A Guide to Voting in Israel, Part I

James Wilson's political thought and its 'applicability' to Israel is mind-boggling.

Prof. Paul Eidelberg

OpEds בחירות

The campaigns for forthcoming January elections are descending on Israel.

People familiar with my study of the electoral systems of many countries, as well as with my proposals for constitutional reform in Israel ask me to recommend a party for their consideration. I’ll address this question in Part II. First, let’s discuss some basic considerations on voting in a democratic election, for which purpose I can do no better than consult James Wilson.

James Wilson was one of six men who signed both the American Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. His contribution to the deliberations of the Federal Constitutional Convention of 1787 was second only to that of James Madison. He was also the principal draftsman of Pennsylvania’s own constitution of 1790.

Mr. Wilson was one of the original Justices of the Supreme Court as well as one of the first professors of law. He was widely regarded as the profoundest legal scholar of his generation.

More than other framers of the American Constitution, Wilson was a fervent advocate of democracy. His conception of democracy, however, or at least of what it means to vote in elections, differs significantly from that of the present age.

Although I have written extensively on the debates of the American Constitution, I did not fully appreciate Wilson’s political thought until I came to Israel, where I was appalled by its dysfunctional system of government which cripples Israel and proves that God protects the people of this country.

Now let’s collate a few passages from Wilson’s law lectures and speeches:

In a free country, every citizen forms a part of the sovereign power: he possesses a vote, or takes a still more active part in the business of the commonwealth. The right and duty of giving that vote, the right and duty of taking that share, are necessarily attended with the duty of making that business the object of his study and inquiry….

At every election [Wilson continues], a number of important appointments must be made. To do this is, indeed, the business of a day. But it ought to be the business of much more than a day to be prepared for doing it well. When a citizen elects to office … he performs an act of the first political consequence. He should be employed, on every convenient occasion, in making researches after the proper persons for filling the different departments of power; in discussing, with his neighbours and fellow citizens, the qualities that should be possessed by those who fill the several offices [impossible in Israel]; and in acquiring information, with the spirit of manly candour, concerning the manners, and history, and characters of those who are likely to be candidates for the public choice.

A habit of conversing and reflecting on these subjects, and of governing his actions by the result of his deliberations, will form, in the mind of the citizen, a uniform, a strong, and a lively sensibility to the interests of his country. The same cause will produce a warm and enlightened attachment [or representational bond] to those [representatives], who are best fitted and best disposed to support and advance those interests [impossible in Israel where there is no direct, personal election of Knesset Members].

Wilson goes on to suggest the habit of citizens to candidly acquire information concerning the manners, history, and characters of candidates for public office, tends to raise the level of those elected and to exert a salutary influence on their official conduct if only because they want to be worthy of the honor accorded them by their fellow citizens (to say nothing of their desire to be re-elected).

We see that for Wilson, voting—electing someone to public office, a person whose conduct can affect the welfare of the commonwealth—is a moral act requiring rational inquiry and candid judgment. The right to vote in an election involves the duty of citizens to inquire into the character and experience of the candidates and to make a candid judgment as to which candidate is best qualified to serve the interests of the community.

The preceding remarks should be juxtaposed with what American citizens know today about the manners, history, and characters of the candidates competing for the office of the president of the United States.

Do the media, including Internet, augment or distort the citizen’s knowledge of these candidates and of their public philosophy?

Are controversial issues discussed in a candid and serious manner? Are citizens confronted by clear, alternative public policies?

Are the winning candidates, once in office, held accountable for the positions they take during election campaigns? Do contemporary democratic elections foster seriousness, truth, and moral clarity?

Does the enormous amount of money spent on elections affect not only the quality of men and women who enter politics, but also popular sovereignty?

And finally, do these elections clarify and solidify the country sense of national identity and purpose?

We shall see in the sequel that hardly any political candidate in Israel — however much he or she pontificates about national identity—has an institutional program which logically and politically conduces to this all-important goal.

(To be continued.)