First Person Israel
CP Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of The Christian Post. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).

Jonathan Feldstein

I am an Orthodox Jew, happily married father of 6, American born man living in Israel and fulfilling God's prophesy and the beneficiary of His promises.

Posted 5/9/13 at 2:44 PM | Jonathan Feldstein

When a Dream is a Nightmare and Real Life

This week, I was privileged to spend an evening visiting with women in Jerusalem on a trip from Aglow international, an incredible ministry that has at its’ core the mission “to be a watchman over the whole house of Israel.., calling forth all He has promised for that nation, the Jewish people.” We talked and shared many personal things about Judaism, life in Israel, and my work, to offer a perspective on life in Israel through the prism of my life. It was a moving and enjoyable experience.

During our conversation, one of the women asked if I had ever felt personally threatened or at risk being here. I answered that while I hadn’t, one can’t live in Israel without an awareness of the challenges and risks, and that I am mindful of that. But I also shared how in many ways, this makes us closer, despite often polarizing differences.

The next day, I received an email from a friend who had just gone through one such experience. He wrote, partly to share his experience so that it should be known, and partly in a therapeutic venting sort of a way. Other than affirming that life in Israel is indeed full of challenges and blessings, I take this opportunity to share his words in the hope that others will find greater understanding about part of life here. FULL POST

Posted 5/3/13 at 12:27 PM | Jonathan Feldstein

Lone Soldier

IDF Parent Day

Its long been said that Israel’s greatest natural resource is it’s people. Even with the discovery of large natural gas and other mineral resources, this is very much the case, in many ways.

One of the ways that this is most realized is in our military. The Israel Defense Force, IDF, is a people’s army. It’s rare to find an Israeli, particularly a Jewish Israeli, who either hasn’t served, has a relative (child, parent, etc) who has served, and for whom military service is very personal.

Shortly after moving to Israel, I went to the IDF induction center and presented myself ready to sign up. I was a few weeks past 40. The soldier before me was half my age. He looked, perplexed, reviewed my papers, asked “at your age?!” With the swift impression of a rubber stamp on the papers I brought, I was exempted from military service. I would make other efforts to serve, but because of my age, this reminded me of the Groucho Marx line, that “I’d never want to be a member of a club (army) that would have me as a member.” FULL POST

Posted 4/23/13 at 2:03 PM | Jonathan Feldstein

Syria: The Rock and the Hard Place

In six months, Israel will commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War during which Israel suffered almost 3000 casualties and another 9000 wounded in fierce battles that took place throughout Sinai and the Golan Heights. Today, with winds of Islamic extremism blowing in, and from, Egypt, and more than two years of fighting between Syrians loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebels trying to overthrow Assad, leaving nearly 100,000 dead, Israelis look at current events with similar trepidation that preceded the Yom Kippur War. We find ourselves between a rock and a hard place.

Recent reports of the US sending troops and equipment to Jordan, providing Israel with some new advanced weapons, and Jordan granting air rights for Israeli drones to pass through Jordanian air space (to Syria), all suggest that something is in the works. Add to the mix the recent restoring of ties between Israel and Turkey, another opponent of the Assad regime, and talks of renewed coordination between us lend one to wonder when, not if, there will be a military intervention in Syria.

Israelis do care about the humanitarian disaster taking place in Syria with civilians being butchered along with rebel fighters and government troops. It’s a paradox that the country that’s been one of our most fierce enemies, steadfastly refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist much less make peace with us, is facing this situation. Yet there’s a parallel outpouring of care for the well being of the Syrian people, and worry about what will be, and whether it will be good for Israel. FULL POST

Posted 4/2/13 at 9:57 AM | Jonathan Feldstein

Israel's Liquid Resources Connect Us to the Bible and Land

Donating blood is in the blood in my family.

Other than Passover being the festival of freedom, it is also the seasonal holiday of spring. Living in Israel, celebrating the biblically ordained festivals, ties us deeply to the Land in a way that’s unique and special.

According to the seasons, Passover officially marks the transition from the cold winter rainy months to the spring and summer hot and dry months. Being very much an agrarian society, albeit one that has made the desert bloom in the modern era as no country ever has, when Passover begins, our prayers change from asking God to bring the rain and wind, to provide dew.

Since 2004, I have had a much deeper connection to, and awareness of, the need for the Land to be blessed literally, with the issue of water running deep. This makes my prayers for rain (or dew) very meaningful, and even emotional.

