judah Leib Maimon had been together through imprisonment in Turkey and exile in America, and shared similar visions of Zionist priorities. (The fact that Rabbi Maimon's sister, Ada, was one of Labour's most outspoken feminist activists may also have facilitated matters.) An initial compromise was achieved when Ben-Gurion consented to emend the name of the proposed parliament from a "Founding Assembly"--with its implications of a permanent, constitutional status--to the less explicit "Elected Assembly."

Unfortunately, this agreement did not prove sufficient. Five days before the date set for the polling, eighty-five Rabbis, among them Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, issued a solemn proclamation declaring that all Godfearing Jews should boycott the elections since women's participation would constitute a gross violation of Jewish law and tradition.

Faced with this new obstacle, Rabbi Maimon acted decisively. The Mizrachi Party flatly refused to follow the unsolicited rabbinic decision, insisting that the formulators of that decision merely intended it as advice and not as a halakhic ruling. Mizrachi members were encouraged to take part in the elections.

After many delays, most of the Jewish population finally went to the polls on April 19, 1920. However Arab riots in Jerusalem caused the elections there to be postponed until May 2. The riots had the additional effect of strengthening support among the Orthodox for this demonstration of national pride and solidarity. Even Rabbi Kook retroactively conceded to the Mizrachi position (which he described as "providential"), and planned to cast his own vote.

There remained, however, a slight problem: Rabbi Kook would not agree to participate unless separate booths were provided for the women. The secularists were equally adamant in their refusal to yield to the clerical reactionaries.

A further meeting was convened at which Rabbi Kook discussed his position with representatives from the opposing groups. Initially the sage proposed that the dispute be resolved through semantics: It would be the men, rather than the women, who would be segregated at the polls. The delegates were not appeased.

The solution that did emerge was so outrageous that to this day no one is entirely certain how it came to be accepted. Apparently out of desperation to secure Orthodox participation in the process, the democratic majority consented to a procedure where patriarchs of the Orthodox Jerusalem families would be granted the right to cast their votes on behalf of their wives and daughters!

The prize for this suspension of democratic principles was that Rabbi Kook actively urged his constituency to take part in the balloting, and the Elected Assembly was ultimately chosen from all major segments of the Jewish populace for whom it claimed to speak. Once that milestone had been reached, the original disputes faded into the background, and the Elected Assembly--as well as its successor, the Israeli Keneset--conducted all subsequent elections in conformity with fully egalitarian standards.

The dynamics of that episode appear to have set the pattern for all future coalition haggling in the Jewish state. Those earlier pioneers were gifted with a remarkable ability to define priorities and to wisely discern when principles must be compromised in the broader national interest.

In those earlier days both sides were arguing over values and ideological principles. I doubt that the same can be said about their present-day successors.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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  • First Publication:
    • JFP, July 5 1996, pp. 6-7.
  • Bibliography:
    • Shabtai Teveth, Ben-Gurion--the Burning Ground: 1886-1948, Boston 1987.