Sunday, February 22, 2009

Electoral reform


A recurring feature of recent Israeli governments is the presence of many small parties in the coalition. No single party ever has enough Knesset seats to form a government on its own. The largest party must always recruit an array of smaller parties, trying to balance their divergent agendas and distribute authority in a way that pleases all of them. Much of the prime minister's effort is spent trying to preserve the coalition rather than actually running the country. Inevitably, after a couple years this effort fails and the country is forced to premature elections. With all the effort spent on struggles for power, not enough time is left to fully confront serious problems which the country faces.

These difficulties have been the subject of much discussion, and occasional legislation, in recent years. Three basic proposals have been suggested to deal with the problem. In this post I plan to explain how each of those proposals would actually cause more harm than good. Then I will suggest a new approach, which would likely possess the advantages of the other proposals but not their disadvantages.


The first proposal is to create a two-party system where one party, or one prime minister/president, runs the government at a single time. Unfortunately, Israeli society is too fragmented to be effectively represented by two parties. In particular, Arabs and charedim would end up having to vote for parties which, respectively, launch wars in Gaza and try to institute civil marriage. Neither group would have a meaningful vote, since neither of the two parties could be broad enough to accomodate their views. We like to talk about how Arabs have more democratic rights in Israel than in any Arab country. But if they can only vote for candidates they do not agree with, in practice they would be disenfranchised. The 1990s violence of the US extreme right wing (Timothy McVeigh, Ruby Ridge) shows what happens when people feel that nobody represents them. In Israel, dealing with Muslims rather than Christians, the response would likely be much more extreme.

The second proposal is to raise the threshold for admittance to the Knesset, so that only large parties received seats and coalition negotiations would be simplified. Depending on the level to which it was raised, this would be either completely ineffective, or else catastrophic for democracy. If the level was low, the small parties would simply unite with each other to avoid missing the threshold (as two charedi parties did the last time it was raised). If the level was high, then even the united parties would fall below the threshold. Groups such as Arabs, charedim, and the national-religious would be mathematically prevented from electing a party of their own to the Knesset. Thus the second proposal would lead to outcomes just as dangerous as the first proposal.

The third proposal is to divide Israel into districts and elect one Knesset member from each district. Thus, it is hoped, parties which receive a few percent of the vote would be eliminated. However, practically speaking, such a system would eliminate meaningful voting for much of the country. In every election Jerusalem would vote for the right wing, Tel Aviv for the left wing, Bnei Brak for a haredi party, Um El Fahm for an Arab party, and so on. Only a handful of districts would ever be competitive. It would be like the electoral college system in the US, where nobody's vote counts except in a few swing states.

In Israel, the social consequences of such a system could be even more serious than the moral consequences. In the US, social trends span the whole country, so most people identify with the election results even if they didn't contribute to them. But Israeli society is more fragmented and each locality more homogenous. Predictable local elections would lead to indifference and alienation among those who feel little connection to voters in other districts. Which brings me to another crucial objection: gerrymandering is inevitable when the geographic boundaries between population groups are so clear.

Besides eliminating single-interest parties, the other predicted advantage of district elections is that politicians will be held responsible for the particular needs of their constituents. Such accountability is certainly an advantage (though with Knesset districts, it would come with the disadvantage of pork-barrel spending). But in fact such accountability already exists. Each city already has mayoral and city council elections which often are bitterly contested over local issues. All that is needed is to delegate a few more local issues from Knesset to municipal control, and the benefits of the district system can be achieved without its disadvantages.


If each of these three proposals would have side-effects that are likely worse than the current difficulties, then what alternatives are available? I think the following approach can likely solve the problem of unstable governments, while avoiding the side effects of the other proposals.

Imagine that 110 Knesset seats were elected using the current proportional method, and the remaining 10 were given to whichever party received the most votes overall. The fringe parties would receive almost exactly the same representation they have now. But nearly all Zionist democratic votes would go to two or three parties with a shot at winning overall. Those parties would be larger since they would include current small parties, and with the 10 extra seats, the winner would have no trouble forming a stable government.