No matter where we are, when Jews pray for rain, we pray for rain (or dew) in Israel. We understand abundant rain is a blessing from God, and that our actions play a direct role in His bestowing rain in its’ season. So when we stop praying for rain, I pause to reflect whether I have done enough to affect this outcome, as well as not wasting water throughout the year. It’s very personal and I get a lump in my throat, wondering, reflecting, and deep in prayer: has the Sea of Galilee been replenished and are our aquifers full enough to get us through the dry months until October or November?

This year, something new happened, Israeli experts announcing that we had “beaten the drought.” This declaration was not just a result of a relatively rainy winter, clearly an answer to our prayers, but also Israel crossing a threshold of being able to desalinate enough water from the Mediterranean sea to provide for the country’s needs. While this declaration may have been pre-mature and immodest, as one of the world leaders in desalination and recycling waste water, that too is a miracle to be thankful for, and aware of.

God gave us a Land that is deeply connected to the abundance of rain. Being aware of that makes us humble and personally accountable, not just in our actions and prayers to bring rain, but to be sure not to waste the water we are given. This year I started to think about Israel’s other liquid resources and how deeply they connect us to the Bible.

Another liquid resource with deep biblical roots wine. Also connecting us to the Land, the grape harvest is something in which we are able to participate as volunteers to lend a helping hand, literally, to Israel’s internationally acclaimed wine industry. In Judaism, wine has always been part of many a ritual. Today, we have grown from an era of storing wine in clay vessels to becoming one of the leading wine producing countries of the world, with some Israeli wines winning international awards, and they are kosher too.

Of course, just like any crop, wine is dependent on the vine receiving the right amount of rain at the right time, something enhanced by Israel’s state of the art drip irrigation. The grape vine in my yard does more than just yield fruit. It connects us to the Land.

By the same token, when the bible speaks of oil, it’s of an agricultural product, olive oil, also used ritually, connecting the Land and the Book. Olive trees thrive here because they don’t require lots of water and both the trees, the fruit and the oil are deeply symbolic and religiously relevant. I love using olive oil to light my Chanukah menorah every year, rather than more common box of brightly colored candles. It’s another way of connecting me to the Land.

While the Bible speaks of olive oil, generally when one speaks of oil we think more of the price per barrel, OPEC having us over a barrel, and the cost to make our car run per gallon. There’s a joke that if Moses had only turned the other direction, Israel would be sitting on billons of barrels of this oil, and yet we are rightly in awe of our achievements despite not having oil. Until recently. Widely believed to have no significant oil reserves, the past several years has shown that God bestowed on us no small amount of shale oil and natural gas that have the ability to make Israel an exporter, and certainly not reliant on the goodwill of the international market. Egypt cutting off that supply underscores this. And this week, pumping from one of the underwater fields began.

The last of the precious liquid resources which Israel needs also has deep biblical roots is blood. Blood is the only one, however, that cannot and does not rely on God giving the ingenuity, abundance, or natural resource to sustain. To sustain Israel’s blood supply requires a generous and selfless human act. Since blood has a limited shelf life, it requires a constant flow of people taking time to donate.

Over the past several years we have seen a new reality that’s emerged to help sustain this, the goodwill and generosity of thousands of Americans participating personally, either by going out of their way to donate blood while in Israel, or joining and partnering with Heart to Heart ( to provide the extra resources that Israel needs to maintain its’ blood supply as one that’s always safe, and abundant. It may not be God Himself filling the blood bank as He fills the aquifers, but Israel’s blood supply is reliant on people with a heart for Israel, who understand that Israel is biblically ordained, and to save a life in Israel carries with it an extra level of responsibility.

Like my own personal prayer for rain and being sure not to waste water, the issue of Israel’s blood supply is very personal. I donate blood as often as possible, have instilled that value in my children, and am privileged to have brought thousands of Americans to donate blood here as well. I pray that Heart to Heart will see participation grow from tens to hundreds of thousands, and then millions, because maintaining our blood supply requires a personal action and cannot be done on prayer alone.

When you come to Israel, please look me up. I’ll be happy to have a conversation about all this and more, over a glass of a famous Israeli cabernet, dipping fresh bread in some of Israel’s most flavorful olive oil, and make an outing to donate blood. Perhaps not on the same day however.

