Published originally in the Jerusalem Post.
It’s election season in Israel. And with it come the usual expressions of despondency about the state of our politics and the quality of our politicians. There are still some enthusiasts out there, but it seems that Israelis are becoming increasingly cynical about the system, and many who do vote define their choice in terms of the least bad option.
The newspapers and political pundits continue to be stunned, and occasionally outraged, by the twists and turns of Israeli political life. But for much of the Israeli public the governing sentiment seems to be a kind of quiet resignation – a sense of inevitability that politics is an arena where mediocrity reigns, and excellence or integrity is in short supply. Granted, for some the political arena remains a source of curiosity – an occasionally engaging soap opera – but it is difficult to remember the last time the public saw it as a source of inspiration.
Politicians have become an easy target for our anger and our criticism, and some may well deserve it. Israel is certainly not a special case in that regard. But what we tend to forget when we disdain them is that our politicians are a product of the societies that elect them. We sometimes act as if they were an arbitrary punishment inflicted upon us, as if they came from some other planet. But the nature of our politics is in no small measure a reflection of the values we cultivate in our society, the way we educate our children, and the culture of public debate and decision-making we nurture.
Our Jewish sources have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward political rule. The Book of Deuteronomy establishes what is generally understood to be an obligation to appoint a king upon entry into the land (Dvarim 17:15 – “You shall set a king over you…”). And yet, at numerous points during the period of the Judges (Shoftim), when the children of Israel actually request a king, the request is regarded with contempt. Most noteworthy is the story retold in the Book of Samuel, where the people ask for a king so that “we can be like all the nations, that our king will judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles” (Shmuel I, 8:20). The request – though ultimately fulfilled – is presented in the text as a rejection of G-d’s rule rather than as a fulfillment of a Biblical commandment.
Perhaps one way to understand this tension is by distinguishing between the establishment of a monarch as part of a common effort by the Jewish people to create a just and righteous society, on the one hand, and the delegation of the peoples’ own responsibility for society in the hands of a political ruler, on the other. When Samuel is asked to appoint a king to fight the people’s battles, “to go out before us,” he understands that the people seek a king not to in order to meet their responsibilities as a community but to abdicate them.
In a similar spirit, too many Israelis today have left it to the politicians to “solve” their problems and left themselves the luxury of complaining about it. Too many deride politics as a “values free zone,” an irredeemably debased profession. But the message of this reading of the text of Samuel is that politics is too important to be left solely to politicians
It is precisely the rejection of political life as hopelessly tarnished – as the domain of others – that can fuel the very politics we have come to scorn. We cannot blame our politicians for our political culture without taking collective responsibility for the kind of society that produces it. As citizens we need to see our politics as an extension of ourselves, and work to ensure it reflects the aspirations we have for our society as a whole.
Jewish sovereignty has meant that our values get to collide headfirst with all that is muddy, distasteful and dispiriting about politics. This collision can be a recipe for dismay, as we watch high principles become compromised if not abandoned. But the encounter between our ideals and our politics need not inevitability result in the desecration of our ideals; it can also be an opportunity to make them real.
It is often said that power corrupts, but recoiling from power, abdicating it to others, is its own form of corruption. We cannot be serious about our values without taking our politics seriously. If we come to see the union of Jewish values with politics as a privilege and a responsibility – rather than as an impossibility – we can begin to cultivate a political culture that reflects the kind of society a Jewish state should aspire to achieve.