On Israel: When Protests Fail

Members of the Israel government coalition voted to support judicial reforms despite 29 straight weeks of protests, wherein a large chunk of the Israeli population participated in rallies, strikes, shutdowns, marches, and other ways of making their voices not only heard meekly, but heard resoundingly.

I once read a story about two American expats living in Italy, who carpooled together to drive several hours down the Amalfi coast in order to properly cast their ballot for a United States election. (This whole set-up seems suspicious because why wouldn’t they just have mailed in their ballots?) Nonetheless, according to the story, they spent several hours and great effort to make sure their votes could be counted and registered, with the surprising caveat that they knew from the outset that they intended to vote on opposite sides of the election. Both of them knew going into the endeavor that their votes would effectively “cancel each other out” and yet they did it anyways. Why?

Economists are puzzled by why people vote. In 2005, Freakonomics, co-authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt penned a New York Times article about it, explaining that from a rational, self-interested point of view, it doesn’t make sense to vote. Among other things they point out, if the election isn’t close, one vote won’t matter in the slightest. And the closer the election is, the less likely it is that the matter will be resolved with the voters and more likely it will be resolved by other means. (Outside of high school popularity contests, any election resolved by a single vote will be referred to the judiciary, no?)

But, the argument goes: taken to its logical conclusion then, nobody would vote, and that we know would be ineffective governance, so the conclusion must be wrong for an individual as well. This analysis must have gotten something wrong. I admit that economists aren’t particularly skilled at showing how decision making reverberates, and also true that mass movements seem to be particularly effective at creating social change. 

Although today is a sad day to be writing about this. 

Today, there was a crucial vote in the Israeli lawmaking body, the Knesset, that started to cut away at some of the safeguards of democracy. In particular, the legislative body made a law that the judiciary could no longer utilize a standard of “reasonableness” to invalidate the work of the Knesset. In other words, the legistlature has now legalized whatever illegal thing they might think to do. Instead of a legal body being charged with figuring out if a law is “reasonable” (the Israeli equivalent of “unconstitutional” because they don’t actually have a constitution), the Knesset can now call whatever they want the rightful “will of the people” or a “mandate” or some other such nonsense.

It’s nonsense because the Israeli electorate is deeply split. Over the past several years, there have been successive elections which have swung slightly one way or another, and then the government coalitions have fallen apart under the stress of not quite having enough of a mandate. But in the latest election, the Israeli version of gerrymandering prevailed. (It’s not really gerrymandering because Israel does not have geographic regions, but it does have other rules about how to count votes, and parties that don’t get to a threshold have their votes discarded, and that’s what happened). And once the leading right-wing parties had enough of a block (including teaming up with avowed racists, misogynists, and lunatic nationalists), they moved aggressively and quickly to solidify their power. 

That’s what power does, I guess. 

In this case, all 64 (out of 120) members of the coalition voted to support the “reforms” despite 29 straight weeks of protests, wherein a large chunk of the Israeli population participated in rallies, strikes, shutdowns, marches, and other ways of making their voices not only heard meekly, but heard resoundingly. Sixty-four diaspora communities participated as well, hosting rallies in Athens, Philadelphia, Buenos Aires, and San Francisco, and others. 

Maybe this ironically pushed the government to action sooner and more furiously. Maybe they knew that if they didn’t seize the moment, they weren’t going to get another chance. 

One detail from this morning really struck me. At the beginning of these protests, half a year ago, the defense minister, Yoav Gallant (who was part of the government coalition) went to the Prime Minister, Netanyahu and warned him that the civil unrest was making Israel less secure. To be clear, this assessment was in his professional purview and it was practically his obligation to present this analysis. But in a case of “shooting the messenger,” he was fired for disloyalty. 

The Israeli population roared to his defense. The next day found mid-week protests that were so loud and vehement that within a relatively short time frame, Gallant was hired back into his job, and the proposed judicial changes were paused temporarily.

Today, as a reinstated member of the government coalition, Gallant voted for the reforms. You can’t tell me that he doesn’t know it was wrong, but he voted for it anyways. 

That’s what power does, I guess. 

If politicians were better and more honest interview subjects, economists should really spend the next couple of years figuring out why it is that elected politicians vote against their better judgment so often. In the United States, we like to explain it with political donations, but that isn’t relevant in Israel. And maybe I’d be suspicious of any explanation they came up with, but I sure would like to know why people who get elected to serve the people, who understand the costs and benefits of individual decisions, are so easily persuaded to vote against what would best serve their constituents. Job security? That also seems a little hollow. 

At any rate, it’s a depressing day. If I’m skeptical about what a single vote does, there has always been refuge in the idea that many, many votes would make a difference where a single one couldn’t. And I still believe that, to some extent. This isn’t the final word, and even dictatorships have been toppled by vocal protests. I just was really hoping that peaceful, repeated, and committed protests in this case would help the train find its brakes. 

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