Posted 3/24/13 at 11:18 AM | Jonathan Feldstein

Passover's Message with a Modern Exodus Twist

Photo: Flickr/Suzie Tremmel - Creative Commons

Some of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories are of celebrating Passover, the festival of freedom, and sharing many Seder meals recounting the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt thousands of years ago.


The Passover Seder is filled with deeply symbolic and substantial religious meaning. We have many customs and rituals, and all Seder tables and meals have the same basic staples which are part of recounting the Exodus. Indeed, Jews have an obligation not only to recount the Passover story, but to experience Passover as if we left Egypt ourselves.


Recounting hundreds of years of slavery and suffering, and our subsequent redemption and return to Israel, is less challenging in an age of visual aids like TV and internet, but actually feeling what it’s like to be enslaved and then redeemed is no light task.


By the time I turned 12, the rituals of Passover and the story itself were well known. But as I started to prepare for my bar mitzvah, the exodus took a new meaning, and would become more personal than I could imagine, as if I had personally participated.


Like most boys preparing for their bar mitzvah, I prepared for the better part of a year to chant a section from the Torah, standing before my family and congregation and taking on one of the most sacred public responsibilities entrusted to a Jewish adult. I took it seriously. The words of the portion I read from the Book of Exodus, 10:1-13:16, seemed distant, but connected me to my people, to our history, and to what I would learn is our timeless struggle for freedom.


As God brought the final plagues to Egypt, Moses’ Divine inspiration became a role model of activism and even civil disobedience. He stood against Pharaoh’s authority for what was right, deriving no personal gain, and stuck with his mission and calling, leading the Jewish people to freedom.


More years and more Seders passed. The story remained the same, but each year, it renewed in me the connection to our struggle for freedom. Eventually, in 1982, I would become aware of a modern version of enslavement of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union and, remembering my bar mitzvah, I realized that my calling was clear.


With Moses as a model, I became instantly dedicated to the plight of Soviet Jews, standing against a distant but no less tyrannous authority. I adopted a Jewish family in Moscow that had been refused permission to leave and persecuted as a result, and dedicated myself to winning their freedom. I participated in massive rallies, lobbied Congress, wrote letters, called anyone who would listen, led protests, and even engaged my university by making it a partner with me as my college acceptance was based on an essay stating this was my mission.


Looking back, as a parent of children who are now as old as I was then, I am shocked at the things I did and got away with, and understand more now how uneasy my parents were at the time, particularly with my first visit to the USSR in 1985, alone. It's no less miraculous than the parting of the sea that I was not arrested on the spot and exiled to Siberia. However, for details, you'll have to wait for the book, or movie.


But to get to the punch line, I did get my adopted family out, and shortly afterward the Soviet Union crumbled and Soviet Jews who had been oppressed for decades finally had the freedom to practice Judaism openly, or emigrate, without fear of repercussions.


Always around Passover, I recall the story of my involvement with the Soviet Jewry movement, more than 25 years of history, and life, that have transpired since. It seems like ancient history.


Each Passover, I hope I am giving my kids the foundational experiences that I had, that will always mean the story of the exodus resonates for all their lives. But I also want them to know the little bit of personal family and Jewish history in which their father participated. It's not hard to speak in the present of Egypt being the bad place it was for Jews. In fact, the more time passes, the more it seems Egypt is returning to their heritage in that regard. But it is hard to impart the story of the modern enslavement of the Jewish people in the Soviet Union, in an age where some of my kids, and many others of their generation, don't know what the Soviet Union was.

Nevertheless, the Soviet connection to the Biblical story are unbreakable. The lessons are similar and, in all cases, both the ancient and modern exodus serve as a milestone to pause and recount how important and precious our freedom is.


This year, for me personally, the two are even more connected. While we know the exact date of the Jewish people leaving Egypt (15th of Nisan), and I know the exact date that my adopted family left the USSR for good, this year the beginning of Passover coincides with another anniversary, not of families sitting around full tables, but of modern media telling the story, my story.


The significance of the exodus is both the story itself, and the recounting of the story. In that light, it's special to celebrate the March 26, 25th anniversary of this ABC news story on the eve of Passover, the first time that the anniversary of the TV broadcast and the first day of Passover overlap. May we always be mindful, and grateful, for the freedoms we have, but never losing sight or awareness of the struggle to achieve, and maintain our freedom.

