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Why Israel’s Crazy Electoral System Might Be Best Idea Ever

Jewish suffragettes scored a signal achievement in 1920, when the first nationwide elections were held in the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. They received 600 votes.

This smattering of women — we may presume that nearly all of them were women — went to their polling places and chose, from among nearly two dozen others, the slip of paper designating the slate of the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights. Six hundred votes constituted less than 1% of the Yishuv’s total population at the time. They equaled just 2% of the eligible voters in the Yishuv and less than 3% of the votes cast.

But those 600 votes entitled the women’s party to five of the 314 seats in the assembly. Two other members of the union were elected on the slates of other factions, and seven other women entered the Assembly of Representatives, as the Yishuv’s legislature was called, on the lists of the labor parties. Together these 14 women constituted a women’s rights caucus in this forerunner of Israel’s Knesset. Paradoxically, they had been elected provisionally, before women had in fact been officially granted the right to vote and to serve in elective office. The Yishuv’s religious and Haredi communities opposed women’s suffrage widely. Had these women not been a salient presence in the legislature, it is quite likely that those rights, finally granted formally five years later, would not have been recognized for many years thereafter.

The women’s party was able to gain representation thanks to the proportional electoral system instituted by the Yishuv leadership. It’s a system that remained in use throughout the pre-state years and was adopted by the State of Israel. And, with minor modifications, it’s the method by which Israel’s citizens will choose their new Knesset on March 17 of this year. It’s a system that’s been widely criticized inside and outside Israel for encouraging factionalism and granting small sectoral and ideological factions inordinate bargaining power — which, supposedly, an American style system does not. Yet, for all its flaws, it is the best possible basis for our country’s democratic government.

The Yishuv’s suffragettes stand as proof. Although a women’s right to vote now seems inalienable, at the time, the British Mandate administration put pressure on the Yishuv leadership to sacrifice women’s rights on the altar of national unity.

The Mandate administration was charged with creating a Jewish national home in Palestine. But to do so, the new rulers needed a body that represented the country’s Jews — all of them. Creating such a body required reaching a consensus among the Jews on how it would be structured and, most important, how it would be chosen. As with any Jewish polity from a synagogue upward, there were more opinions than voters and more factions than voters’ fingers and toes. Most important, there was a fundamental division in the Yishuv. On the one side was what was called the Old Yishuv, the Haredim, with whom the religious Zionists allied themselves. On the other was the New Yishuv — the Zionist immigrants who had founded Tel Aviv and the moshavot, as well as vibrant Hebrew-speaking Zionist communities in Jaffa, Haifa and Jerusalem.

In imagining a Jewish polity and its governance, the Old and New Yishuvs looked in different directions. The religious Jews looked to the Bible and Talmud, while the Zionists looked to the democracies of the United States and Western Europe. In Jewish tradition, including the self-governing Jewish institutions of Eastern Europe, women did not vote. In Western democracies, women were demanding the vote and, increasingly, receiving it. In fact, Zionism was a pioneer in this regard: Women voted for and were elected to its governing body, beginning with the Second Zionist Congress of 1898.

While the New Yishuv’s leaders declared their support for women’s suffrage, they thought that unifying the Yishuv under a single communal governing institution was more important. So when the Haredim and religious Zionists refused to participate in elections in which women voted, the Zionist leadership suggested that women might suspend their demand for equal rights until such time as the rabbis came around to modern liberal values.

It was in response to this threat that the Yishuv’s feminists founded the union, with the express purpose of running a slate in the coming elections.

Consider what would have happened had those elections been held under an American or British-style first-past-the-post system in which representatives are elected in geographical districts. Feminists were not concentrated geographically; the 600 women who voted for the union slate lived in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and a dozen or more moshavot. They would have received no representation. Women’s rights would have been a dead issue for years to come.

It was precisely the fact that the Jewish community in Palestine was so ideologically, socially and religiously diverse that led the Yishuv’s leaders in 1920 to recognize that they needed an electoral system that would provide representation for every stream and shade of opinion, from Haredi to anti-religious, from socialist to capitalist, from patriarchal to feminist. The Jewish national home could come into being only if all these were represented and forced to do politics together: to create coalitions, to compromise, to stand on principle, to shout their messages from the rooftops — not of slums and shantytowns and distant villages, but of parliament and government.

Proportional elections give every party, every movement, every voter a stake in the system. Most important, minorities with different, even shocking ideas — such as the proposition that women have a right to vote — can make their voices heard and push their agendas within the walls of parliament, without the need to go underground. Time and again throughout Israeli history, it has provided entry into the political game for new ideas, new leaders and neglected constituencies, as it will do once again in just a few weeks. It’s not perfect — no electoral system is — but it has kept Israeli democracy vital and truly representative for the past 95 years. There’s no good reason to change it.

Haim Watzman is the author of “Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and “A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). He’ll be speaking on the Israeli electoral system on February 3 at Chicago’s Beth Emet synagogue and on February 9 as part of the Tzion lecture series in Cleveland. His website is http://southjerusalem.com

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