Sep 2008 Journal

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Letter from Israel

The problem of acute cognitive dissonance
Hardly surprisingly, a recent survey found that most Israelis have little confidence in the country’s political leadership. They have slightly more confidence - but still not much - in such institutions as the courts, the police, and the attorney general’s office. The current president, Shimon Peres, is perceived as being better than his predecessor - though, again, coming hard on the heels of a serial sexual offender, that can hardly be difficult.

So whom do Israelis trust? The answer - the IDF and the media - is rather strange for someone brought up to believe in the inherent benefits of the democratic system. It is true that Israel’s communications media, both printed and electronic, invest a great deal of time and effort in endeavouring to show the true face of the country’s leaders. But that is just another facet of what journalists the world over do, whether genuinely in search of the truth or in order to boost circulation or ratings. After all, scandals are good for sales, and the juicier the better.

The IDF, for its part, is one of the great levellers in Israeli society. It takes in a large proportion of the country’s 18-year-olds, trains them in a variety of skills, gives them responsibility, and in many cases enables them to overcome the disadvantages of an underprivileged background. Not all Israel’s soldiers serve at the front, and many emerge after three years of service as mature, well-rounded individuals.

Israelis have always been fairly cynical about their politicians. When I first came to Israel, in the sixties, the epitome of corruption was one Kalanter, whose name had become a synonym for political dishonesty. The gentleman had had the temerity to cross the floor of the Knesset and join a different political party, apparently for personal gain. No one bothered to point out that no less a personage than Winston Churchill had done pretty much the same (he moved from the Conservatives to the Liberals in1904, and back again in 1924), though for loftier motives. How tame the opprobrium attached to ‘Kalanterism’ seems today, when party allegiance is as stable as the latest opinion poll results.

In Israel today you cannot open a newspaper or watch the news on television without being regaled with tales of the latest bribe-taking scandal, sexual offences or political shenanigans of Knesset members, cabinet ministers, religious leaders, income tax officials, bankers, civil servants, industrialists or members of the legal profession. If you are planning to become a public figure, expect to have salacious details of your finances and/or your private life held up for public display.

Israel’s political system is inherently flawed, its system of proportional representation inevitably preventing any party from gaining a clear majority. A system of government based on coalitions provides ample room for political blackmail. England’s system of regional representation has its drawbacks, but at least you generally have one clear winner.

High school students in Israel have to pass an exam in Civics in order to obtain their full Bagrut (school-leaving certificate). Students are required to prove their familiarity with Israel’s system of government, legal system, social institutions, demographic makeup and history.

I don’t envy anyone who has to teach that subject. The theory is so far removed from actual practice that a clash between the two in the classroom is inevitable. Israel’s political system undoubtedly needs a thorough overhaul. I suspect that what eventually happens is that the students, who are in their last year or two of high school and about to go into the army, suffer from acute cognitive dissonance. One way of coping with this is to become cynical, and that doubtless explains the results of the survey.

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

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