As Passover begins, I extend sincere wishes for a joyous and healthy holiday, and my prayer that we may always recount the Biblical exodus and recall its significance even today, thousands of years later, as if we too left Egypt, and are on the road to freedom and redemption.

Posted 3/17/13 at 7:55 PM | Jonathan Feldstein

A Ladder on Air Force One

President Obama’s trip to Israel this week will shine the spotlight on US-Israel relations, as well as several regional/global issues in, or around, which Israel is directly or indirectly involved. His visit will be full of symbolism, and hopefully substance. Some of the topics he will no doubt discuss include Iran, Turkey, Syria and the Palestinians.

Regarding the threat of Iran getting nuclear weapons, Israel is clearly on the front line, but the risk is global. The Israeli and US timetables to prevent this seem not to be in synch. But whatever the case, we can expect Obama to reiterate that he has “Israel’s back.” The problem is, that so many don’t believe him, it’s been necessary for Obama to state this time and again. Saying it in Jerusalem may, or may not make a difference, to reassure Israel, or deter Iran.

Turkey has become a regional thorn in the side of just about everyone though it’s widely believed that Obama has good relations with Turkey’s Islamist president. Over the past few years, Turkey has become openly and progressively aggressive and hostile to Israel. They have complicated matters elsewhere too as they try to flex their muscle regionally and globally. The Turkish stand against the Assad regime in Syria and support for the rebels is well intentioned but, even there, Turkey can’t escape blaming Israel for something it has nothing to do with.

Regarding Syria, three years of increased fighting leaves Israel in a precarious place, with the threat of Assad using the huge arsenal of chemical and biological weapons he has as a “hail Mary” to attack Israel and unite forces following an Israeli retaliation, or, if the weapons fall into the hands of the Islamic extremists there, or in Lebanon, who wouldn’t think twice about using them against Israel.

And then there’s the perennial Holy Grail, peace with the Palestinians. More on this shortly.

Obama’s trip will also be full of symbolism both for the things he will do, and the things he will not do:
His plans include a stop at Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, which is in line with the thesis he presented during his 2009 Cairo speech that that the Jewish people deserved a state because of the Holocaust, but does not include a stop at the Western Wall, the remaining foundation of the Temple, the most holy site in all Judaism.

Obama will speak in a convention hall to which dignitaries and university students have been invited, minus students from Ariel university because it is in the West Bank, despite that several hundred of its’ students are Arabs. He will not address Israel’s Knesset (parliament), supposedly because that may be too political.
Obama will also visit Bethlehem, hopefully bringing support to the endangered Christian minority, but will probably only hear the approved PA (Palestinian Authority) party line, and not interact with Christians whose lives are threatened daily or who are not officially recognized by the PA because they don’t espouse the PA narrative.

Obama will also visit Ramallah, seat of the PA government. A big question remains as to whether he’ll lay a wreath at the grave of past PA president, PLO founder and Terrorist Hall of Fame icon, Yasser Arafat. Not to do so would be an affront to the Palestinians. To do so would send a horrible message to the rest of the world that terrorism is a legitimate means to an end, whether that end is simply to establish a Palestinian state, or to do so and in the process, delegitimize and destroy the Jewish State.

Back to the Holy Grail, peace with the Palestinians; all the spin is being spun plays down any expectations of Obama ushering in a breakthrough. In order to move forward on this, Obama must skillfully backtrack from the barriers he put up. While Israelis and our Arab neighbors don’t agree on many things, one thing for which there is interesting common agreement, is that it was Obama’s stance vis a vis construction in the West Bank, Biblical Judea and Samaria, that raised the bar and is a, if not THE, prime obstacle preventing negotiations, much less any progress to peace.

While George Washington is famed for the legend of taking responsibility in chopping down a cherry tree, many Israelis and Palestinians say that Obama is responsible for pushing Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas high into a different tree, and then pulling away the ladder.

In the spirit of taking responsibility a recent Jerusalem Post editorial said it clearly:
“… the deadlock in talks is in no small part due to a major policy blunder Obama made …. demanding an Israeli construction freeze not just in settlements in Judea and Samaria but in consensus east Jerusalem neighborhoods…, Obama hardened the Palestinian stance.

The Palestinians could not, after all, …demand anything less than what a US president had demanded, even if in the past Palestinians had (negotiated) without the precondition of a building freeze. Obama’s predecessors understood that settlements are a derivative issue – if we and the Palestinians settle borders, the settlement issue can also be solved.