Of course, the choice of exactly 10 bonus seats is debatable - I guessed at it, and a different number might be preferable. If the number is too small, the benefits of the change will be minimal. If the number is too big, then one party could gain overwhelming control of the Knesset and do all sorts of things which the country as a whole does not support. The number might need to be tweaked after an election or two, when it is clear how exactly voters and politicians react to the changes. Unlike in the systems discussed above, in this system the amount of change to be instituted is easily adjusted.

The fundamental question we face is how to strengthen the "top" of the system - the party forming the government - without undermining the "bottom" of the system - the current existence of equitable representation for the whole spectrum of political opinion. My proposal is to give a focused gift to the "top" while keeping the "bottom" unchanged as much as possible. Unlike other government reform proposals commonly suggested these days, this proposal should preserve the advantages of the current system, while hopefully eliminating the inefficiencies which have generated so much debate.

Thoughts on Mishpatim

Recently I have almost stopped writing posts on parshat hashavua. This is largely a result of my decision (which I don't regret) to learn the Ramban's commentary on the parsha each week this year. This has impacted my posting in three ways:

1) It takes a really long time and I have no time left to just think about things in the parsha.
2) The mikraot gedolot I use has maybe two lines of Torah per page - the rest is commentaries - so it's hard to compare verses or see the overall progression of a passage.
3) I find that many of my ideas were already said by the Ramban, and in some cases, he says things that prove my ideas wrong. I don't plan on deleting my posts from past years that are superseded by the Ramban, but there is no reason to write new posts like that.

With that introduction, I bring you two thoughts on Mishpatim, each of which is mostly based on the Ramban's comments.

Now these are the laws which you shall set before them: If you buy a Hebrew slave..." (21:1)

Are the many, diverse laws in this parsha in any sort of order? One possible order would be to start with the most important and serious laws, then continue with successively less important laws until the least important law is reached. Excluding the initial laws of slavery, the parsha does seem to follow exactly that pattern: murder first, then several other crimes that incur the death penalty, then injuries to a person, then injuries to property. (This pattern exists all the way through verse 22:14 or maybe 22:16 - after that, we have a new section of "religious" rather than "interpersonal" laws which must be examined separately.)

Why then do the laws of slavery precede this highly ordered section of "interpersonal" laws? Two years ago I gave one possible explanation. Now I want to take a different, complementary approach.

In Vayikra 25:42 God once again prohibits lifetime slavery, saying: "For [the Jews] are My slaves, whom I took out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as [perpetual] slaves."

The implication is that slavery to God and to a person are mutually exclusive. One slave cannot have two masters. A person must choose where to place his loyalty: with God, or with a human being. Thus slavery for Jews cannot have the full implications of normal slavery: it must be limited in time and intensity, so that the slave continues to see himself as truly serving God. Thus, in parshat Mishpatim we find limits on the time and conditions for Jewish slaves.

(Note that this is completely distinct from humanitarian concerns one might have about slavery - which are the main purpose of certain other slavery laws, but are certainly not the only purpose here.

Why must these conditions be at the very beginning of the parsha? As just mentioned, a main purpose of these conditions is to ensure that one remains perpetually loyal to God rather than to a person. The entire parsha consists of commands which are binding because they come from God. Without the laws limiting slavery, one would not have the degree of permanent loyalty to God needed in order to accept the Torah as God's word.

Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way, and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. ... For My angel will go before you, and bring you to the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Canaanite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite; and I will cut them off. (23:20-23)

According to God, this angel is supposed to guide the journey to Canaan and the conquest thereof. However, such an angel is never again mentioned in the Torah. In parshat Mishpatim it seems pretty significant, so why does it just disappear later on?

To answer this question, some note that "angel" also means "messenger" and say that the verse is speaking of Moshe, God's messenger to guide the people. There is some degree of difficulty in this explanation: 1) Moshe became leader long beforehand so why should God introduce him now, and 2) Yehoshua rather than Moshe actually guided the final entry into the land and the conquest.