… Obama must admit his … failure. Instead of pressing Israel to freeze construction, the US president should insist that the Palestinians sit at the negotiating table without preconditions.”

The question is whether Obama can bring a ladder tall enough to help extricate Abbas from the tree he got shoved up, and ease his intransigence.

A visit to Jerusalem in any circumstance is not something taken lightly. Recognizing this, in December 1917, on the heels of their victory in WWI, British General Allenby dismounted his horse and entered Jerusalem on foot out of respect and humility.

Hopefully, President Obama will understand this, be able to straddle the thin lines properly and diplomatically, not make further mistakes that threaten Israel and push us further from peace, and make it clear that, under all circumstances, the US stands with Israel without hesitation or any ambiguity.

Posted 2/26/13 at 3:04 AM | Jonathan Feldstein

Israel: Catastrophe or Prophesy?

There is no shortage of people who look to every opportunity to discredit and find fault with Israel. Israel is not perfect, and there are many challenges and things I’d change if I could wave a wand and do so. However, the vast majority of criticism of Israel is inaccurate, based on incomplete or deliberate misinformation, and often guided by a thinly veiled coat of anti-Semitism.

I once hosted a group of Christian students and was provoked by a question that lingers still today. I was asked, “What’s the most inaccurate depiction of Israel in the media.” I was taken by the simplicity of the question, and the challenge I had answering it, simply because there are so many.

One that jumps out is calling Israel an “apartheid state.” Originally, apartheid involved racist laws and overt discrimination that governed South Africa for decades; a complete racial separation codified by the laws of the state and woven into every aspect of society. Objectively, there is no resemblance of modern Israel with apartheid South Africa.

Israel has Arab members of the Knesset (parliament) who have not only the same rights as Jewish members, but some even use their rights and immunity from criminal prosecution to present Israel as a state where Arabs don’t have equal rights! The audacity of this as they stand at the Knesset podium and espouse anti Israel rhetoric is profound.

Israel also has an Arab Supreme Court judge, and many other judges throughout all levels of its legal system. One was my boss as Israel’s Consul General, the head of a diplomatic mission in Atlanta in the late 80s. And there are many other Arabs who serve throughout Israel’s foreign ministry.

Not only are Israel’s hospitals not segregated, but they are one of the finest examples of integration and equality. Israeli Arab doctors and nurses treat Jewish Israeli patients, and Jewish Israeli doctors and nurses from across the spectrum treat Israeli (and even non-Israeli) Arab patients. One of the latest and most incredible examples of this was the evacuation of seven Syrians from across the border on the Golan Heights to an Israeli hospital, treating those injured in, and fleeing from, the horrible civil war that has claimed 70-100,000 casualties.

This underscores another important bit of misinformation about Israel and the Middle East, that despite how others may portray it, not every problem in the Middle East has to do with Israel. Most don’t. Israel is not only not the problem, but often a light in the darkness, and part of the solution. The world overlooks the fact that in two years, more Syrians have been killed by one another than have Arabs been killed as a result of the wars they have fought against Israel. Other examples abound.

In Israeli universities, Arabs attend classes alongside Jews in a way that’s so commonplace that to mention it is like saying the sun rises in the morning. It’s just part of the fabric of Israeli society.

In sports, Arabs and Jews play on same teams and opposing teams within the spirit of the sport that they are playing. My son represents the all star soccer team in our town which plays against teams throughout the Jerusalem area. They play against Arab teams and don’t think twice about, it with one exception. One Arab teams’ coach is the first Arab to play on Israel’s national all star team. He knows his soccer. My son and his friends look up to, respect, and learn from the coach of the opposing team.

There are no shortage of other reasons why apartheid and Israel can’t even be mentioned in the same sentence with any accuracy or integrity. Nevertheless, there are no shortage of people who peddle gross lies and are given credibility merely because it’s popular to blame and hate Israel. One of the most prominent is one term former President, Jimmy Carter, whose book equating Israel and apartheid is slanderous, full of lies and half truths, and actually makes the case why Arab terrorism against Israel is OK.

This month will begin a season of hate as “Israel Apartheid Week” begins, to raise awareness about Israel's apartheid policies..and to build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel campaign.” Thousands of people will gather in hundreds of cities. If Woodstock was three days of love and peace and music, Israel Apartheid Week is a season of hate, anti-semitism, and lies.

Later in the spring, the Arab world, and those who support the lies of IAW, will morph their festivities to observe the Nakba, the catastrophe of Israel’s rebirth 65 years ago. The reality could not be more opposite. Israel’s rebirth was not a catastrophe, it is the fulfillment of prophesy. Israel’s existence is not mutually exclusive to the Arab world. The core problem is the Arab world’s increasing intolerance and lack of recognizing Israel’s right to exist. Had they accepted us and agreed to live with us 65 years ago, the Arab world in general, and Palestinian Arabs in particular, would have been much better off than they are now.
For those who stand with Israel, who understand the fulfillment of prophesy that Israel embodies, who understand that Israel remains the sole island of democracy and freedom of religion in the Middle East, the only country in the region where Christians are not persecuted by a Moslem majority, this season that others have hijacked as a season of hating Israel must be turned into a season of love and support for Israel.

I have been blessed to create Heart to Heart, an incredible program that expresses this love and support in the most tangible way possible, blessing Israel and saving lives in Israel by ensuring Israel always has a safe and plentiful blood supply. Any country needs this, but Israel all the more so, surrounded by neighbors who still fight and threaten us at every turn.

So when others are mourning the “catastrophe” of Israel’s rebirth 65 years ago, we have established a goal to have at least 65 churches and other ministries stand with Israel, supporting Heart to Heart, and expressing their support. Please join us blessing Israel, and turning the tide of this season from that of hate and lies, to love and life.

Posted 2/11/13 at 7:40 AM | Jonathan Feldstein

Jerusalem: Don't Forget, To Remember

I just came back from an extended trip overseas. For more than a week after my return home, nothing required me to be in Jerusalem, as I do on a regular basis.

When I arrived in Jerusalem for the first time after this long absence, I felt uneasy in the realization that it had been close to a month since I had last been there. Though the center of Jerusalem is visible from my neighborhood, without a doubt, this had been the longest period of time that I had not been in Jerusalem since moving to Israel.

I realized that though I didn’t feel the absence of Jerusalem until I returned, I realized Jerusalem was missing from my life.

Jewish tradition teaches that when one enters Jerusalem for the first time, or after an absence of at least six months, we recite the shehechiyanu blessing. FULL POST

Posted 2/1/13 at 2:55 AM | Jonathan Feldstein

No Rose Colored Gas Masks with Syria

Israelis are issued gas masks to be prepared for the possible use of chemical or biological weapons as those posessed by Syria. In the hands of a terrorist group, the concern is that they could be used and all Israelis are at risk.

Even before recent conflicting reports of Israel striking targets in Syria (said to be military installation that produces chemical weapons, and/or a convoy transporting sophisticated missiles to Lebanon), Israel had placed its own sophisticated Iron Dome anti missile system in the north as the threats to Israel from Syria and Lebanon become greater with Syria unraveling.

While not taking responsibility for the alleged attacks against these Syrian targets, certainly the transport of such weapons to Iranian puppet Hezbollah or another terrorists group would be a game changer, and grave threat to Israel. Whether Israel was responsible for any such attack or not, it certainly makes sense that we would be. As an Israeli, it gives me comfort knowing that our government and military are on top of these developments, and makes sense that we are not publicly bragging about or taking credit for them.

As much as I'd like to believe that we did carry out these operations, with the state of civil war in Syria and rebels attacking anything that's connected to the Assad regime and its' military, it's not impossible that another group may have done this. Following analysis in the press here, it’s also possible that one of these didn’t even happen. FULL POST

Posted 1/16/13 at 5:40 AM | Jonathan Feldstein

Understanding Israeli Democracy

Israelis go to the polls next week to elect a new government. Old fashioned paper ballots are just part of what makes Israel's democracy and electoral process so unique.

For an American living in Israel, there are many similarities, but a great many differences and even oddities, about Israel’s democratic process that leave one scratching one’s head. As the only true democracy in the Middle East, Americans are right to have an affinity for and kinship with Israel, but the democratic system is very different. One might say that Israel is a democracy on steroids.

With Israelis set to go to the polls on January 22, it’s useful to understand about how Israelis vote, and how the process works.
While in the US, one typically votes for a candidate affiliated with a specific political party, in Israel’s parliamentary democracy, one votes for a political party, each with its’ own internal process of selecting a slate of candidates to represent it. Some of these parties have democratic processes to select their slate of candidates, and others hand pick who they want in a less than democratic way, analogous to picking an all-star sports team, selecting players who (they think) will help them win.