Ramban has a much more elegant explanation. He says that the angel is indeed an real angel. Here, God promised that it would accompany the people. But later on in Shemot 33:16-17, Moshe successfully prayed that God Himself, rather than the angelic representative, would accompany the people. Apparently this request was granted for the duration of Moshe's lifetime. Thus throughout the 40-year journey, the angel did not appear.

But after Moshe's death the angel does appear. In Yehoshua 5:13-15, just as Yehoshua is preparing for the first conquest of Jericho, an angel introduces himself to Yehoshua as "Hashem's minister of war", and then departs. It is perplexing why the angel "says hello" and then leaves without doing or saying anything of consequence. But according to the Ramban, this is the same angel God initially promised to guide the entry to Canaan. Once God personally has distanced Himself from the people (in verse 5:12 the manna stopped falling), Yehoshua must be reminded that the angel from parshat Mishpatim is taking over, right where God left off.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


One thing that struck me about Bram Stoker's "Dracula" (and the only redeeming factor in the book, which otherwise was 400 pages of steaming, formless literary excrement), was the following fact: In the book, the male vampires only drink women's blood, and the female vampires only drink men's blood.

The fact that blood drinking only happened at night, and the weird emotional atmosphere that always surrounded it, are further indications of the same basic theme.

Evidently the whole vampire idea was just a representation of repressed Victorian sexuality.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Memshelet hayom vememshelet halaya

אל חי וקיים תמיד, ימלוך עלינו לעולם ועד. ברוך אתה ה, המעריב ערבים
God who lives and exists always, He will rule over us forever. Blessed are You Hashem, who makes evenings come.
(end of the first bracha of maariv)

Once you finish ruminating over the unusual comma placement in the above quote, there is a question you should ask yourself about the words. The entire blessing talks about day and night, except for this one line which talks about God's kingship. What is the connection between day/night and kingship, and thus, what is this line's relation to the rest of the blessing?

I think the answer is as follows: One primary consequence of God's kingship is control over all the diverse natural phenomena. The sun "rules" over the day and the moon over the night. Saying that God created both sun and moon implies that God rules over sun and moon, and by implication, over all of creation.

(Inspired by R' Yaakov Medan, "Daniel: Galut vehitgalut", p. 42)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The wheels on the bus go...

It is well known that in videos of moving cars, the wheels often appear to be rotating unnaturally slowly or even in reverse. This is explained well here, and I thought of it today, while studying signal processing.

Several years ago, I was surprised to see the same phenonemon in real life, not in a video. I was in a bus on a highway at night, and looking out the window, the wheels of the car next to me appeared to be barely rotating at all. How could this possibly happen? Was this the Matrix and was I being shown a video of a car next to me, not the car itself?

Eventually I thought of a good explanation. Since it was nighttime, the only lighting was provided by overhead streetlights. Being fed by AC power, they apparently flickered on and off 100 times per second (twice 50 Hz, the Israeli power frequency). I saw cars only when the light flickered on, and while it was off, each wheel traveled a whole revolution but I was unable to see it.

It was nice to have that explained, but some time later, an even weirder thing happened. I was in Istanbul (enjoying a flight layover on an Israel-NY trip), and was on a train traveling parallel to a freeway. Looking at the cars on the freeway, I saw their wheels turning backwards. My flickering-light theory was inapplicable, because the time was 11am!

But it wasn't long before I found an explanation for this too. Between the cars and train was a fence, made up of vertical bars with gaps between them. I didn't see it at first because we were moving fast enough that it became a blur. But apparently, this fence blocked one part of a car's wheel at any given time, and a moment later blocked another part. For each part of the wheel, there was a time gap in which I could not see its rotation. Thus, the same effect described above took place and the wheels appeared to be rotating backwards.