In the upcoming election, 34 parties are vying for seats in the parliament (Knesset), whose 120 members are selected as a proportion of the vote that their party receives out of all the votes cast. Presumably all parties come up with optimistic lists of 120 members in the odd situation that they win all the votes. But the reality is that no one party is expected to win more than a third of the votes. None have ever won more than 50%.

However, in order to get in the Knesset, any party must pass a threshold of two percent of the votes. Any party that does not reach that benchmark, and most wont, don’t serve. Some say that the threshold should be raised to five percent in order to limit the often complicated issues of having more than a dozen political parties in parliment, each with their own parochial agendas, trying to propose and pass legislation.

This is my third election cycle living in Israel. Because ours is a parliamentary democracy, while a government does have a fixed term, any number of things can happen to initiate early elections as we did this year. This is actually the norm as no Prime Minister (PM) in recent years has ever served his or her full term. And, yes, Israel is also unique in having had one female PM, one female acting President, and two of the leading parties this year are headed by women.

When I first tried to describe the election process here, I described it as a three dimensional chess game, where two opponents play against one another, each planning his own (and projecting his opponents’) next moves that will impact the outcome of the game, but doing so with two other games taking place in parallel planes that you cannot influence, but whose moves impact the outcome of your game, and where your moves impact the outcome of theirs.

In more contemporary and seasonal terms, it’s like the Falcons and 49ers planning their upcoming NFC playoff game strategies while plays in the Ravens and Patriots AFC game also impact the NFC game, each play in the AFC playoff also impacting the NFC playoff, and vice versa, even before the two winners meet in the Super Bowl.

In order to succeed and form the new government, it’s common for parties to establish coalitions with other parties. Usually, this is done in the aftermath of the election itself with deals made by a leading party to coalesce a ruling majority of 61 Knesset members who’ll all agree by in large on the same set of rules and priorities, and a division of government ministries among their respective members. This works, until it stops working.

This year, some new mutations on that practice have come up. In what was hailed at the time as being a brilliant political move, guaranteed to ensure electoral success, the right of center Likud party and Yisrael Beiteinu party, long time political allies and coalition partners, established a joint party list to garner maximal support from all their voters. Since then, however, polls show they have lost as much as 30% of the seats that they were originally projected to win together. The game is not over until it’s over, and it still looks like they will win the most votes and be able to establish a stable government by bringing in other partners, but in Israeli politics nothing is a sure thing until it’s already happened.

The outside observer might think this all a variation on the popular TV reality show, Survivor, with each party looking to form coalitions and alliances against others, to ensure their support, but aware that even the closest alliances can lead to political cannibalism.

On the left of center, there has been an effort to unite the four leading parties as a coalition block and leverage the collective support that they, together, will win more votes and be able to form the next government. Other than some significant ideological differences, and the universal desire to unseat the sitting Prime Minister, one of the things that has prevented this is that they have egos, personality differences, and lack of trust with one other, as much if not more than their differences and dislike of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu.

In order to understand this, you need a score card:

The Labor party was the major political power and almost uncontested leader in Israeli politics for the first decades of statehood. In the last election they hit an all time low, and then the party split into two factions making Labor on the verge of extinction. The new party Chairwoman has done a laudable job breathing new life back into the old party, and projections are that they will be among the top 3-4 parties in the next Knesset.

The disgruntled former chairman of Labor recently bolted his party and allied with the head of a new political party established by a former Foreign Minister who, herself, bolted her previous party (Kadima) after losing that internal party primary. Unique to Israeli elections, she named her party “The Movement – the Tzippi Livni Party (TLP),” begging the question what would happen if she were voted out of her own party (again),or dropped dead. This party handpicked its’ members without any democratic process, and looks like a party of political refugees with agendas against their former parties more than presenting their own serious leadership agenda or substantial platform. Adding to that is that TLP founder and chair is not just a refugee of Kadima, her previous party, but she also left the Likud party when former PM Ariel Sharon formed Kadima, and took his top and most loyal members with him. Voters don’t seem impressed as polls show a steady decline in support for this party named for its founder and leader.

Kadima, headed by a retired general and Chief of Staff who ousted Tzippi Livni in their last internal primary, is made up of refugees of that first split with Likud under Ariel Sharon. Current polls show Kadima on life support, maybe not even garnering enough votes to pass the 2% threshold.

Another new party is called Yesh Atid (there is a future) headed by a former journalist and son of a past renegade Knesset member. Unlike TLP whose members are all recycled Knesset members, Yesh Atid is all new faces, a breath of fresh air. But as a new party with no legislative experience or voting record, it’s anyone’s guess whether the party can stick together, and what the members really believe in. Nevertheless, polls show them doing relatively well on the left, between Labor and TLP.

Oh, and there are also 3-4 religious parties (no separation of church and state here), 3 Arab parties (yes, Israeli Arabs not only vote but serve in the government in their own parties and as members of national parties), a revived “Jewish Home” party expected to rise from the ashes of only three seats to as many as 12-15, and no shortage of others which each have their own unique (sometimes absurd) political agenda. Don’t count any of these out though. Some year’s back the “Pensioners” party surprised everyone with several seats because young secular Israelis thought that a party of old people for old people was cool.

Making the elections even more interesting is that each party is entitled to free TV air time. Just as many watch the Super Bowl for the clever commercials, similarly here we have evening broadcasts of back to back political commercials. Some are funny, some are pathetic, some are overtly hostile, and some cross so many lines that they are pulled immediately. They are fun and interesting to watch sociologically, also noting that most have subtitles in Arabic or Russian, except the Arab parties which don’t even try to win other votes and only advertise in Arabic.

After the election, with parties that receive fewer than 2% of the vote cast aside, all the remaining parties have the 120 seats of the Knesset divided up proportionally based on the percent of the vote each received. In this model, one or two votes one way or another, certainly dozens or hundreds, can be the difference between one seat more or one seat less. The President, a largely figurehead head of state role, will designate the leader of the party with the greatest likelihood of being able to form a government to be able to do so. Typically, the PM is the head of the party that receives the most votes, or the one that is tapped to form the government and establish a coalition successfully.

How long the PM will serve is anyone’s guess. While in the US there are defined election seasons, in Israel, the PM is always both governing and politicking, always building and looking out for who may take him (or her) down, from the opposition parties not in the government and sometimes even from within the government.

This phenomenon always comes to mind when the Israeli PM meets with the US president or other world leaders. Because while in theory the PM should be able to make decisions and act independantly, the PM also knows that a little too much of one thing or another could create a coalition or governmental crisis.

And finally, a word about how we vote. Israelis are very smart, ingenious, people, but living through my third election here, I have yet to figure this out, or why and how we got here. Of course, different districts in the US have different means to vote. The infamous “chads” and “dimpled chads” of the 2000 election will forever be something that Americans look back on as an oddity marring an otherwise effective voting system.

In Israel, we vote by putting a paper ballot inside an envelope, and then that inside another envelope and seal it and put that in the ballot box. Very 1950s, something a bit charming and a bit third world all rolled into one. I don’t know how much paper we go through to make all the ballots and envelopes, but you can bet the environmentalist parties have something to say about that.

Rather than putting a slip of paper with the name of the party on it, for some reason each party is assigned a 1-3 Hebrew letter symbol, and all campaigning includes not just a political message to win the vote, but the letter or letters to remember who you are voting for. The system has a hint of some code in a spy movie, that in order to be able to vote for the party for which you intend to vote, you need to know and remember the code. So this year, a vote for the Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu ticket is with the letters “M, Ch, L,” three letters that have nothing to do with Likud. I’d have picked “L” but in the past that was taken by Yisrael Beiteinu whose leader’s name is Lieberman, thus “L.” Labor’s symbol is “A, M, T” which spells “truth” in Hebrew. To vote for the “Am Shalem” (One People) party, you choose “Tz,” of course. I was particularly entertained by the largely Ethiopian “We are Brothers” party whose commercials repeat the mantra “Vote P-N.” Confused? Buckle up, the list goes on.

Maybe one day, I’ll understand this system. Or, perhaps better, maybe we’ll employ a new system one day that makes more sense. Maybe one day Israel will have an absentee ballot so that people like me who booked trips abroad before elections were called are actually able to vote. I hate not being here to vote this time. But I am also not sure I’d be smart enough to remember the code and which party to vote for.
Either way, Israel is a thriving democracy, with equal rights and equal opportunities for all to express themselves, and be elected. I am proud and grateful to be part of this, and pray that whatever the outcome, our leaders will be guided by wisdom and the tradition of our forefathers to do what’s truly best for us all.

Jonathan Feldstein

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