Some of the complications and weird features of this explanation:
1) Even though I couldn't see the fence itself due to the blurring, I could see its effects on the wheels.
2) Only part of the wheel was obscured at any one time, yet the same effect seemed applied consistently to the whole wheel.
3) As the wheel rotated, different parts of it moved to different places, some of which did not have the same fence-obscurance pattern as the original place - yet the effect of the fence remained unchanged. This rotational movement must be a "second-order effect" which is negligible when you analyze the equations. Though it's not obvious why it should be negligible, since rotation as a whole is a central part of the effect.

What can I say... the world is an interesting and confusing place.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Elections 2

Both Kadima and Likud did much better than projected in the last pre-election polls. And Yisrael Beitenu, Labor, and Meretz did unexpectedly badly. The reason for all this is absolutely clear. Once people realized there was actually a tight race between Likud and Kadima (beforehand everyone assumed Likud would win easily), they abandoned the small parties to support either Likud or Kadima - whichever they wanted to run the government.

But while both Likud and Kadima did better than expected, neither did well enough to make a strong coalition. For either party to make a coalition without the other, they'll almost certainly need to enlist both Yisrael Beitenu and a haredi party, probably Shas. Given the bad feelings between those parties (during the campaign Shas' chief rabbi said YB were enemies of God and religion, while YB suggested that Shas members' citizenship be revoked), that does not look like for a recipe for success. I know the almighty dollar (or shekel) can win out over both principles and emotions, but a favor right now is not enough, you'd need to somehow keep the parties off each other's throats until the next elections.

So Kadima and Likud are probably stuck with each other - on what exact terms, it's hard to predict. I think both parties are capable of being bludgeoned by Obama into "peace" agreements which predictably ensure the death of hundreds of Israelis over the next few years. Netanyahu is more against such a policy on principle, but Livni might have an easier job opposing it in practice. The real question is who has the talent and guts to deal with Iran as needed. I certainly don't trust the Kadima hacks and I'm not sure I trust even Netanyahu to make such difficult decisions. One person worth trusting for the implementation is Ehud Barak - witness his successful and complication-free attack on the Syrian reactor. But the defense ministry is the top job except for prime minister, and if Labor is the third party in the coalition they probably won't get it.

So in short I, and probably nobody else, is especially happy with the election results. This is not the first election in which everyone was disappointed, and in recent years many proposals for election reform have been suggested. I plan to share my thoughts on the issue in a hopefully soon-to-be published post.

Tikva Memaamakim

I just finished "Tikva Memaamakim", R' Yaakov Medan's book on Megillat Ruth. I have long thought that R' Medan does two things better than any other contemporary Jewish scholar: 1) Notice connections and commonalities between widely different realms: individual history, national history, halacha, machshava, minhag, and so on. 2) Express one's complex emotional and religious orientations in a logical manner, through which one's intuitive decisions can be clearly explained to others. (If that made any sense than perhaps I have the skill too...)

To whet your appetite for the book, here are some examples of the second ability.

1) One who fails to perform the mitzvah of yishuv eretz yisrael is punished by karet. Historically this is shown in the deaths of Lot, Yehudah, and Elimelech's families. Halachically it appears in the korbanot of Bamidbar 15:22-25,30 , which apparently talks about positive mitzvot which incur karet, and which comes after the meraglim story.

2) Miriam's tzaraat was a result of her attempts to disinherit Moshe's kids (due to their non-Israelite mother) and thus transfer future leadership to her and Aharon rather than to Moshe's kids. (In the previous story Moshe declared his inability to lead, so a replacement looked likely.) God likens the punishment to "spitting in her face" because spitting is what we do to people who try to disinherit their brothers - see halitza.

3) Boaz redeems land with a shoe, because walking across land (particularly in the original owner's shoe) is a means of acquiring it. Similarly Moshe at Sinai and all Jews in the Temple couldn't wear shoes, because it's not our land being walked on, it's God's land. And in halitza, the guy's shoe is symbolically taken from him: we want him to be disinherited just like he caused his brother to be.

Um Shmum

ההוא גברא דמנהרדעא דעל לבי מטבחיא בפומבדיתא, אמר להו הבו לי בישרא.
אמרו ליה נטר עד דשקיל לשמעיה דרב יהודה בר יחזקאל וניתיב לך.
אמר מאן יהודה בר שויסקאל דקדים לי דשקל מן קמאי (קידושין ע.)

A person from Nehardea went to the butcher in Pumbedita and said, "Give me meat".
They said to him, "Wait until Rabbi Yehudah bar Yehezkel's servant takes, and then it wil be given to you."
He said, "Who is Yehudah bar Shvezkel that he has priority over me and can take before me?"
(Kidushin 70a)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


There is a Hebrew phrase which gets on my nerves these days: "Ein li koach". It translates to "I don't feel like" and generally precedes such unwanted tasks as doing homework, running errands, and so on, as you might expect.

But while the usage of "I don't feel like" and "Ein li koach" is identical, the meaning of the words is rather different. "I don't feel like" means that emotionally, I would prefer not to. It says nothing about what your emotions are, just what their practical consequences will be.

"Ein li koach" differs from this in that it specifies exactly what your emotion is: weakness. If you were strong, you would be willing to perform the activity. But you are weak, timid, and defeatist in your nature, so you are unable to find the enthusiasm to do something that's really worth doing. That is what the phrase literally means, and it's not a pretty meaning.

Now, this distinction between English and Hebrew could be trivial and misleading, if native speakers of a language learn such phrases as a whole and never think about how the words in the phrase fit together. Be that as it may, given the current political situation, whenever I hear the phrase "Ein li koach" it has a strong negative resonance to me.

For in the Israeli elections being held today, the choices are not so much between right-wing and left-wing as between serious political discussion and apathy. There are two parties - Labor and Likud - with well-defined political platforms, whose leaders have long resumes of both success and failure by which they can be judged. And there are two parties - Yisrael Beitenu and Kadima - with no discernable platform (beyond Yisrael Beitenu's visceral antagonism towards Arabs) nor any positive accomplishments in office (though Kadima has negative accomplishments).

You might expect that people would think about what policy is best for Israel, think about which party is best able to implement that policy, and vote according. Yet in the most recent polls, Yisrael Beitenu and Kadima were together expected to get just as many votes as Labor and Likud together. Why are so many people voting for parties that seem to have nothing to recommend themselves to anyone?

Undoubtedly some left-wingers see Kadima as a generally left-wing party, larger and thus better able to form a government coalition than Labor. And undoubtedly some right-wingers enjoy Yisrael Beitenu's rhetoric about disenfranchising Arabs. But I think these factors account for only a minority of Kadima and Yisrael Beitenu's support. More important is the fact that both parties have brand-new leaders, neither of whom was ever prime minister, and neither of whom has any significant record in their brief political careers. Experience showed that neither Netanyahu nor Barak could magically solve all the country's problems all at once. Apparently for many people, the jury is still out on whether Livni or perhaps Lieberman possess such superhuman abilities. Rather than seriously think about and confront the country's political issues, half the population would rather roll the dice and hope that the new leader will instantaneously make everything perfect. Half the country is saying "Ein li koach", and the other half will live with the consequences of that decision.

What are the likely consequences, seeing as these parties will likely not make everything perfect? Yisrael Beitenu's leader, ex-Soviet immigrant Avigdor Lieberman, apparently intends to establish Putin-style "democracy" in which all decisions will be made by trustworthy people like himself. And Kadima alternates between half-hearted attempts at left-wing and right-wing policy, failing each time and succeeding only in enriching itself in the process through bribes, money laundering, and theft from charities. Thankfully neither of these parties is projected to win the elections. But the likely result is an unstable and ineffective coalition, composed of disparate parties that agree only on the necessity of undermining each other.

Among the smaller parties, the situation is not necessarily any better, as you can see from the photographs below. Apparently the neighborhood charedim possess a list of every person of voting age in their community. Whenever someone shows up to vote, unofficial charedi election observers cross that person's name off the list. Whoever does not show up gets a personal visit from "headquarters" encouraging them to vote, for the correct party, of course. Luckily, this country still has secret balloting.